When I was 19 I discovered a few very old hardcover books in my grandmother, “Nana’s” collection. They were in excellent condition unlike her battered paperback detective novels she had taken a fancy to late in life. She had always been more than happy to share any part of her boundless love of all things cultural whether it was opera, (largely lost on me), her growing up in the early 20th century New York City showbiz world of her father, (“As a girl I played with Buster Keaton in our home in Chelsea”), her love of baseball and her rapture with all things literary. When I inquired about the books written by Thomas Wolfe she looked at me from her favorite rocking chair with both love and sadness. The books were purchased by her late son, Norman, for whom, along with her late husband, my grandfather, I am also named. Uncle Norman was only a few years older than I was that day when he died of a rare kidney disease for reasons unknown.
“Oh your Uncle Norman would be so happy to share his books with you Norman!” She brushed back a few tears from her pure blue eyes and handed me a copy of “Look Homeward Angel”. Little did I know that she would create a firestorm among my similarly hungry pack of young friends for all things in the canon of “Great American Literature.” She would also unknowingly pass along the Asheville, North Carolina’s native son amazing descriptions of food! Here is Wolfe’s persona Eugene Gant remembering…
“Spring was full of cool dewy mornings, spurting winds, and storms of intoxicating blossoms, and in this enchantment Eugene first felt the mixed lonely ache and promise of seasons.
In the morning they rose in a house pungent with breakfast cookery, and they sat at a smoking table loaded with brains and eggs, ham, hot biscuits, fried apples seething in their gummed syrups, honey, golden butter, fried steak, scalding coffee. Or there were stacked battercakes, run colored molasses, fragrant brown sausages, a bowl of wet cherries, plums, fat juicy bacon, jam. At the mid-day meal, they ate heavily; a huge hot roast of beef, fat buttered lima beans, tender corn smoking on the cob, thick red slabs of sliced tomatoes, rough savory spinach, hot yellow cornbread, flaky biscuits, a deep-dish peach and apple cobbler spiced with cinnamon, tender cabbage, deep glass dishes piled with preserved fruits—cherries, pears, peaches. At night they might eat fried steak, hot squares of grits fried in egg and butter, pork chops, fish and young fried chicken”.
At that age it went to me with the flaming arrow usually reserved for girls. I wanted it and I wanted to go wherever it was! I soon discovered the road, highways, hitchhiking and a path south. I might have ended up in Asheville seeking some of those dishes if not for a friend of mine who had landed, inexplicably in the far-a-way town of Key West. I took a few methods of transport to get there (or towards there at times) during the next few years. I seemed to be on a yo-yo between “home” in Northern Illinois and the place I was seeking…which almost always meant somewhere in the South. I wanted sunlight.
I rode a bus from central Illinois toward Jacksonville, Florida on one of those journeys with a buddy of mine. The Greyhound Bus we were on had to stop for fuel in Macon, Georgia on the way and the bus driver announced that we would have one hour to “stretch, eat or shop” in the city. We were young men and our noses led us to a kind of Southern cafeteria, which one never finds on any interstate. We were smack in the middle of a part of town we stood out in. But we were naïve and protected by some angel, (Nana?) and we headed through a heavy screened door into a large square room that smelled of fried chicken. Black women in matching service uniforms stood behind the long gleaming counter and ladled, spooned, sliced and poured food and drink for a steady line of customers. We entered the queue and I know I felt some preternatural instinct for the absolute quality of what we were about to experience. When it was time to board our bus I felt I had entered a state of grace and wasn’t sure Jacksonville could compete. But my buddy had a place near the ocean we could crash for free for ten days so we climbed aboard watching that cafeteria as long as we could through the dusty windows.
I had loved fried chicken growing up. We didn’t have it at our home. Not at least that I can recall from this span of years. It wasn’t in the repertoire of my mother’s dishes. We had it at the home of my friends, the Harris family, but it was only served cold and brought to summer days at the various beaches nearby. While good it was not right out of the fryers and possessing a textural quality that I would search for as a chef in the years to come.
Many before me have written on the heavenly powers of fried chicken and all I can do is to add one of my ways with the bird so fat and soaring…
In 1983 we traveled to New York City from our birthplace home in Illinois where I’d been working with Gordon Sinclair and Charlie Trotter. I barely knew Charlie then. He was just starting his journey in cooking and that was his first kitchen. We must have been going for “family reasons” in that Mom was along. She fired us up. New York City was her town. I hadn’t been in years and never after I accepted the fact that I was to be a Chef in this life. We hit a bunch of restaurants that were in vogue or just outright classics at that time. ‘Tavern on the Green’ was a showstopper but for timeless food, service and setting we adored “Café des Artistes” then. It was so sophisticated. We also went in a completely different direction and tried some of the “New American” places getting some press in the early days of magazines like ‘Bon Appetít’ and ‘Food and Wine’. One of them was a place called ‘Texarkana’. We’d already been to about four restaurants with Mama that day and by the time we settled into the funky charm of that place we could only sample a dish or two. One dish on the menu that I didn’t have that night stayed with me as an idea. It was called “Fried Chicken Salad”. It spoke to me on some primal level. I set out to work on it only having the title to ignite my brain. For some odd reason I reached for sesame oil when making up the dressing part of the salad. I think it is the reason it became so popular. How popular? Let’s fast forward two crucial years. I got an offer to return to work in Florida. At first it was still with Gordon Sinclair at a hotel restaurant being rebuilt on the coast of Florida in the small town of Jupiter. Within one year I was itching to get back to Key West and it happened. It was the biggest break of my career to date when I took on the job as Executive Chef of “Louie’s Backyard” in June of 1985. The ownership was divided and that is always tricky. The guy that hired me was at odds with one of the others…lets just leave it at that. She wanted, (demanded!) that I keep a salad that had been on the menu with the previous chef. It was called the “Steak Salad” and it was a big seller to be sure. I was not, (not!) going to have some other chef’s dishes on my menu. (My!)… So I presented my “Hot Fried Chicken Salad” on the menu the next night. Years passed and my career rolled into new places. After 17 years from that salad’s debut Janet and I went back to Key West and went to see our old place of toil. The “Hot Fried” was still on the menu…
MY HOT FRIED CHICKEN SALAD
Norman Van Aken © Copyright 1986
2 egg yolks
1 Tablespoon honey
¼ Cup Creole mustard
¼ Cup Spanish sherry wine vinegar
1 Cup canola oil
1/3 Cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons dark roasted sesame oil
1 Tablespoon Sriracha
Place the egg yolks, honey, mustard and vinegar in a blender and mix until well blended. Gradually add the three oils with the blender running while it all incorporates. Add the Sriracha and blend. Chill well.
For the Marinade:
3 whole eggs, beaten
1 Cup heavy cream
¾ Tablespoon paprika
1 jalapeño, stems and seeds removed, sliced thin
¾ Tablespoon crushed red pepper
¾ Tablespoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
4 boneless and skinless chicken breasts, sliced across the breast into fingers
Beat the eggs with the cream. Add the rest of the marinade ingredients and mix. Add the chicken pieces and stir around to coat all the pieces. Cover and marinade overnight, (or at least four hours).
To serve the salad:
Pull the chicken out of the egg mix and drain well. Dredge the chicken pieces in well- seasoned flour and fry. (I include crushed red pepper flakes in mine).
Meanwhile have ready romaine leaves cleaned, coarsely chopped and spun dry. Dress the romaine with the prepared dressing.
Serve the warm chicken on top of a nice mound of romaine on each plate.
I garnished this with thinly sliced red onions and home made croutons.
All rights reserved, Norman Van Aken, 2011 ©