A few weeks ago, my sister and I drove down from St. Louis to a wedding in Knoxville — a 9-hour trip if you do it all in one go. But we stopped along the way for some local specialties. That is, specialties local to the hinterlands of Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee (we didn’t manage to pull over for anything in southern Indiana). This ultimately meant that the whole trip took 3 days, but I definitely recommend our route. I’ll have to break the recap into several unchronologically ordered posts, so bear with me.
Home for the chicken, away for me
Day 1 lunch/dinner: strong recommendations on Roadfood led us to Bon-Ton Mini Mart (after missing it several times just off the exit from the interstate) in Henderson, Kentucky:
As the sign says, this place serves fried chicken. And fried chicken is why we came.
(Well, also for the beautifully-appointed interior:)
Anyway, this fried chicken is THE BEST FRIED CHICKEN EVER.
And i mean EVER. (Foo would probably call this crack chicken.) Wanna see it again? Here’s the money shot:
Cooked to order (it takes about 20 minutes), with a thin, supremely crackly crispety and peppery crust, this is one juicy, well-seasoned bird. I’m guessing she probably brines the parts and then bathes them in buttermilk the day before or morning of frying. One key thing is that she uses small chickens — chicken that tastes, well, chickeny. The other key thing is she undoubtedly fries the chicken in lard or butter or both.
And of course, no fried chicken meal is complete without biscuits, fresh from the oven:
That’s steam rising from the biscuits. (Oh, and there was cornbread too. You can see it in the background of the first chicken shot. It’s southern-style, flat and unsweetened, but sweet all on its own from the corn. I think I’ve become a convert. Yankee-style cornbread just doesn’t do the stuff justice.)
And for dessert, some very fine banana pudding (and you get to choose hot or cold — Connie and I got both):
Away for the chicken, home for me
Tuesday night, we assembled at Carla’s house for fried chicken (this time Georgia/Virginia-style, courtesy of Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis):
Fried, yes, in lard and butter (flavored with rendered pancetta), these are from a small bird (or many, i should say, as what bird has 4 thighs?). I tried to make cornbread using artisanal polenta -again-, and -again-, it was, if not a disappointment, not exactly anything Bon-Ton worthy. Even if it resembles a rather impressive lunarscape:
But Carla’s coleslaw was excellent:
And my (or Mark Bittman’s, rather) no-fail biscuits did not, in fact, fail me.
And the gang all together:
Carla’s chicken is just as tantalizingly juicy and tasty as the Kentucky bird and had just as thin and crackly a crust, but there’s something about sitting in a place that looks straight out of a rec room, circa 1978, with mismatched chairs and everything, that just makes the whole fried chicken experience perfect.
Home vs. Away: The winner? Me. Or my fried chicken-filled belly.