By: Emily Ridder-Beardsley
Fried chicken smells deliciously like Friday night and Calvin Klein Eternity perfume with a hint of Marlboro cigarette smoke. That’s my southern terroir.
In France, the word terroir is used to describe a food that can transport a person to the epicenter of an irreplaceable dining experience, full of memory and emotion. It’s the taste of a place, a regional delicacy that cannot be mimicked or reproduced outside of its natural habitat. It’s the way identity becomes consumable.
My southern terroir is my childhood; summers and weekends spent on my family’s rural Virginia farm, a property we affectionately call The Last Resort. The old farmhouse began its life as a log cabin, which was later expanded with a Sears and Roebuck kit house. My bedroom was part of the original log house and sat above the kitchen where Grandma Judy would make her wonderful fried chicken every Friday night. Sitting on the shag carpet in front of my dollhouse, or on the top bunk of my loft bed, I could hear each piece of chicken as it hit the hot pan of oil – first the breasts, then the thighs and finally the legs and wings – each one snapping and sizzling to dazzling crisp perfection. I thought that I could hear the moment when it was finally ready (but that’s just the kid that used to be me, with an imagination so vivid it was easy for her to pretend that it was the chicken or the skillet speaking, and not the sound of Judy pulling a platter off of the kitchen counter). That’s the thing about old log cabins, they’re so porous, so utterly penetrable, you can hear and smell and feel everything going on in them, even if you can’t see it.
My southern terroir is The Last Resort, nestled in the small community of Flint Hill Virginia – a blip on the map of Shenandoah country. The property is sandwiched between the headwaters of the Rappahannock and the Jordan River in the heart of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. Interestingly, the farm is only about an hour from Gordonsville, Virginia, the “Fried Chicken Capitol of the World.” The town earned this name in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to a number of recently emancipated African American women, known as waiter carriers. These women took advantage of the fact that Gordonsville was a major stopping point for the railroad line that ran through the Piedmont on its way between Charlottesville and D.C. Seeking income, they would make fried chicken in their homes and carry the bounty to the station to sell to hungry train passengers before the time of dining cars. These women created a symbiotic relationship with the railway that benefited both their families and the train passengers. While not being totally unique to the South, this symbiosis is certainly one of its most charming attributes.
My life, like many other lives in the rural South, has been built around reciprocal relationships; they are a big part of my southern terroir. As a child, when I didn’t have pocket money to pay the blacksmith I’d bake him a batch of homemade cookies to trim my goat’s feet. In harsh winters, it is nothing strange to see those with well-equipped tractors plowing neighbors’ driveways in return for dog care or help bailing hay on some later day. A season’s worth of hunting privileges on a good-sized property earns a landowner a fridge full of freshly butchered venison. A dozen chicken eggs is worth a basket of homegrown tomatoes. It’s not that money doesn’t matter, but many things can be had without it.
Like the women of Gordonsville, and so many others in rural Virginia, Grandma Judy is no stranger to the symbiotic relationships built around southern food. Grandma Judy is a lot of things, but my biological grandmother is not one of them. She came into our lives when my mother was working in the local Legal Aid offices. Judy was seeking the legal help she needed for her financial stability. But my mother knew the courts would never side with Judy. So another solution was proposed: Judy could have a steady job in our home, once a week, babysitting two “adorable” children, cooking a square meal for a family of four and cleaning a rustic farmhouse. From that day on, Judy became Grandma Judy and Friday night fried chicken dinner became a beloved ritual in our household, especially to a child who wasn’t frequently indulged with high-calorie, low nutrition meals. The smell of fried chicken has forever reminded me of her.
On late Friday afternoons, she would send my brother and me out of the kitchen with the promise that good behavior would earn us two pieces of chicken. I always think of her sneaking a wing into the backyard to feed to the family dog, Daffy (calling her through the backdoor with the war-cry ‘Chick-Chick for Baby’ and waving the piece of chicken like a flag). The ritual became as important to the dog as those Friday night dinners were for me. As I grew older, I learned that this was just Judy’s well-earned excuse for a cigarette break – “Emphysema be damned!” she used to say. Grandma Judy put so much thought and care into that meal. Every element was meticulously planned, right down to the pieces of chicken that she would cook: breasts for my brother, thighs for my mother, legs for my dad and wings for me – plus one for the dog. My southern terroir is those memories and the longing to keep them vital.
