Southerners loyal to their fried cooking

Oct. 5, 2004 5:11 p.m.

CONWAY, Ark. – The most popular dish at Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill is the Southern fried chicken. At Dixie Restaurants in Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma, the most popular main course rotates between chicken-fried steak and hand-battered chicken tenders.

So, if it’s Southern, it must be fried, right?

Not exactly, says restaurant owner and cookbook author Mama Dip, whose real name is Mildred Edna Cotton Council. She points out that Southern food is about vegetables, too, including the greens, sweet potatoes and beans that aren’t usually fried.

Still, at her restaurant and many other Southern eateries, the menus are much more likely to feature the likes of fried okra and fried catfish than steamed asparagus and grilled salmon.

Indeed, Council says the fried chicken, battered in nothing more than flour, salt and pepper and cooked in shortening, is what draws many people to her restaurant, known for its Southern country cooking.

The secret to good fried chicken, the 75-year-old Council believes, is simple: freshness and no extra spices to hide the poultry’s taste. "We don’t freeze our chicken. It never gets a chance to get old," says Council, interviewed by telephone recently. "You can’t fry a chicken that someone killed in Georgia and then bring it to North Carolina and then let it sit in your refrigerator three or four days."

At Dixie Cafe in Conway in central Arkansas, diners enjoy a veritable smorgasbord of battered fried foods, from corn- on-the-cob to dill pickles, from chicken tenders to mushrooms and mozzarella sticks.

Rick Browne, author of "The Frequent Fryers Cookbook" (ReganBooks, 2003, $19.95), recalls laughing at the thought of fried pickles – "frickles," he calls them – "until I tried them."

"I put them in a little beer and mustard and then a little cornmeal and flour," he says. "A whole jar disappears in one- half of a football game."

Southern fondness for fried food can be traced to the antebellum era, according to both Browne and food authority John T. Edge, who considers fried okra "one of the Supreme Being’s greatest gifts to mankind."

"The presence of African-American cooks who were expert in frying in deep oil brought a taste for such dishes here," says Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliated institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.

In the past, Edge says, Southerners also fried foods because they had so much lard from the many pigs they had butchered and eaten. "That’s no longer the case, but it in some ways set the love of fried foods in motion," he says.

Also, frying is fast. "In the summer, it’s pretty hot down there," Browne said. "It’s a quicker way to cook than some of the barbecues they used to have."

Edge considers the "belief that the South is a culinary hidey-hole where strange customs lurk" an exaggeration. The South is far from the only culture where fried foods flourish, he notes, citing others including Portugal, Japan and China.

Another misunderstanding, he says: If fried food is cooked properly, especially at the correct temperature, the food doesn’t absorb much grease.

Council suggests using a whole fryer, cut up, or parts of your choice for her country fried chicken. "It takes about 2 minutes over medium high heat for oil to get hot enough for frying. If it smokes or pops when the chicken touches it, the oil is too hot."

© 2004 Asheville Citizen-Times

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