Memoir Contest Winner, First Place Tie: Southern Ways to Mold a Lady and Fill Out a Skinny Girl by Joellyn Simpson Avery

by Matilda Butler on April 22, 2010

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #34 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Memoir Writing Contest Winning Vignettes Published

Two weeks ago, we published the list of winners of our March Women’s Memoir Writing Contest as well as one of the two tied first place winner stories. To read Jamie Schler Dagneaux’s story featuring her mother’s Veal Scallopini recipe published with the announcement, click here.

Today, it is our pleasure to publish the second story that is tied for first place. Please welcome, Joellyn Simpson Avery. We think you’ll enjoy her story as much as we did.

-Matilda and Kendra

SOUTHERN WAYS TO MOLD A LADY AND FILL OUT A SKINNY GIRL

Joellyn Simpson Avery

Sundays were days of dread and delight. The dread came from having to rise early, dress up, and have my waist-length, wavy and unruly hair yanked into braids. This tomboy rebelled against the system set up to create southern ladies. The stiff, starched dresses had to be kept down over the knees, which had to be modestly presses together; patent leather shoes were to remain unscuffed and definitely not used for running. Just the thought of girls running and climbing could induce a scolding frown from the nearest adult—most likely a God-fearing southern woman. Hot pepper sauce slathered onto my fingertips did not deter nail-biting and just further developed my taste buds for the hot and spicy. My grandmother would admonish, “You can always tell a lady by her nails.” This further encouraged me to bite my nails, since I had no intention of becoming “a lady.”

Sundays were the last day of the weekend in which to seek adventure, dangle for doodlebugs in the sandy side yard, and maybe build a fort among the trees and shrubs. So, I deeply and intensely minded the intrusion of mandatory church attendance. In fact, I hated going to church from the time I was probably two years old. Of course, the day began as mentioned before with my being poked and prodded into looking like a girl-child, which was probably aided only by my long hair and long eyelashes. And then, as now, I’m not a morning person.

The theatrics of the preacher and the church-goers stunned me each Sunday, because they seemed, I guess, not real. Children usually appreciate adults “acting the fool,” but my brain, although quite young just knew something wasn’t right with these people, the preacher, and the trappings of the church itself. Certainly, I found sitting still quite difficult. I was always squirming around in my pew, often craning my head around to see who was singing too loudly or situating themselves to been seen. I didn’t know a word or concept to describe what I witnessed each Sunday, but I later would come to view it as a haven of hypocrisy.

So, I dreaded getting up early. I dreaded dressing up. And I dreaded the long-winded, hell-fire-and-brimstone-God-is going-to-smite-your-sinning-self-down sermons. My only prayer was to hang on and be still long enough to avoid having my soft, tender underarm pinched, usually by my Aunt Boody. How was it I always seemed to be seated next to her? There was the brief respite from pew confinement to attend a mostly boring Sunday school class. The only thing I liked there were the stories illustrated on the woolen felt-covered storyboard. It was a biblical pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey minus the blindfold where we could move a Moses, Jacob or maybe a Mary on a donkey across a pale-blue, wool-felt sky.

The Johnson Sisters

The Johnson Sisters

Although I seemed picky about food, I was just trying to exercise some control of my life by occasionally refusing to eat or sneaking off to the bathroom to spit out something I didn’t like. But, the anticipation of Sunday dinner provided the delight of at least that day—delight of large family dinners served post-church at my grandmother’s house. All the stout women on my grandmother’s side of the family would squeeze into a kitchen that seemed quite adequate to me as a six year old, but today would seem a more fitting space for a master bath. The meals turned out in such a spare space and in such a timely manner were miracles. The “grandmothers” were a zaftig ballet troupe choreographing meals of meat, vegetables, bread, salad, and desserts–multiples of each food group. Desserts were creamy and dreamy—banana pudding with real vanilla wafers, meringue pies, both lemon and chocolate, strawberry shortcake, and the best coconut cake ever. Coconut and pineapple were quite exotic condiments in our kitchen. It certainly conjured up visions of faraway places like those in my favorite Rudyard Kipling’s stories.

Special occasions called for my grandmother’s ambrosia salad, or “white salad,” as she would sometimes drawl in her southern accent. This “food-of-the gods” combined white grapes, fresh pineapple, and shredded coconut all being folded gently into whipped cream. It floated from spoon to tongue, and there it luxuriously lingered for a brief moment.

Memoir Joellyn Avery

For whipping the cream, my grandmother had the two necessary tools—a gray cylindrical crock about 8 inches tall and about 5 inches in diameter. It was designed specifically to hug the second necessary tool, the hand-crank beater. The crock was chilled in the icebox—not a refrigerator, because these iceboxes in the early ‘50’s had a slot for a slab of ice, which was delivered twice a week. I loved whipping the cream, knowing I would get to lick the beaters. “Don’t make butter, Joellyn,” my grandmother always cautioned.

