Self-Reliance & Southern Fried Chicken.

My inability to cook anything more than rice and eggies-in-a-basket has been a running joke in my family since my brothers learned how to grill steak circa age eight.

I called it my feminist anti-domesticity clause. “I don’t cook because i don’t adhere to gender roles!” i’d stomp and snap. Meanwhile, all my self-prepared dinners consisted of frozen pizza or my tried-and-true favorite eggie snack.

So much for self-reliance.

I knew, in spite of my claim to anti-domesticity, that cooking is not inherently an anti-feminist thing. Obviously, all people have to eat. And i was growing older and pizza for dinner was getting to be repetitive and unhealthy. When i moved into my own flat for the first time on January 11th here in Edinburgh, i knew this was to be the semester of learning and growth abroad.

Fundamental to the growing pains? Learning how to make a balanced meal for myself.

It started slow, tortellinis cooked in slightly salted and oiled water. A few days in i was making sautéed spinach salad, and my first foray into baking chicken was an endeavor of it’s-still-pink-so-five-more-minutes? (For the record, it turned out pretty moist and edible and non-salmonella-filled). I then tried my father’s go-to: honey mustard chicken. A few rounds into those baked delights, i was feeling more assured of my own abilities.

The time had come. My friend Megan and i decided to undertake cooking what we Southern ladies missed the most: fried chicken.

Merlot is the most important part of any well-cooked meal.

Merlot is the most important part of any well-cooked meal.

It was a semi-disaster. We knew, vaguely, that it was best to soak the chicken in some kind of egg-or-butter wash before slathering it in flour and bread crumbs. I always hated how warm the milk was after my mom had kept it beside her while frying up her famous Second-Helpin’ recipe, so i figured milk went in there somewhere.

With a decidedly eff-it-we’ll-make-it-work attitude, we threw all the ingredients together in one bowl. Which turned into dough.

Oops.

Half an hour of packing dough onto chicken legs ensued. Merlot was drunk. Potatoes began to boil. At last, dough dripping off those once-running legs, we threw our concoctions into a pan of oil and prayed to the Almighty Steal Magnolia that She would help us make our mothers proud.

Having no tongs, Megan expertly wielded chopsticks to flip the chicken over until, all but surrendered, we popped them into the microwave to ensure they were fully cooked.

In the pan floated the remains of our dough.

As we sat down to the table, we contemplated our creation. The mashed potatoes and corn, if nothing else, looked exquisite. Bravely, we took a bite of the chicken. Not bad, i thought. Not too bad at all, for making up the recipe on the fly. Sure, it was no Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ but it certainly was good enough for the bone to be licked clean. Megan and i exchanged smiles of victory.

Round 1.

Round 1.

When i told J, the other fried-chicken-master-maker of my life, how our endeavor had gone i think he actually wiped tears from his eyes he chortled so much. My pride mildly wounded, i emailed my mother for her Most Secret Recipe for Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ Fried Chicken.

A Tesco trip later, i was armed for round two.

And this time, i must say, it went peach-pickin’ perfect. I’d had to improvise slightly, because Bisquik isn’t exactly available in Scotland (to my knowledge). But one sizzling pan later, i proffered the generously full plate to one of my flatmates, a hopeful grin tucked into the corner of my cheek.

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Round 2.

“Daaaa-aaaamn!” she exclaimed. There was a pronounced diphthong in her reply, even with a mouth full of chicken. Paula Dean would be downright green in the face.

I’m not sure which was more satisfying: the fact that i’d finally made something worth craving (and not just edible) or the chicken itself. As delicious as the food in Amsterdam was, nothing really compares to the warmth of my Southern Mama’s cuisine.

I’m sure there are immeasurable numbers of my peers who scoff at my simple pride in learning how to balance a budget, much less cook a meal (again, my brothers could grill sirloins before middle school). But i think growing up sometimes can be so taken for granted it’s hard to remember a time when you didn’t know what you know now.

So i’m taking time to appreciate the learning, even if it involves clumps of should-have-done dough and try-harder-next-time chicken. Because nothing tastes so sweet as knowing my own capability, domesticity and all.

current jam: ‘kiss you’ one direction (unashamed!)

best thing: self-reliance is the new sexy, ya’ll.

other cookery blogs: cheese buns & rice.

Hometown Tourist: Merritt’s Store & Grill

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Should you ever think Chapel Hill, NC, is filled with too many misplaced Northerners to be truly in the South, look no further than Merritt’s Store & Grill. Located at the crossroads between 15-501 and 54 West, this small white-washed building promises one of the best Carolina experiences you could hope to have.

it's not carolina unless you've had cheerwine.

it’s not carolina unless you’ve had cheerwine.

My first exposure to Merritt’s goes back to lunch-box days spent at Frank Porter Graham Elementary school. Sometimes, when my Dad would pick me and my brothers up, we’d go for an “old-timey” soda: a coke in a classic glass bottle. Since living in Uganda where most sodas i drank were in glass bottles, the novelty of a coke in a glass casing has somewhat worn off. But the memories, and Merritt’s, remain very much something to be reveled in.

The soda bottles in glass containers, though part of the charm of this grill, are certainly not the main attraction. The reason to go to Merritt’s is the sandwiches – and most especially, for the BLTs. Though i’ve oft contemplated going off pork, the main reason i stay a pig-eating machine is so that i can continue to bask in the wonder that is a mayonnaise and salt-n-pepper doused slab of bacon, lettuce, and tomato on sunflower bread.

the best BLT you'll ever have - i recommend trying the single on sunflower bread.

