Fried Chicken Tenders
Like many people, this election cycle has galvanized me and spurred me to take the kind of action that normally isn’t in my comfort zone. I’m talking about canvassing—knocking on doors for candidates (happily all of whom are women in my local district) and having one-on-one conversations with people I never met in neighborhoods that are outside my bubble. The experience has surprised me in many ways.
Of course, it makes a difference to canvass with a friend. I canvass with Lucy, a friend I met a scant two years ago who has become one of my favorite people and proof that friendship can strike at any age in any place. Lucy has been in the political trenches since He Who Shall Not Be Named took office in 2017. She is one of those happy warriors who (along with many others) have been doing work for the rest of us. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
Because she is my friend and such a generous soul, Lucy has made space for me to ride the wave with her in the final weeks of this election cycle. I didn’t think I had it in me to join her in canvassing for a state senate seat, but I felt a call to action and figured with Lucy by my side and a clipboard in my hand I could manage it. It truly is so much better to get out there and do something than to stay home and read endless dispiriting articles online about our democracy in crisis.
The odds of having a real conversation with voters while canvassing are slim; most people are either not at home or don’t answer the door. But if during the course of a couple of hours on a sunny afternoon knocking on thirty-five or so doors you have a real conversation with two or three voters it is pure gold. I’m not talking about the quick, “Yes I support your candidate and plan to vote”, but the ones like we had with a couple in their early 70s who seemed to want to vote for our candidate but needed reassurance that the candidate would be just as diligent about coming to their neighborhood association meetings as the incumbent from the other party.
To me, this was a lesson in the late Tip O’Neill’s famous adage that all politics is local. When the incumbent answers a constituent’s call to get a pothole fixed or improve internet service, maybe his “A” rating from the NRA doesn’t count as much.
That said, we didn’t let that stop us. After learning that their association was 200 plus members strong and that the woman we were chatting with was the treasurer, Lucy called the campaign manager after we left and suggested that our candidate reach out to them, which we were told she would.
That’s the kind of encounter that makes canvassing for local candidates feel so worthwhile. It was a real rush.
The other kind of canvassing I have been doing is self-motivated. We need millennials to vote and every young person I encounter whether at the check-out, the hair salon or the coffee shop gets asked, “Do you plan to vote on November 6?” Some of them look kind of uncomfortable when I ask, but many of them emphatically tell me, “Yes!” It gives me hope.
So what does all this canvassing business have to do with cooking? Well, for one thing, we still need to eat after an afternoon knocking on doors. And on Election Night in particular we are going to need some comforting food to sooth our anxious minds and stomachs until the results are in.
I’ve been thinking about what I want to cook on Election Night for days. I made some comforting meatloaf and mashed potatoes last weekend, mostly because we were expecting a family visit with two little boys who love meatloaf. At the last minute, our niece and nephew had to cancel because one of the boys came down with a stomach bug. That left us with meatloaf and mashed potatoes all to ourselves (and a stash of leftovers in the freezer which, in my book, is added comfort). All of which is to say, meatloaf has already been done.
My go-to recipe for times when I’m looking for comfort is French Onion Soup, which I wrote about here. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t feel right this time. Still, as I wrote in that post, the smell of onions cooking on the stove reminds me of the security I felt as a child when my mother was in the kitchen making dinner.
It turns out that for many of us, our mothers’ cooking is the ultimate comfort food. With that in mind, I ran through a catalogue of my mother’s signature dishes. One of them was her fried chicken, which she used to make for Sunday dinner. She took a whole cut-up chicken, dredged the pieces in seasoned flour and fried them in butter in a cast iron skillet on top of the stove and then finished the cooking in the oven. Nothing fancy, but served with gravy and mashed potatoes it always felt like a special occasion. In fact, my younger sister used to ask for it on her birthday.
There is something about fried chicken that is so universal and so good. Maybe it’s because so many moms have cooked it just like mine did, that I feel a kind of kinship with my fellow citizens and want to make it on Election Night.
