From the book "Fried Chicken - an american story"

   Written by John T. Edge

   Published by G. P. Putnam's Sons 2004

 

 

                                                  ELEVEN                 

 

                                         Chasing Chicken
                                          on a Slow T
ime
                                    
    Sunday Morning

 

 

            It's just past nine on a Sunday morning when I roll into the burg of New Alsace, Indiana. The drive west from Cincinnati, Ohio took less than an hour, but the change is remarkable. After threading my way through strip malls and burger boxes, the Indiana countryside is a balm. As the highway narrows to two lanes, roadside billboards  advertising discount denture fabricators give way, and plywood signs tacked to fence posts emerge, heralding a community quilt sale, an antique tractor show.

            Even the telling of time is different here. While the great majority of the country adheres to Daylight Saving Time, the rural precincts of Indiana, in deference to farmers who start their workday early, do not fiddle with their clocks. They prefer instead to hold steady year-round to what they call slow time.

            I arrive intent upon surveying the Catholic-parish chicken dinners staged throughout the Midwest. From what I was able to glean before I hit the road, Ohio and contiguous states appear to be at the epicenter of the phenomenon. Beginning in May and continuing through early November, more than fifty churches in the three-state region host dinners. Traditionally, the source for a roster of dates and churches was word of mouth or an advertisement in the Catholic Telegraph Register; but, as with all aspects of modern American life, the Internet has recently made inroads. Since 1996, fried chicken devote: Carl Heilmann of the University of Cincinnati has operated a web database of dinners, www.thinkingchicken.com.

            With Carl's help, I chose the second weekend in August for my expedition, because, with a good map and a bit of dispatch, I might be able to sample three dinners in three different states in one day. The plan we devised was that I would hit New Alsace early, then forge on to parishes in Ohio and Kentucky. Even though I would eventually succeed in my three-part quest, I knew as I drove through the rutted field alongside St. Paul's burying ground that I could curtail my investigations and be utterly content at New Alsace. I had a feeling, as the soaring brick sanctuary came into view, that the food would prove to be that good, the community bonds that compelling.           

            Two hours before the first chicken dinner is served at eleven a.m., the St. Paul church grounds are already abuzz with activity. Out front, beneath the tent on loan from an undertaker, a clutch of men hunches over an oversized gaming wheel, making adjustments to ensure proper advantage for the house. One tent over, a teenage girl counts out raffle tickets that entitle winners to a slab of bacon or a rosy ham.

            Around back, a crew of three women staffs a country store. There you can purchase a pair of Wolverine boots from which sprout entangled tendrils of wandering Jew, as well as ingots of zuchinni-pineapple-walnut bread, sealed in rose-tinted plastic wrap. Beneath the boughs of an elm tree, a middle-aged woman in a smock shoves a chair into place for her husband, the dealer who will preside over a church-sponsored game of what is known locally as giant poker. Soon he will slide legal-pad-sized cards to beer-drinking players with a quarter or three riding on each hand.

            As a son of the Protestant South, raised in proximity to all manner of Baptists, these vignettes of Catholic parish life confound me. On the contrary, after enduring years of punch-and-cookies socials, I may have found my people.

            In the kitchen, beneath the adjacent schoolhouse, I meet eighty-something-year-old Tillie Hoffbauer, whose smiling face is framed by a cumulus of white curls. Though my goal is to get a bead on the fried chicken cooking tradition hereabouts, and I know that Tillie's expertise is in the preparation of dressing, I can't resist an audience with her. I'm rewarded with an early morning taste of that dressing, rich with stock made from chicken necks and stoked with bounteous quantities of week-old white bread.

            The dressing does not disappoint. And neither does the mock turtle soup or the fried chicken livers I sample from the cook tent pitched just beyond her kitchen door. But I keep my appetite in check. The crew of fry cooks are setting up their kettles beyond the blacktop parking lot, beneath a tight arbor of oak trees. I hope to be able to both eat my fill and come to know how and why the tradition of parish picnics has thrived in New Alsace since at least the 1890s.

            For a good fifteen minutes I amble about, introducing myself to any of the twenty-odd cooks who will meet my gaze and suffer my queries. Then I latch on to Jim Sublett, a craggy-faced tool-and-die maker from nearby Cedar Grove. Jim and his son Don work a fryer crafted from an old cast-iron wash pot, sheathed in an insulating jacket of castoff piping. and fired by a burner salvaged from a household furnace.

           When I ask Jim about the history of St. Paul's chicken dinner feed, he stops me midsentence. "I'm not a member of this church," he says above the throaty hiss of the oil-filled kettles. "I'm not even Catholic. We just come to hang out with the cooks and do our part. We fry at four of these dinners every summer; for the fire department, for the Catholics, it's all the same to us."