Memoir Recipe angel flake biscuits

Chicken and dumplings were standard Sunday fare, along with biscuits so light and flaky they could have hovered above the table. Grandmother often stewed a chubby old hen, feet and all. My wheelchair-bound grandfather would get the feet as a treat. As for the bird’s brains, they would be saved to scramble with the next morning’s breakfast eggs. The plump, pillowy dumplings were lush with chicken flavor. Many years would pass before I would taste chicken so flavorful, and it would be in a far-away place—Africa, 1998—where there are for-real, free-range chickens. But that’s a tale for another time.

When I was growing up, no one drank. After all, these were Southern Baptists. Adults enjoyed tall iced teas heavily sweetened, most southern for sure, and swirled with mint plucked from under the blue hydrangea bush by the back door; the glasses sweated profusely in the humid air leaving a damp stamp on the starched tablecloth. I could only sneak a sip, since I was hyper enough without the sugar fix. The only time I got tea was when I had some feverish cold and cough. Then, the combination of hot tea, honey, lemon, and bourbon wasn’t necessarily concocted to cure the cold but to quiet the child.

If chicken and dumplings were not on the menu, then fried chicken would take top billing. Butterbeans and rice, green beans with fatback, the angel-flake biscuits, gravy, ham, corn, black-eyed peas, grits, mustard greens, collard greens, collard kraut, tomatoes, peppers, hot and pickled were standard fare. These and my godfather’s stewed rabbit with gravy, and my Aunt Boody’s hand-cranked, fresh peach ice cream are the flavors tattooed onto my taste buds.

We didn’t eat pasta. In fact, aside from the biscuits and cornbread, the main starch food was rice—a staple in South Carolina. We did occasionally have spaghetti noodles, and there was spaghetti sauce—my mother’s recipe, which certainly beat out any family competitor’s. Even my snarky, “wicked-witch-of-the-west,” Aunt Boody, always paid homage to this recipe. And here is where the sharing of recipes deserves some commentary. It is rare that a great recipe is really fully shared, unless it’s passed down in a family business. Recipes may be close but are never the “original recipe.” Just as a story passed down changes with each telling, so do recipes. My Aunt Boody’s fried chicken was considered the best from all who were privileged enough to have a taste. When I married and moved all the way to west coast, I experienced a deep nostalgia for her fried chicken and fried okra.

The scents of savory, spice, and sweetness, once wafted up into my over-alert olfactory nerve, became embedded in the memory center of my brain along with (especially in the case of fried chicken) the sounds of sizzling fat. The slightest hint of a scent takes me traveling back in time and place—traveling to a home—not necessarily my home, but a childhood home of intense memories.

Every flavorful dish and its preparation carry snippets of DNA—the markers of our food memories, which travel with the recipe and evoke one of the greatest pleasures any creature can experience. For me, there is no fried chicken that’s ever come close to that prepared by my Aunt Boody at her small house in Decatur, GA. Now my sister and I have tried to recreate good fried chicken for years, and my children think mine is the best. Just as I would do when I went “home,” they ask for fried chicken when they come to my home. In fact, it’s a sure lure to get my son to visit. On occasions when I know he cannot make it to a mini-reunion, I won’t mention that I fried chicken. And our family’s fried chicken must always be accompanied by milk gravy poured over rice.

After many trials of frying chicken, I finally begged for my aunt’s chicken and fried okra recipes. She sent them right off, and I faithfully followed the recipes. But my chicken was not the same. Where was the deep mahogany skin so crisp it shattered with the first bite while all the time remaining moist on the inside? What was missing? O.K., my chicken was/is good, but I’ve experimented and experimented over and over to get the best crunch outside/moist inside ratio. I used my aunt’s method of dredging the salted and peppered chicken in flour, then shaking it off followed by sprinkling it with water (like we did before ironing our clothes), and then dredging in flour again. I even used the bad-ass, gym-worthy, heavy, black iron skillet for frying. I’ve tried milk washes, egg washes, two dips and flour followed by a wash, soaking in buttermilk, and dustings of herbs and spices. My chicken is pretty damned good, and like I said, it gets my “chillun’” home. But this is not the chicken of my childhood.

Chickens are certainly not as flavorful and fresh as they were when I was growing up. My aunt and I would go to the poultry market, where she would select a hen, and the butcher would chop off its head right then and there. It was a two-stroke process—smooth and swift. The butcher’s left hand would grab the chicken, and in a sweeping motion have it on the wooden block; the right hand would bring the cleaver down—CHUNK. Today, the movement would seem so “tai chi” but minus the intention.

As I dashed to put distance between the south and myself, I lost my accent and swiftly ditched the southern ways of flavoring with fatback and bacon along with cooking vegetables to death. I joined the grilling movement for steaks, chicken, and even lamb, which I never had as a child. Kebobs on Friday nights were collaborative dinners with apartment neighbors. We skewered meat, onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Corn and salad were the only accompaniments. And I was satisfied with these simple meals for a time. But the fried chicken’s crisping mahogany skin sizzling in the hot grease was a southern siren’s song. The journey back was curious in that it became more than a culinary adventure.

