Friday, September 13, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Deep frying is spiritual

When I was in my teens, I learned to cook the way my mother did. I could make biscuits, fry chicken and pound out round steak to make it tender long before I was 16.

I know you must overfill a pot with raw greens if you intend to feed more than one or two because hot water quickly reduces them to a fraction of their original bulk. And I know that if you put a ham hock into a pot of pinto beans, it will be tender by the time the beans are cooked.

Over time, I learned to make dishes that didn’t necessarily originate in the South, an ability that comes in handy when the Pennsylvania relatives visit.

One group arrived on a recent Sunday afternoon. My place was their vacation spot on the way to take the 20-year-old daughter to a Bible college in Tulsa, Okla.

Breakfast wasn’t a problem because everyone likes hot, buttered biscuits. But dinner was a different matter. They didn’t like beans, I was told, so I assumed the other, standard southern fare like cornbread and fried okra would also be passed over.

So I made meatloaf, Swiss steak and spaghetti. I aim to please.

Then it came to me that I was doing them a disservice by not showing them how southerners eat when we’re getting back to our roots. And out came the deep fryer that I keep hidden out of sight most of the time but still on a roll-out shelf for easy access when I really need it.

I don’t fry very often. Chicken is usually baked or boiled for dumplings. Pork is usually a roast and potatoes are oven fried with just a little oil to help them brown, mashed or made into soup.

But I learned in conversation with the Pennsylvania relatives that not only had they never eaten fried green tomatoes, they hadn’t even seen the movie by the same name.

Isn’t experiencing other cultures the reason you travel? Surely it’s not simply to get from Point A to Point B. Who doesn’t have saltwater taffy when they go to the gulf or eat a sandwich on a hard roll when they go north?

So I fried chicken-breast strips, green tomatoes and okra, all of it soaked in buttermilk and rolled in seasoned flour. It came out of the hot oil the same medium brown and almost all of it was eaten.

Emily, the Bible student, told me later that she had prayed about dinner earlier in the day. “Please God,” she said, “Let there be something fried.”

Southerners are known for their hospitality. One author, traveling in the South more than 150 years ago, noted that the hotels were bad because they weren’t really needed. Southerners were more than willing to take in strangers for the night and offer them their best food, too.

I could have thrown a couple of chickens in the oven and maybe added some brown rice and a green salad. That would certainly have been the safer choice, not to mention healthier and more colorful.

Instead, I pulled out the deep fryer and stayed true to my heritage, a decision that turned out to be the answer to a very nice young woman’s humble prayer.

God works in mysterious ways, truly.

— Joan McCoy