Self-Reliance & Southern Fried Chicken.

My inability to cook anything more than rice and eggies-in-a-basket has been a running joke in my family since my brothers learned how to grill steak circa age eight.

I called it my feminist anti-domesticity clause. “I don’t cook because i don’t adhere to gender roles!” i’d stomp and snap. Meanwhile, all my self-prepared dinners consisted of frozen pizza or my tried-and-true favorite eggie snack.

So much for self-reliance.

I knew, in spite of my claim to anti-domesticity, that cooking is not inherently an anti-feminist thing. Obviously, all people have to eat. And i was growing older and pizza for dinner was getting to be repetitive and unhealthy. When i moved into my own flat for the first time on January 11th here in Edinburgh, i knew this was to be the semester of learning and growth abroad.

Fundamental to the growing pains? Learning how to make a balanced meal for myself.

It started slow, tortellinis cooked in slightly salted and oiled water. A few days in i was making sautéed spinach salad, and my first foray into baking chicken was an endeavor of it’s-still-pink-so-five-more-minutes? (For the record, it turned out pretty moist and edible and non-salmonella-filled). I then tried my father’s go-to: honey mustard chicken. A few rounds into those baked delights, i was feeling more assured of my own abilities.

The time had come. My friend Megan and i decided to undertake cooking what we Southern ladies missed the most: fried chicken.

Merlot is the most important part of any well-cooked meal.

Merlot is the most important part of any well-cooked meal.

It was a semi-disaster. We knew, vaguely, that it was best to soak the chicken in some kind of egg-or-butter wash before slathering it in flour and bread crumbs. I always hated how warm the milk was after my mom had kept it beside her while frying up her famous Second-Helpin’ recipe, so i figured milk went in there somewhere.

With a decidedly eff-it-we’ll-make-it-work attitude, we threw all the ingredients together in one bowl. Which turned into dough.

Oops.

Half an hour of packing dough onto chicken legs ensued. Merlot was drunk. Potatoes began to boil. At last, dough dripping off those once-running legs, we threw our concoctions into a pan of oil and prayed to the Almighty Steal Magnolia that She would help us make our mothers proud.

Having no tongs, Megan expertly wielded chopsticks to flip the chicken over until, all but surrendered, we popped them into the microwave to ensure they were fully cooked.

In the pan floated the remains of our dough.

As we sat down to the table, we contemplated our creation. The mashed potatoes and corn, if nothing else, looked exquisite. Bravely, we took a bite of the chicken. Not bad, i thought. Not too bad at all, for making up the recipe on the fly. Sure, it was no Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ but it certainly was good enough for the bone to be licked clean. Megan and i exchanged smiles of victory.

Round 1.

Round 1.

When i told J, the other fried-chicken-master-maker of my life, how our endeavor had gone i think he actually wiped tears from his eyes he chortled so much. My pride mildly wounded, i emailed my mother for her Most Secret Recipe for Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ Fried Chicken.

A Tesco trip later, i was armed for round two.

And this time, i must say, it went peach-pickin’ perfect. I’d had to improvise slightly, because Bisquik isn’t exactly available in Scotland (to my knowledge). But one sizzling pan later, i proffered the generously full plate to one of my flatmates, a hopeful grin tucked into the corner of my cheek.

2013-02-26 17.18.39

Round 2.

“Daaaa-aaaamn!” she exclaimed. There was a pronounced diphthong in her reply, even with a mouth full of chicken. Paula Dean would be downright green in the face.

I’m not sure which was more satisfying: the fact that i’d finally made something worth craving (and not just edible) or the chicken itself. As delicious as the food in Amsterdam was, nothing really compares to the warmth of my Southern Mama’s cuisine.

I’m sure there are immeasurable numbers of my peers who scoff at my simple pride in learning how to balance a budget, much less cook a meal (again, my brothers could grill sirloins before middle school). But i think growing up sometimes can be so taken for granted it’s hard to remember a time when you didn’t know what you know now.

So i’m taking time to appreciate the learning, even if it involves clumps of should-have-done dough and try-harder-next-time chicken. Because nothing tastes so sweet as knowing my own capability, domesticity and all.

current jam: ‘kiss you’ one direction (unashamed!)

best thing: self-reliance is the new sexy, ya’ll.

other cookery blogs: cheese buns & rice.

