By Bonnie Fishman
Having been an anthropology major in college, I have often contemplated the correlation between sharing meals and friendship. This is so universal, crossing all cultures, religions, socioeconomic levels, past and present. It is a true human experience. Now link a specific dish with a specific friend and you have magic. When you dive into this lovingly prepared meal, your brain connects immediately with your pal whether you’re with them at the moment or not. Is it your friend Gary’s famous BBQ ribs? Is it your oldest school chum Jane’s curried chicken salad? Or maybe it’s your college roommate’s macaroni and cheese.
For me, it’s my dearest friend Thelma and her Southern fried chicken. The aroma emanating from the kitchen, the snap-crackle-pop in the pan, the sight of her standing at the stove in her royal blue apron, grinning from ear to ear, with a pair of tongs slinging wings and legs with such grace and ease. The first bite into this succulent fried chicken brings it all back. It is but a sweet memory for me in that Thelma left this earth four years ago today. She was one of the most extraordinary women I have ever met and it was an honor to call her my friend.
Thelma and her sister were born dirt poor in Mississippi during the 1930’s to a farmer and his wife. Seeking a better life for his family, her father migrated north to Detroit to work in the auto factories. Through a series of events, she came to work for my in-laws as a “maid” in the 50s. Think of the movie The Help and you get the picture of the times.
Fast forward to the late 70s when Bob and I returned from living in the Bay Area. We “pit stopped” for several months at my in-laws while we waited to get into our new house. Thelma, who was still their “maid,” became my fast friend. We were kindred spirits in the kitchen–and truth be told–many aspects of life. I had just begun a catering business and corralled her as my lieutenant. We had a blast! Yes, it was very hard work, but because of her beaming personality, warmth, and can-do spirit, it was worth it. Word spread over the years about Thelma as my team captain. When we catered parties in people’s homes and offices, the customers often requested her.
Thelma and I had the perfect symbiotic relationship: Without that extra catering income she couldn’t have brought herself out of poverty to afford a new home and help others. She was another me in raising my kids and taking my parties on the road, which gave me freedom and peace of mind. We were personal confidants to each other’s troubles and we celebrated each other’s accomplishments and joys.
One day in 2012, Thelma was returning from church and stopped for groceries. The woman in line in front of her was short a few dollars. Thelma reached into her purse and gave her last dollar. That night, someone fire bombed Thelma’s house because of mistaken identity. She escaped with her life and dog and not much else.
As a testament to how amazing and loved this woman was, within a week enough money was raised by her community to buy her a new house, rehab it, and supply it with furniture. As we were sitting on her new couches, Thelma asked me why people were so generous to her. I told her because of who she was and the kindnesses demonstrated that day in the store.
Whenever I make and eat her delicious fried chicken, I am connected to that warm embrace, shining smile, hearty laugh, pure unconditional love that was Thelma to me and so many people. The smell just knocks me flat and she is standing with me. Today, I am offering her recipe and technique. Will mine be as good as hers? I think not. But it’s the best we can do. And don’t forget to make real mashed potatoes and peas. Thelma wouldn’t have it any other way.
Many of us have lost a friend or loved one recently due to Covid or for another reason. Share with The Insider that “memory dish” that reminds you of that special person.
Thelma’s Fried Chicken
Yield: Enough for the masses!
A few notes about the recipe: Thelma always began by sanitizing her kitchen sink. Then she rinsed each piece of chicken. After patting them dry, she seasoned the chicken meat directly with Lawry’s Seasoning Salt. Most recipes have you season the flour. She felt that this was a better result. Continue on in the recipe with dredging the chicken with flour and frying it. I usually take the chicken out at least an hour before beginning the process, so it’s not icy cold when it hits the hot oil.
There are no amounts or measurements. This recipe is technique driven according to Thelma’s way.
Chicken pieces on the bone with skin (if the breasts are large, cut them in half crosswise)
Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
Vegetable oil for frying
Take chicken out of the fridge one hour before preparing. Scour your sink. Put the chicken pieces in the sink and wash them. Pack them dry with paper towel. Season both sides of the chicken with Lawry’s, salt and pepper. With the thighs and breasts, pick up the skin gently and season directly on the meat.
Heat about 2” oil in a large Dutch oven, brassier, or skillet with high sides. The oil should reach and maintain a temperature of 375°. To test the heat if no thermometer is available, put a wing tip in the oil. It should begin to sizzle.
Begin with one cup of flour in a large Ziplock bag. Put your first batch of chicken in the flour (as much as will fit in the pot without crowding). Close the bag and shake with the flour. When oil is hot, using tongs, remove each piece of chicken, shaking off excess flour into the bag, and place in the oil. Enough oil should surround each piece. Cook for about 7-8 minutes per side.
When the chicken is golden brown, place on a baking sheet lined with paper towel to drain excess oil. Continue with remaining chicken. You will need to add more flour to the bag as you go along. To reheat, lay pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with foil. Heat at 350° until hot throughout. DO NOT COVER or the skin will sweat and get soggy. You can also serve chicken at room temperature.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.