Grandma Judy is something of an alchemist and her fried chicken is magical. That magic is my southern terroir. Grandma Judy can make any child eat her collard greens. How, you ask? Country ham hocks, of course. She’ll happily tell you, as she sits in the sun on her front porch, a Marlboro cigarette in hand, how her paternal grandmother Mertie, known simply as “Nanny”, would teach her these precious secrets, each Sunday while they made the family meal together. Every week the two of them would make enough fried chicken, hand-mashed potatoes, homemade biscuits and green beans (with a pinch of sugar) for almost thirty people. Before she’d even finished elementary school, Grandma Judy had learned all of Nanny’s tricks and would use them for the rest of her life. I never knew Nanny, but as far as I’m concerned I owe her a debt of gratitude for being the origin of the reciprocal relationship that changed my childhood Friday nights.
At first glance, there is nothing terribly special about Grandma Judy’s fried chicken. The recipe is quite simple. Anyone could make it with a little bit of skill in the kitchen and an afternoon to dedicate to carefully watching oil temperatures and regularly turning the chicken so as not to burn the skins. If you ask, she’ll tell you her secret ingredient is Mrs. Dash, a premixed seasoning you can find on the shelf at any grocery store. But, if I’m being honest, Mrs. Dash has nothing to do with it. Grandma Judy’s chicken has something beyond the ingredients, the type or temperature of the oil or the skillet she uses to cook it. It doesn’t matter if by the time it arrives on my table its smell isn’t mixed with Eternity perfume and cigarettes, or if I didn’t hear it cooking. I know, no matter what, that chicken is prepared with the same attention, passion and love that are its true secret ingredients, its true terroir.
No matter where I am when I eat Grandma Judy’s fried chicken, it’s like I’m ingesting my own history, my memories, myself. No matter where I am, I’ll be at the Last Resort on a Friday night waiting for dinner. A little piece of my life is cooked into that chicken, right alongside the flour, salt and Mrs. Dash. It’s my little log room above the kitchen, my magical childhood imagination, my home.
 Amy B. Trubek, “Place Matters,” in Empire of the Senses ed. Carolyn Korsmeyer, (Oxford: Berg Publishers: 2005).
 Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
Grandma Judy’s Fried Chicken
Despite the seemingly limited ingredients list and simple instructions, this fried chicken requires a number of elements not found in typical kitchens, grocery stores or in many chefs themselves. If made correctly, however, it will yield truly magical results: crispy skin, juicy meat and a transformational and transportive meal.
1 whole chicken, butchered, skin on (or 1 package each: bone-in, skin on chicken breasts, thighs, drumsticks and wings)
4 cups Flour
4 TBS Mrs. Dash
Salt to taste
About 1 ½ cup Canola Oil
For best results also include:
Marlboro cigarette smoke
Calvin Klein Eternity Perfume
Rinse all the pieces of chicken in cold water then thoroughly pat dry. Set aside.
Heat about ½ – ⅔ cup of canola oil in each of two large skillets on high.
Wisk all dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
Beginning with the breasts, coat the chicken in the flour mix and place, skin side down, in the hot skillet. Repeat the process with the thighs, legs and wings in that order. Cover the skillets and keep the lids on for as much of the cooking process as possible to ensure the most tender and juicy results.
Watch the chicken carefully throughout the cooking process. As soon as the skin starts to brown, turn the heat down to medium. Allow to simmer 3-5 minutes on medium.
Flip the chicken (adding more oil if needed) and turn the heat back to high. Wait until skin is golden brown, turn the heat back down to medium again and allow to simmer 3-5 minutes.
Repeat this process until the chicken is cooked through (the breasts will need roughly 20-30 minutes, thighs 15-20 minutes, legs and wings 10-15 minutes).
When cooking is complete, transfer the chicken pieces to a paper towel lined plate and allow to rest and cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve (“Chick-Chick for Baby”).