It’s unreal. Like, the crunch of the bacon and the sweetness of the mayo blend perfectly with the salt and pepper to make this amazing bite that fills you to the toes with Southern meaty goodness. (Really, though, when they say their BLTs are world famous, this is not false advertising at all!)

accurate advertising.

accurate advertising.

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The food, which is served to you in the kitchen by the drink stands, is really only paralleled by the delight of the grill itself. The building has the feel of a small home converted into a country store, and on any given Saturday you’ll find a bluegrass band pickin’ out heartbreaking tunes in the corner. That’s the thing about Merritt’s: the fixings are the real deal. You get your food from a kitchen, you eat crammed into a tiny but delightful storefront, and there is no escaping the music. Merritt’s is nothing if not authentic!

local bluegrass bands making a scene!

local bluegrass bands making a scene!

I thought it apt, in my last few days in the States before the Big Departure, to head over to Merritt’s for lunch. It was something of a clandestine moment; clearly, Merritt’s has enough longevity that it will still be around when i come home at the end of May. But it also is a place so rich in culture and memory for me, i couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. And then, like magic, some women in the corner began to do this Appalachian-style dance to the music. Clearly, i’m not as informed about Appalachian culture as i’d like to be, but i’ve often seen this sort of stomping-and-clapping and easy-to-do dancing that gives bluegrass percussion through bodily rhythm. It’s very cool. It also has (this i am fairly certain of) roots in Celtic music and Scottish dancing.

So as i sat there, snapping photos with my new iPhone for the last hometown tourist blog for a long while, and feeling oddly connected to my new home-to-be.


current jam: ‘as long as our hearts are beating’
best thing: making music.

Making Rice, Making Do.

What i lack in Southern charm, my mother makes up for with every sultry ya’ll she smooths out of her mouth like butter. When she cooks, our table is swimming in vats of her fried miracle meat masterpiece she’s fondly named “Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ Chicken.” A friend of hers recounted their initial introduction, enumerating specifically that she was wearing her perfect pearls strung around her neck. My roommate frequently remarks that my ability to curl anyone’s hair (no matter the thinness or resistance to hairspray) is my Southern Superpower. I’m always quick to share it’s a superpower i inherited from my South Carolinian mother.

But easily, one of the most Southern things i have inherited from my mother (particularities with hot curlers aside) is an abundant love for steamed white rice.

She is the master of rice. Nowhere else have i had rice that compares – not the kitchens of Mount Holyoke, not the restaurants in Uganda, nor the meals consumed at friends’ homes. My mother’s rice is the kind of food i cling to as a measure of perfection. While some rice dishes may rank on a scale of goodness, none have ever paralleled Hannah’s Second Helpin’ rice concoction.

Part of what makes her rice so delicious is the particularity with which she makes it. In the unending panicked phone calls i’ve made to her asking for cooking advice (including, once, from Uganda) she’s quick to reiterate: rice is very, very precise.

“Don’t be sloppy with your measuring cup,” she shows me in my umpteenth lesson, bending down to be on eye level with the red dashes marking ounces and liters. Often as she does this, there is a persistently misbehaving strand of brown hair (curled, of course) that she tucks primly behind an ear.”You have to make sure it is exactly 3 cups of water.”

Over the phone, she reminds me the name for the recipe: 3-2-1 Rice. Precision in name, precision in numbers. 3 cups of water, 2 cups of rice, 1 teaspoon of salt. For the longest time, i couldn’t remember whether the three was for the grains or the water. Naturally, a few pots have turned a delicate shade of brownish-black as a result of my imprecision.

Living in Massachusetts for two and a half years now has been brilliant. I’m even growing to like snow. Living there has also been a lesson in just how Southern i am – even if i’ve spent the better part of my early adulthood in denial. Sure, i don’t own anything Carhart and will never suggest a BBQ joint for lunch. But i have a strong affinity for pearl earrings and i brew my own sweet tea (à la my mother’s recipe). The longer i live in New England, the more i come to make peace with – and embrace – the roots i have in Carolina country. The salience of my differences among my peers has been a wonderful part of this path of discovery.

And in five days, i begin the next big cross-cultural expedition to Scotland.

As i frantically decide between which map of Durham, NC to bring and put on my wall, i can’t help but think about how much more i’m going to learn abroad. I intend to try Haggis, explore the bowels of Edinburgh castle, breakfast at the Elephant House Café. I hope to grow in my sense of a globalized identity and engage critically with my own assumptions.

Learning who you are while abroad is a messy process. There’s plenty of journaling and contemplating and weepy phone calls ahead. Nothing is precise about identity, i think. But that’s also the adventure of it; for every homesick day i’ll have, assuredly there will be wildly wonderful moments where i can scarcely believe the world unfolding around me. For me, the most important thing right now is to focus on making those moments meaningful by being present in the moment. 

And when the days are so messy and i feel so foreign and disembodied, i’ll go home by making a bowl of rice. In all the messiness, there is still the precision of her 3-2-1 Rice Recipe. (Hopefully, i can even find that calm without burning the pot.) And the thing is, rice is still rice even when you’re 3,700 miles away from the woman who makes it best in the whole world.

current jam: ‘toes’ zac brown band

best thing: hanging paintings.