The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

June 30, 2013

Fried chicken: Perfection on a plate


T’was the day before Father’s Day.

My wife asked, “So, what would you like to have to eat on Father’s D —?”

Before she could even get “day” out, I blurted, “FRIED CHICKEN!!!”

“Well, OK, then,” Laurie said with a laugh. “I’ll fry some chicken. I was just going to ask you which restaurant you wanted to go.”

To me, fried chicken — real, homemade, Southern style fried chicken, cooked in an iron skillet — is better than any steak or lobster. Add some smooth cream gravy, “real” mashed potatoes, and a little side dish, and I’m in heaven, looking for St. Peter, the pearly gates and a few chubby angels.

Mark Twain knew. In his autobiography, he wrote about the wonderful eats served on his Uncle John’s Missouri farm.

“The way that things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor — particularly a few of the dishes,” he wrote. “For instance, the corn bread, the hot biscuits and the fried chicken. These things have never been properly cooked in the North — in fact, no one there is able to learn the art, so far as my experience goes … the North seldom tries to fry chicken, and this is well; the art cannot be learned north of the line of Mason and Dixon, nor anywhere in Europe. This is not hearsay: it is experience that is speaking.”

That may have been true when Mark Twain was around, but he died in 1910. Nowadays, there’s plenty of wannabe fried chicken, but it bears little resemblance to the real deal.

The fast-food places must deep-fry their chicken, or maybe use special pressure cookers. It’s oily, mass produced and edible only in the way that mid-winter tomatoes and strawberries are edible. You can’t really compare the chicken in the paper boxes to genuine fried chicken. It doesn’t look the same or smell the same, and it certainly doesn’t taste the same.

My grandmother Cullen (nee Helen Clifford) was born in Kentucky in 1899. She was one of eight children. Her mother knew how to fry chicken, and she taught little Helen everything she needed to know about chicken, flour, hot grease and a good iron skillet.

My wife was one of six children — the youngest of five girls — and she continues the tradition, using the same massive black skillet that my great-grandmother and grandmother used. It was cast by my great-grandfather Clifford when he was an apprentice in a Louisville foundry in the 1880s.

I got some nice presents for Father’s Day, but the fried chicken dinner was my favorite. I can still hear the hot grease popping when the chicken hit it. I still can smell the scent of the sizzling chicken. I can see the beautiful, crunchy, golden brown skin, cooked to a turn. I can feel the steam rising as my teeth sunk into the tender white meat.

It was heaven. Perfection on a plate. Mark Twain knew all about it.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at