            Jim's comments prove to be a recurring theme of my New Alsace explorations. These people are not grandstanders. Here, the doing of good deeds is considered a privilege, not a duty. That is not to say that they are saints-in-training: One of the cooks, a barrel-gutted man in his late twenties, wearing a T-shirt that advertises his prowess in horseshoe tossing, seems still drunk from the night before. When he lurches hard against a tree while dropping a load of chicken into his kettle, a fellow cook hands him a beer in an attempt to re-store his liquid equilibrium.  

            Before the morning is over and the wait to gain admittance to the gymnasium-cum-dining-room swells to more than an hour, I buy a ticket and take a seat at one of the folding tables arranged, with military precision, on the basketball court. While seated, I eat a surfeit of fried chicken hemmed in a pepper-flecked parchment of crust. I inhale a thatch of bacon-napped coleslaw. I nibble at mashed potatoes that began the day as a mound of dehydrated flakes. I blanket Tillie's dressing in a gush of cracklin'-studded gravy and dig my fork deep.

            I even have the opportunity to engage table captain Donna Huff, who has served here for thirty-seven consecutive years. Her great-great-grandfather's niece--whose name Donna cannot recall but a historian of New Alsace records as Mary Even--was one of the originators of the tradition. As Donna mediates squabbles over a dwindling supply of pineapple upside-down cake, she tells me that the annual dinner now draws more than two thousand people and nets the church tens of thousands of dollars. This big event had its beginnings in the ice cream social craze of the Victorian era. Mary Even organized socials to raise money for the church; she and her sisters and cousins solicited buckets of cream from local dairy farmers, and blocks of ice from local saloons, to make the confection.

            When I'm done, I pine for a return to the cook tents. Word has it that, after three or four batches of chicken, the oil becomes impregnated with sufficient schmaltz and salt and pepper to render a product that far surpasses what I ate during my early luncheon.

            Jim Sublett is where I left him, perched over a kettle of chicken. Above him floats a nimbus of grease and steam. Arrayed behind him, in front of him, are twenty-six other kettles. St. Joseph's parishioners tend some. Community volunteers like Jim and Don tend others. All appreciate the camaraderie and the chance to snack on fried gizzards or sneak a pinch from the plastic tubs of Tillie's dressing which, every half-hour or so, a young boy lugs from the kitchen and hefts onto a makeshift buffet fashioned from a stump, a chair bottom, a cooler.

            When, after fifteen minutes or so of immersion, Jim's chicken bobs to the surface, he scoops the sandy-brown pieces from the kettle, and, after a brief shake, deposits the chicken in a speckle-ware dishpan at his feet. Soon, a runner will come by to ferry his birds into the dining room. While he waits, Jim dips into the burbling grease for any cracklin's that might burn and render his oil acrid.

            He drops the nuggets of fused chicken fat into an over-sized tin can, which a second team of runners will eventually empty for use in the gravy. I watch his progress, waiting for the moment when the cracklin's have cooled enough to palm. By this time, I have commandeered the makings of a fine midday snack: a paper plate heaped with dressing, a brace of deep-fried gizzards, and an ice-cold Old Style beer snagged from a fellow fryer's cooler.

            In the distance, I can hear the trill of a toy train whistle, the clack of the betting wheel, the splinter-voiced call of teenage boys hawking raffle tickets for baby blankets and twenty-five-dollar savings bonds. I settle into a squat alongside Jim's fryer and scoop a ragged hunk of dressing from my plate, which now rests on a patch of grease-soaked ground. Jim pulls another load from the fryer and asks me to mind his gear while he takes a bathroom break. I nod, and in so doing, take my first, tentative step from interloper to acolyte in the brotherhood of fry cooks

 

                                      Fried Chicken Cooked

                                    in the Great Out-of-Doors

 

No recipe follows this chapter because, in large part, the secret to St. Paul's fried chicken has less to do with recipe and technique and more to do with where the chicken is cooked: out of doors.

            Though you can buy a ready-made kit of the type marketed for crawfish boils and turkey fries, I recommend a homegrown rig much like the one Jim Sublett uses: a propane-fueled fryer set within a cast-iron sleeve. Mine is of sufficient circumference that when I heft up my cast-iron washpot (a flea-market prize) it cradles within quite snugly. Equipped with an oversized seine purchased at a restaurant supply house and four quarts of peanut oil, I'm ready to tackle any of these recipes that call for deep frying.

            And my wife appreciates the fact that the oil perfumes our backyard instead of our kitchen.