After all the permutations of a fried chicken recipe were tried and then discarded, I thought perhaps I had missed something in the recipe—OR–my aunt had jealously guarded her real recipe. I WAS using liquid vegetable oil for frying. Maybe that was the difference. I called for the recipe again. “Crisco shortening,” was the answer. But wait, I didn’t remember Crisco being around when I was little. Given the choice, I didn’t think I could use LARD to fry my chicken. Crisco would have to do.

In 1991, I was approached to do an “American” cooking class at Takashimaya department store in Japan. I knew fried chicken had to be the star of the menu. I measured and tested for two weeks before the class; this gave me a deeper appreciation for the difficulties of teaching a cooking class. Julia Child’s French recipes, and Natalie Dupree’s southern recipes seemed so simple as presented on one-hour PBS shows. My husband and friends joked about how difficult my teaching cooking was going to be, since I never used a recipe; I just worked around them. My chicken got raves as did the pineapple upside-down cake. And all the “guinea pigs” conscripted to be my tasters for two weeks seemed to be satisfied. But was I?

Twenty years later, I’m still tinkering with my recipe. And what I believe to be a truth, at least about my relationship with food, is that flavor does not stand alone in my memory; it marries with time, place, and circumstance–all inextricably tied to my taste buds. I continued to tinker with my recipe for fried chicken and finally was contented with its complex layers of flavors imbedded in the browned skin, which still lovingly protected the moist meat inside. Why did it just not seem as satisfying to me as my Aunt Boody’s?

There was nothing really missing from my fried chicken recipe. What was missing was the memory of what was good in the fearful times I lived with my lunatic of an aunt, who beat the shit out of me every day in my tender young years.

On the occasions I returned to visit her as a young adult, I always requested her fried chicken (and fried okra). She was thrilled to make it for me. The special southern food was the bridge between my painful past and my beginning reconciliation with the present. What I came to see so clearly was the love and pride with which my aunt prepared these meals for me. I was finally able to feel her love through the food. And then I began to remember.

Memoir-Joellyn-Avery-chickenSouthern Fried Chicken
It took me two weeks to perfect the details of this recipe in anticipation of teaching the class in Japan. The following represents what I believe to be my recipe. Unfortunately, the recipes from Japan are lost on an old Apple MacIntosh disk.

WHOLE CHICKEN, preferably. (It’s been handled less and should be more moist—just my theory.). Cut into serving pieces. My pieces don’t always represent the anatomically correct part of the chicken. The breasts, legs, and thighs can be somewhat misshapened. They still taste good.

LARGE, BLACK IRON SKILLET

BUTTERMILK for soaking the chicken—overnight works.

TABASCO SAUCE added to buttermilk. Buttermilk must cover chicken, and Tabasco should be proportionally added. I know what this means. Two quarts of buttermilk for a whole chicken will need probably two tablespoons of Tabasco—if “hot & spicy” is what you are looking for.

WHOLE EGG beaten with a little water.

FLOUR, UNBLEACHED

SPICES: Pepper, fresh ground. Sea salt or kosher salt. SAGE, ROSEMARY, THYME leaves crushed and added to flour. Cayenne pepper.

CRISCO. Yes, I know it’s not good for you, but if it’s hot enough when you add the chicken, there will not be too much absorbed. Watch for splattering, wear an apron, and look up in another cookbook the temperature required for frying chicken.

Soak chicken pieces in buttermilk/Tabasco mix at least four hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Dry the pieces off, dip them in the egg/water wash, and then dredge into the flour/herb-and-spice mix.

NOTE: I mix the flour, herbs, spices, and salt with a whisk. Then I take a pinch and taste it. Go easy on the salt in the mix. It can be added later or after the chicken has been cooked.

Slowly add the chicken to the hot, melted Crisco. It should sizzle. My aunt said the secret to crispy chicken was to keep turning it. I haven’t tried it any other way. I cook the chicken until it’s done. Don’t ask how long. You should just know. After the chicken is browned sufficiently on both sides, lower the heat to prevent the battered skin from burning. You want a deep brown color—mahogany wood—unburned. Drain on paper towels that have been placed on the recycled brown paper grocery bags lying around looking for a job, since you should be using cloth or reusable bags by now.

I have been known to use skinless chicken for frying, but what’s the point? It tastes good, but skin tastes better.

Fried chicken would be naked without milk gravy. The gravy doesn’t have to be poured over the chicken. It covers rice quite nicely. Pour off all but two tablespoons of the frying oil and try not to lose the crispy bits in the fry pan. Turn off heat. Add flour and some of the herb seasons with salt and pepper. After the flour and oil are married, slowly add milk. Turn the heat back on a low/medium setting and stir the gravy until it reaches the thickness desired. Again, I don’t have measurements for the flour and milk. They’re on that lost computer disk.

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Michelle Rockwell April 27, 2010 at

Well-done Jodi. I love the blending of food and story, and I’m happy knowing that Aunt Boody did bring some comfort. That being said, I’m hungry!

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