It’s difficult to pinpoint one favorite food, especially growing up in Miami, where every day is a scent montage of culture and flavor. The tart kumquat fights walking home from school, paella drifting from a Mediterranean style house down the street or the scent of fresh sweet café con leche frothing on an abuelita’s stovetop. Of all the dishes I have ever savored from vaca frita to Ruth Chris’ filet mignon, my favorite food to eat ever was my grandmother’s fried chicken.
My grandparents moved to Miami in the 1940’s, lived on Eighth Street before it was called Calle Ocho. Maybe it was a mingling of her Georgia rearing and Miami settling that made her dishes so unique. Maybe it was because she raised me that her food seemed magical. All I know is her fried chicken was all I have ever asked for my birthday dinner wishes for 41 years.
It’s still astonishing to remember watching her food alchemy, how she could transform eggs, flour, a fairy dusting of salt and pepper, and fresh chicken pieces tossed in a brown paper Publix bag into the crispiest and juiciest chicken I’ve ever remembered tasting. I’ve tried to recreate the meal from start to finish, but it never comes out in that magical-melodic food music perfection.
It’s a Sunday June Miami afternoon. I am five years old. I’m jumping in and out of my grandmother’s backyard pool so much my fingers and toes wrinkle like golden California raisins. The air is scented with ripe mangoes and fresh cut grass. But, all I want is my grandmother’s fried chicken, homemade mashed potatoes and green peas. I can almost taste the grainy butter-creamy cornbread before it’s even done baking. “When is supper gonna be ready Grandma?” is all I keep asking. Finally, she eases me into the kitchen, sundried and dressed for cooking, one of her gingham aprons tied-too-big around me in the same fashion as hers.
She asks me to help her mash the potatoes, fresh Idaho, preferring them lumpy, which are perfect for a five-year- olds small hands. She folds in the milk and fresh unsalted butter. I add a touch of parsley for appearance and a hint of tartness on the tongue. The chicken crisps and chats in the cast iron skillet, a skillet seasoned through raising her four children for some twenty years before me. In the oven, in another cast iron skillet the fresh cornbread browns. The house is overwhelmed with a simple scent of freshness and warmth. Last to steam are the peas. What five-year-old looks forward to peas? I do. They are always just a touch al dente, a perfectly matched sensation in the mouth to contrast the creamy mashed potatoes.
Finally, the dishes all fuse and come together before being served on old china handed down to her from her mother and mother’s mother. My job is to set the table. I keep hoping she disappears just for a moment so I can sneak a piece of chicken skin crumbled on the paper towels where she drains chicken breasts, thighs, and my favorite, the wings fresh from the skillet. No such luck comes to me. I lay down the forks, knives and spoons how she taught me, forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. The cornbread is sliced, steam rising from the table where it’s set. Salt and pepper shaker, butter dish, the plates full, we commence to a food orchestration only my grandmother could create.