Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chicken Fried

The image of a greasy Colonel Sanders bucket has become somewhat synonymous with fried chicken. My Mom never brought home a 12-piece meal from the Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-through, but I grew up dreaming about down-home southern picnics where children and parents sprawled around a checkered blanket, biting mouthfuls of juicy white meat right off the bone, golden flecks of crispy skin collecting on their cheeks as they polished off the last wings and thighs.

I know it must seem like an odd fascination, but the idea of eating fried chicken seemed to embody the essence of a true family affair - the ones when your aunts, uncles and second cousins twice removed would all come out for a Sunday evening supper, catching up on each other's lives around tables covered with plates of fried chicken.

My parents weren't overly obsessed with eating healthfully, but friend chicken was never on the radar when thinking of a nutritious dinner option. But while it might not be "healthy," I couldn't help but wonder if this southern dish was more than just a comforting, calorie filled concoction. If there were thousands of families happily laughing over buckets of friend chicken, maybe it was a viable option for an "emotionally healthy" meal.

After years of this curiosity just sitting under the surface, my roommate and I finally decided to test our age old question and see for ourselves if fried chicken is all that it's cracked up to be.

Our homemade version didn't look like the breaded chicken pieces you see in the KFC commercials, but, our panko covered chicken breasts, pan fried in olive oil, seemed like a honest modern-attempt by two 21-year-olds.

Slightly anxious about our new creation, we sliced into the tender breasts and let our taste buds read the final verdict. Surely enough, the hot, salty juices sang to our heartstrings. Before long, we were telling stories and cracking jokes between bites of friend chicken. We weren't concerned about calories and the words "fat" or "sodium" never breached our conversation.

So my fried chicken curiosity wasn't all nonsense. Making and eating our own version of fried chicken was a true bonding experience. We ventured into a the unknown world of fried chicken and came out with our stomachs satisfied and spirits lifted.

It turns out that a little bit of chicken fried can mean a whole lot of joy around the family table.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The JOY of Cooking

You've just walked in the front door, your bag of books or briefcase weighing down your shoulder and your shirt half tucked into your slacks, which seem to have permanent wrinkles after all the time you've spent sitting in front of the computer. You walk into the kitchen and look from your refrigerator to your pantry to your stove. It's 7 p.m. and the last thing you want to do right now is prepare a home-cooked meal.

So, where did the JOY of cooking go? Apparently it expired after we started taking on so many activities that making a meal became more of a burden than a time that brings happiness to our daily lives.

But if you have cookbooks, I'm sure you have the Joy of Cooking. If you don't, then you should probably get a copy. The all-purpose cookbook, which contains a recipe for every type of dish you can imagine, has sold over 18 million copies since Irma Rombauer first published it in 1931. A year after her husband's suicide, Rombauer created the cookbook as a reminder of the activity that brought true joy to her life. In coping with her emotions, cooking provided a vehicle to show what happiness she could provide in the lives of her friends and family, as well as her own.

Today, cooking is something that most people have put on the back burner. (Pun intended) Opening up a cookbook has seems to inspire pressure to create some elaborate dish that will never live up to the perfection we desire. You know you've felt this way before, too. The cake has to look exactly like the picture. If the pork chop isn't perfectly tender, why even bother serving it? What if everyone hates my soufflé that I've spent hours making?

With our laundry list of daily activities, the idea of cooking and subjecting ourselves to "criticism" or "judgment," turns into an immediate turn off.

But what if we re-envisioned our image of cooking? What if, instead of seeing it as a canvas that exposes the bumps and blemishes of our culinary abilities, we saw it as a medium for cultivating an appreciation for new tastes and flavors? A way to treat ourselves and others to something that says "I deserve to eat well!"? A form of expression that shows creativity and a sense of curiosity?

Rombauer didn't title her book the Joy of Cooking for nothing. She knew the awesome power that cooking holds and wanted to help bring that gift into kitchens all around the world.

How are you bringing JOY into your life? Maybe today it will start with cooking.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Generous Portions

When we arrived, they were all there, awaiting patiently for their guests who didn't known them from atom. One had wispy white hair and wore a slightly stained eggshell-colored apron. She had thin wired-rimmed glasses that moved up and down when she greeted us. The others were busy removing foil from disposable baking tins and bringing out pitchers of lemonade and iced tea.

"Welcome," the wispy-haired woman said. "Is everyone else on their way? We'd love for you to all be together."

While we were the first ones to arrive, we were met with many sweet and savory smells that reminded me of visiting my Nana at her home in Arkansas when I was young. At the back of the sanctuary, three dining room sized tables were covered with casserole dishes filled with everyone's favorite comfort foods: brown sugar baked beans, corn spoon bread and crispy fried chicken. The last table was checkered with individual plates topped with slices of cherry pie, chocolate cake and frozen fruit salad.

The older women silently left us to gaze over the feast they had probably spent hours perparing. Maybe these dishes were part of their families' traditional Sunday dinners. Maybe they were the foods their sons always asked for when they had tummy aches. Whether or not these dishes were designated "healing foods," I knew that they would provide the magic that we were in need of, bringing a group of people together who had just lost someone who would have been the first guy in line, grabbing an extra plate of dessert.

On Saturday, myself, along with 30 others, gathered to honor the life of Tom Taubensee - my outdoorsy, four-wheeler driving, basketball loving Hoosier pal who left us far too soon.

After his memorial service, a group of wonderfully kind women from Sherwood Oaks Church - who didn't have any connection to the Taubensee family - prepared us an amazing lunch. Instead of us scatting in different directions and leaving with sadness in our hearts, they provided us with a way to connect after his service. Because of their kindness, we were able to celebrate his life with a little feast that I know he would have loved.

These women certainly didn't have any obligation to create this luncheon gathering. They could have been making these foods for their own families ... but they made it especially for us, and I don't think Saturday would have been nearly as special had they not blessed us with their soul food fixings.

I've learned that you should never underestimate the power of a homemade meal. After tasting these ladies' home cooking, I know that they didn't and doubt they ever will.