In the 1920s, women were just beginning to enter the workforce. My great-grandmother was way ahead of her time. At an early age, she went to work as a telephone operator at Michigan Bell in Detroit. Around this same time, she met my great-grandfather. He was working as a bouncer at a dance hall where single young people went to dance. He soon divorced his wife, left her and their three kids in Tennessee, and after a proper amount of time (or maybe not) married my great-grandmother in 1925. It wasn’t long until my grandmother was born and the family moved in with my great-grandfather’s parents in the heart of Appalachia, Lee County, Virginia.
I can only assume she learned to fry chicken by watching my great-great-grandmother and learning to do it herself, as there never was a written recipe (until now, of course.) In fact, it’s entirely possible my great-great-grandmother couldn’t write. My grandmother says this was the way all her paternal ancestors fried chicken. I still have family in Lee County—always dirt poor but “not a single horse thief or masked bandit among them.”
At 75, my grandmother, who now resides in Rogersville, Tennessee, still fries chicken that seems impossible to replicate. Neither Christmas nor Thanksgiving would be complete without a heaping plate of her chicken. Without fail, I always pluck two legs from the pile and struggle to find room for them on my crowded plate, the same plate I’ve used for every family gathering as far back as I can remember. But somewhere in between the mashed potatoes (and chicken gravy) and the broccoli casserole, the chicken legs always find a home, at least until everyone has taken a seat at the table and my grandmother has given us permission to begin eating.
You can use any chicken parts you prefer – thighs, legs, breasts.
(My mom loves the livers, but they should be fried separately because they take much less time.)
Soak the chicken parts in iced saltwater for at least 2 hours. Drain well. Heat canola oil about ½ inch deep to a fairly hot temperature (350°). Put flour and plain cornmeal (about 2 measures of the flour to 1 of the cornmeal) in a paper bag, along with salt and pepper to taste. Add chicken, 2 or 3 pieces at a time, and shake until well-coated. Brown the chicken pieces in the hot shortening for about 10-15 minutes per side. Then lower the temperature to about 250° and cover. Cook approximately 25 minutes per side. Remove the lid, raise the temperature back to 350°, and cook 5-10 minutes per side, just long enough to crisp up the chicken. Drain on paper towels.