The High & the Low

Good to the Bone

In praise of fried chicken––gristle and all

A few weeks ago my husband and I went out
 with some friends, and the talk turned, as it so often does, to food. Specifically to the singular glories of fried chicken, which we all apparently wished we were eating instead of the grilled salmon that sat, rather reproachfully, on our plates. I can talk all day about chicken and was gearing up to debate the finer points of, say, lard vs. Crisco (lard), garlic powder or not (yes), when one of the women at the table piped up that her favorite part of the chicken happened to be the bones.

Now, I know we Southerners are famous for eating a lot of stuff most people don’t. Dirt, poke sallet, and Goo Goo Clusters are just a few things that come immediately to mind. But I had never heard of anyone not only eating but favoring the bones of a fried chicken.

“Bones?” I asked brightly, even though what I was thinking was “Are you out of your mind? The last time my dog ate chicken bones I had to take him to the vet.” But she looked at me as if I were the one who was crazy, as if I might be the only person in the world who didn’t know the secret of their goodness. “Yes,” she said, “the bones,” adding that she sucked the marrow out of them first. For the second time in less than a minute, I was floored. I am all about beef and veal marrow—in stews, spread on toast with a little sea salt, scooped out of a hunk of osso buco with a proper silver marrow spoon.

But I feel sure that if I had ever bothered to think about it, I would have assumed that the amount of marrow in a chicken’s skinny bones would be negligible. This is where I would be wrong. “You haven’t lived until you’ve sucked out the marrow, “ she told me with, I swear, a faintly glazed look in her eyes. And then she added the kicker: “And then of course there is the gristle, et cetera.”

I should point out here that this woman is not a figure out of a Walker Evans photograph. She is smart and attractive and funny and well off enough not to have to resort to bones and gristle to keep from going hungry. So when she uttered the words “gristle, et cetera,” my mouth must have dropped open, because she felt the need to reassure me that eating a chicken in its entirety, especially the “crispy wings,” is not a big deal. “It’s just like eating shrimp shells,” she said. I don’t eat those either, but in the end I had to admire the thoroughness and gusto with which this woman dispatched her bird. Plus, I came across a song lyric by an Austin-based singer/songwriter I like a lot named Bob Schneider that attests to the fact that the bones are fairly easy to eat. In “Come with Me Tonight,” there’s a line about “Larry,” who “Always gets it wrong/His heart’s as soft as chicken bone.”

Schneider’s is not the only song that mentions chicken—or bones, either, for that matter. There’s a great Danny Barker song, popularized by Johnny Mercer, called “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” in which “Henry don’t eat no meat.” My friend Jimmy Phillips has a song called “Gnawing Bone,” in which a guy gets a clue that his woman has left him when he comes home to an open door and an empty house: “The whole place smells like pork chops/But ain’t no pig meat on the stove/Just some cold grease in the skillet/And one low-down gnawing bone.”

Jimmy also wrote “Fried Chicken,” which has to be the best song ever written on the subject. It mentions neither marrow nor gristle, but it comes close with a line about “All that knuckle-sucking goodness just looking back at me” and goes on to explain that “Full awareness is heightened/When the grease goes to your brain.” Eden Brent covers “Fried Chicken” on her Mississippi Number One CD, and whenever she plays it live, people go just as crazy for it as they do for the real thing.

Related: G&G’s state-by-state guide to the best fried chicken in the South

There are very few people who don’t go crazy over fried chicken, a point not lost on the editors of Bon Appétit, who surely boosted the magazine’s February newsstand sales by putting a gorgeous golden drumstick on the cover, along with a line touting the “41 Soulful Recipes from America’s New Food Capital” inside. While I’m all for promoting chicken and Southern food in general, and I subscribe to Bon Appétit, I do have a couple of tiny quibbles. One, in its recipe, the chicken is batter fried, which is okay—maybe—if you want to eat it cold the next day for a picnic. Otherwise it should be tossed in a paper bag with flour and seasonings, period. No egg ever need enter the process.

Two, I sort of disagree with that word new. When were we not the nation’s food capital, really? Let us all remember that while the Puritans were munching on what the historian David Hackett Fischer calls their “canonical dish” of cold baked beans, we were down here supping on chicken fricassee made with “a pint of red claret, a pint of
 oysters and a dozen egg yolks.” At no point in 
history would I rather have eaten anywhere else, but to be fair, Bon Appétit is referring to
 our current crop of hot chefs and the fact that the rest of the country has finally caught up to our obsessions with ham and pimento cheese and small-batch bourbons and things like “house-made” pickles, which is pretty much what we’ve been eating all along.

With the exception of the fried chicken, there are some excellent recipes in the issue, including FIG chef Mike Lata’s swanky chicken and dumplings and my friend Martha Foose’s luscious-looking coconut cake, which is enlivened by a healthy dose of Southern Comfort. (The editors of the magazine clearly understood the importance of whiskey to our cuisine—there is also a braised brisket with a bourbon peach glaze and a banana cream pie with salty bourbon caramel.) Martha’s cake is
 one that I would actually make. A cake I would
 not make is the coconut cake with saffron 
cream garnish from Food & Wine’s Southern food issue a couple of years back.

In that issue, “50 Best Recipes from the New South,” the editors decided to “update” some “classics” by attempting to make them healthy, a sobering exercise that resulted in a recipe for “smoky shrimp and grits” that substituted canola oil for butter, as well as a pairing of sausage gravy with whole wheat biscuits, which is just weird. Some classics are better left un-updated, so I have been reaching way back instead. The new Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon includes a fine chicken fricassee recipe, and at Charleston’s Heirloom Books, my favorite culinary bookstore, I found another treasure, Pearl’s Kitchen: An Extraordinary Cookbook, by Pearl Bailey. Bailey was one of my childhood idols—I loved to hear her sing and talk about her husband, the Italian-American jazz drummer Louis Bellson, on The Tonight Show. She had a ton of soul, and I should have known she’d be an excellent cook and storyteller.

A recipe for Pork Chops and Green Apples, for example, starts off with the line: “I had a dinner a few nights ago that was more exciting, actually sexier, than a best-selling novel. What, you may ask, does sex have to do with food? Darlin’, I am not going into that right now. Just let me tell you that what got me so excited was pork chops, buttered rice, and Mama’s cabbage.” She reports that she served more cabbage and rice with Baked Sole Spontaneous “and the whole family had a real ball.” She rails against too-thin aluminum nonstick pans and prefers butter or lard to margarine, which she loathes.

Pearl grew up in Philadelphia, but she was born in Newport News, Virginia, and her mother, a constant figure in the book, clearly knew her way around a kitchen. Not only did Ella Mae Bailey cook “the best fried chicken in the world” every Sunday morning, she also went to the chicken man to “blow the feathers back” and choose her own live bird. Like my friend, Pearl was most fond of the wings, but she “liked the necks too and sometimes the gizzard” because “there was an old wives’ tale that said if you ate the chicken gizzard you would become pretty.”

Pearl was as passionate about chicken as my gristle-loving, marrow-sucking friend, but then Pearl was passionate about everything. At one point she wrote, “I don’t like to say that my kitchen is actually a religious place, but I would say that if I were a voodoo priestess, I would conduct my rituals there.” Let’s not forget that a lot of them involve the bones of a chicken.