Come to think of it, fried chicken is one of the first recipes I learned from my mother-in-law before my husband and I were married. It is one of her signature dishes as well and one that everyone in the family asks her to make. I’m told she used to make it with whole cut-up chicken the way my mother did, but somewhere along the way she switched to frying up a batch of chicken tenders in her electric skillet—long before Chick-fil-A came into existence. Tenders are easier to handle, cook faster, and—most importantly in my husband’s family—they are white meat, because, well, in his family dark meat is avoided like food that was dropped on the floor and licked by the dog.
I don’t know where their aversion to dark meat comes from, but white meat it is. My mother-in-law’s fried chicken tenders are pretty darn good. Her secret? There are two. First of all, she dredges them in a pre-seasoned flour she gets from Big Spring Mill in Ellston, Virginia. My mother used to season her flour with salt, pepper and a generous dose of sweet paprika and that’s what I taste in the Big Spring Mill seasoned flour, making my mother-in-law’s fried chicken taste like my own mother’s.
The other secret—well it’s not really a secret to anyone who knows how to cook good fried chicken—is that she uses a whole stick of butter. (Imagine how good the gravy tastes!)
When I first met my future in-laws my husband and I were newly engaged. At the end of our visit I dutifully went home with her fried chicken recipe tucked in my purse. Sharing family recipes is such a lovely tradition and as the newest member of the family I wanted to signal that I was open to their way of doing things. But when we got back to New York and I decided to make it for my then-fiancé one night I couldn’t quite bring myself to use a whole stick of butter. Instead, I decided to cut the quantity in half and used a mix of olive oil and butter. My soon-to-be husband took one bite, looked at me with an expression as serious as a heart attack and declared, “This is not my mother’s fried chicken.” Don’t ever mess with your mother-in-law’s recipe.
The experience put me off making the fried chicken for years, until this past summer. My mother-in-law is now blind in one eye and her vision is failing in the other. When we come to visit, she turns her kitchen over to me—both a sign that I am one of the family as well as an acknowledgement of her own limitations. Lately I am increasingly aware that our time with my husband’s parents is growing shorter. We came to visit last August shortly after I had come across my grandmother’s recipe for egg noodles (made with twelve egg yolks!) and I was filled with regret that I had never learned how to make those noodles with her. I didn’t want to have the same regrets with my mother-in-law, so I asked her to show me how to make her fried chicken. It was both a way to spend time with her on my own and ensure that through her fried chicken she will always be with me (and my husband) long after she is gone. If cooking is love, cooking with someone is even more love.
There is no substitute for cooking at the elbow of someone whose recipe is part of family lore. I have no doubt my mother-in-law’s fried chicken will be part of her legacy and so, I needed to learn it and pass it on. While we made her fried chicken together, I jotted down some notes:
Heat electric skillet to 380° (Medium high if using a skillet on the stove.)
One stick of butter for nine chicken tenders.
Press chicken strips firmly in flour. (I remember her gently telling me I wasn’t pressing firmly enough to coat the chicken well—I absolutely relished the correction because I knew I was getting good instructions.)
Melt butter in the skillet to bubbling and then add chicken tenders. Once the chicken is brown on one side, lower heat to medium or medium low so as not to burn the butter and turn chicken over to brown the other side.
Total time 15 – 20 minutes.
My mother-in-law is not likely to vote the way I will this election cycle (or ever for that matter)—nor is my father-in-law or many others in my husband’s family. But when I make her fried chicken on Election Night, I will feel common ground.
Lucy and I still have a couple more afternoons of canvassing before it’s all over. I’ve invited her and her husband to share some fried chicken with us on Election Night before she goes off to her watch party with her band of committed political foot soldiers. It seems right that we share this comforting meal after so much that we shared out on the trail. As for me, I am happy to stay home and watch the returns with my husband. I’ve stretched the limits of my comfort zone for this cycle. Maybe I’ll have a second helping of fried chicken as the returns start to dribble in. My mom and my mother-in-law will be with me to the end. And Lucy will keep me informed about the outcome.