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Making Rice, Making Do.

What i lack in Southern charm, my mother makes up for with every sultry ya’ll she smooths out of her mouth like butter. When she cooks, our table is swimming in vats of her fried miracle meat masterpiece she’s fondly named “Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ Chicken.” A friend of hers recounted their initial introduction, enumerating specifically that she was wearing her perfect pearls strung around her neck. My roommate frequently remarks that my ability to curl anyone’s hair (no matter the thinness or resistance to hairspray) is my Southern Superpower. I’m always quick to share it’s a superpower i inherited from my South Carolinian mother.

But easily, one of the most Southern things i have inherited from my mother (particularities with hot curlers aside) is an abundant love for steamed white rice.

She is the master of rice. Nowhere else have i had rice that compares – not the kitchens of Mount Holyoke, not the restaurants in Uganda, nor the meals consumed at friends’ homes. My mother’s rice is the kind of food i cling to as a measure of perfection. While some rice dishes may rank on a scale of goodness, none have ever paralleled Hannah’s Second Helpin’ rice concoction.

Part of what makes her rice so delicious is the particularity with which she makes it. In the unending panicked phone calls i’ve made to her asking for cooking advice (including, once, from Uganda) she’s quick to reiterate: rice is very, very precise.

“Don’t be sloppy with your measuring cup,” she shows me in my umpteenth lesson, bending down to be on eye level with the red dashes marking ounces and liters. Often as she does this, there is a persistently misbehaving strand of brown hair (curled, of course) that she tucks primly behind an ear.”You have to make sure it is exactly 3 cups of water.”

Over the phone, she reminds me the name for the recipe: 3-2-1 Rice. Precision in name, precision in numbers. 3 cups of water, 2 cups of rice, 1 teaspoon of salt. For the longest time, i couldn’t remember whether the three was for the grains or the water. Naturally, a few pots have turned a delicate shade of brownish-black as a result of my imprecision.

Living in Massachusetts for two and a half years now has been brilliant. I’m even growing to like snow. Living there has also been a lesson in just how Southern i am – even if i’ve spent the better part of my early adulthood in denial. Sure, i don’t own anything Carhart and will never suggest a BBQ joint for lunch. But i have a strong affinity for pearl earrings and i brew my own sweet tea (à la my mother’s recipe). The longer i live in New England, the more i come to make peace with – and embrace – the roots i have in Carolina country. The salience of my differences among my peers has been a wonderful part of this path of discovery.

And in five days, i begin the next big cross-cultural expedition to Scotland.

As i frantically decide between which map of Durham, NC to bring and put on my wall, i can’t help but think about how much more i’m going to learn abroad. I intend to try Haggis, explore the bowels of Edinburgh castle, breakfast at the Elephant House Café. I hope to grow in my sense of a globalized identity and engage critically with my own assumptions.

Learning who you are while abroad is a messy process. There’s plenty of journaling and contemplating and weepy phone calls ahead. Nothing is precise about identity, i think. But that’s also the adventure of it; for every homesick day i’ll have, assuredly there will be wildly wonderful moments where i can scarcely believe the world unfolding around me. For me, the most important thing right now is to focus on making those moments meaningful by being present in the moment. 

And when the days are so messy and i feel so foreign and disembodied, i’ll go home by making a bowl of rice. In all the messiness, there is still the precision of her 3-2-1 Rice Recipe. (Hopefully, i can even find that calm without burning the pot.) And the thing is, rice is still rice even when you’re 3,700 miles away from the woman who makes it best in the whole world.

current jam: ‘toes’ zac brown band

best thing: hanging paintings.

 

 

The Devil is the Details: Crook’s Corner

(Part 3 in my Hometown Tourist Summer Blog Series!)

After occupying a permanent address in North Carolina for almost fourteen years, the fact that i only made my first sojourn to Crook’s Corner this past Sunday is, frankly, embarrassing. Crook’s is more than one of the most hallowed restaurants in town – it is something of a local landmark, the pig on a stake soaring above the traffic clouding the corner unction of Franklin and South Merritt Mill. The New York Times was so bold to describe Crook’s as “sacred ground for Southern foodies,” so to have gone neglected on my budding-foodie palette is a travesty.

My first impression of Crook’s was from afar, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. The pig-on-a-stick is pretty unmistakable on this frequented crossroads in the town of Chapel Hill, and the word-of-mouth rumblings over the delectability of Crook’s shrimp & grits had me salivating at the opportunity to enter this hive of thieves and villainy.

(Crook’s Corner is so highly decorated as a restaurant that i suspect, were it to have served the U.S. Military, it would be a five-star general by now. Above is just one of many awards lining the walls).

Apparent to me now, in retrospect, is the trueness and spirit present in Crook’s Corner that was then salient in my first impressions. Crook’s is a place of quirks found in the small places; the sign is unusual, distinct, and very much detail-oriented. In much the same way, the hullabaloo over the food wasn’t over the breadth of the menu – it was over, most famously, the flavorful and well-attended grits. They say the devil is in the details and, in a place named (in double entendre) for crookery and criminality, it makes sense to me such attention to particularities transitively carries through.

Such attention to distinction is displayed for all to see when entering crooks on the walls lining the way to the door – walls lined with hub caps of fascinating patterns and sizes. I’m sure to someone who knows (or cares) about cars, there is a story to be told here, but i mostly find them intriguing because of their geometric intricacy and characteristic quirk true to this restaurant.

Once inside, the artistry is unceased. Lining the interior surfaces are works of art that fill the inside dining space with color and vibrancy. And on every surface there are pigs – along the tiled walls around the booths, above the bar, and in some of the artwork. Alas, from where we were seated i couldn’t really get a good enough picture to share! And though Crook’s has been awarded for its phenomenal patio seating, we opted for the indoors to stave off the heat. I suppose, then, that shall require a second visit to experience the outside dining adventure!

In such idiosyncracies the nature of Crook’s southern cuisine shines through; the Tabasco sauce on the table, the tea served with a minty simple syrup to sweeten to your preference, and a menu dripping with fatty foods and more grits than you could swim through.

So when it came time to place our order (from a wonderful and attentive server, i might add), i went for the “Eggs New Bern” which are a (true to form) bit of a twist on your standard Eggs Benedict. The company i was with went for a myriad of selections; to name a few, my mom went with the bold choice of the renowned shrimp & grits, and J went for the steak tenderloin omelette.

(the steak tenderloin omelette)

(the famous shrimp & grits loaded with goodies!)

(my selection of the eggs new bern!)

(my side of cheesy grits)

For me, the food certainly did not disappoint. Ever a fan of Eggs Benedict, i loved the twist of the doughy biscuits with the thinly sliced ham, hollandaise sauce, poached eggs, and topping of some kind of yummy spices. J was singing the praises of his omelette, exclaiming that the steak was cooked through the way he preferred but magically retained its tenderness and delectability.

My mother, however, did not care for her shrimp & grits, claiming they were “too salty.” Both J and i found them to be perfectly satisfactory; they were loaded with flavor and bursting with this (now beloved) Crook’s southern comfort with a quirk. So i suppose, future crooks and hog villains, be warned if you’re no fan of MSG or salty shrimp!

All food consumed and details considered, i would highly recommend this corner of the world should you be looking for something quintessentially Carolina with a subtle kick of unconventional flavor! Though the atmosphere is not nearly as entrenched in memory and feta cheese like Elmo’s, or urban-nerd like Bull McCabes, Crook’s has certainly won a corner of my foodie heart in the Triangle area of NC. The savory menu and pig paraphernalia makes it worth the wait!

(the deed done!)

Condensed McMizziview:

Price: 1.8 – 2.5 (0 being fast food, 5 being somewhere super-fancy and of multiple courses (this menu is also contingent on size of portion & time of day))            Atmosphere: 3.8 (0 being fast food boring, 5 being the full experience of delicious things for eyes and mouth and ears!)                                                                                      Delectability of Food: 4.0 (0 being fast food, 5 being mouth-explosion crazed-good)

For future Crooks: the website, the menu, and a yelp profile. (Of note: the menu is changed daily, and though some staples are pretty consistently present on the menu, i recommend going to the website for the most up-to-date munchies should you be reading this in the far-distant future!)

current jam: “free” zac brown band.

best thing: top gear and good tips.