Cooking Project Themes:
Food, Family, and Ethnicity
Food and the Community
My Mom is My Encyclopedia For Food
My mother is a hard working woman. She is kind, generous, and holds a deep devotion to her family and her food. Everyday she is in the kitchen, making the family dinner, trying out a new recipe, or simply reading every page of a recently acquired cookbook. The kitchen is my mother’s niche, it’s her place to be calm, to be creative and focused; its a space to formulate her love and generosity to our family and our community. My mother frequently brings dinner plates to our aging and elderly neighbours, makes enchiladas for any large community fundraiser, and almost always makes people their favorite dessert for their birthdays. She is well known in town for having the best dinner parties with an abundance of food, wine, stories, and laughter. She uses this fried chicken recipe to make people really feel at home. It’s a cozy and inviting space to have fun and share your feelings with her, for she assumes all motherly responsibilities to anyone who steps through her door. When out of town relatives or newly made friends are over for dinner she likes to make traditional soul food like fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans (because my momma thinks okra is too slimy to eat). When people eat my mother’s food, she feels proud by the silence that comes with the first bite and she giggles as the people around the table begin to moan and groan at the delicious fattiness of the dish.
My mother acquired this family recipe from an old boyfriend named Will, who my mother assures me that this past lover happened way before I came along. Will was an African American man who was born and raised in Tennessee who had an enthusiasm about food as well. After some time together, my mother traveled to the deep South to visit Will’s family who lived on an old plantation in the “middle of nowhere” Tennessee. My plump petite white mother was embraced by the women of this family and Will’s mother, sisters, and aunts decided that they needed to teach this funny white lady from California how to make homemade Southern fried chicken. Fried chicken exists in the United States in so many varieties and variations such as, Serbian, Korean, Italian, Vietnamese, and Latin deviations of simple fried chicken. There are several origins of fried chicken depending upon its geographic basis but has become a trademark dish within two overlapping traditions both in Southern cuisine and soul foods. As in this example of Will’s family in Tennessee, there are “inextricable roots in plantation culture and the brutal realities of American chattel slavery, the foodways associated with the American South remind us that one way to discover what happened to African culinary traditions in the American South is by examining so-called southern (white) culture” (McWilliams, 2012). Southern food, specifically fried chicken, developed out of the convoluted and prejudiced interactions between slaves and their owners with food being a symbol of defiance and deception, as well as creativity and generosity. Perhaps this struggle is one of the most important historical ingredients for fried chicken, where “the foods that delight and fascinate us most often come from friction between cultures, with each group contributing and adapting to the tastes and traditions of the others” (McWilliams, 2012). Fried chicken remains an authentic dish for family dinners across the country and with such a wide variety everyone can find their favorite. Home cooked fried chicken can trigger strong emotions of comfort and familial relationships.
My mom is like my encyclopedia for food. Although she has had professional training from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles, she has an inherent passion for flavor, in and out of the kitchen. My mother has worked for nearly 50 years in the restaurant and food industry as a waitress, bartender, prep cook, line cook, and pastry chef. Throughout my life, our family has experienced economic security and severe financial hardships but through it all, my mother’s perseverance and strength keep our family moving in a positive direction. In the commercial kitchen and professional restaurant industry, many assume that women hold positions of power due to the extended understanding of women’s work in the home. Yet, women are less likely than men to work as cooks in restaurants and very rare for women to hold prestigious positions of power in regards to decision making in the food industry.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor statistics from a study in 2005, “women comprise less than 40 percent of paid cooks and less than 20 percent of head cooks and chefs” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005a). My mother experienced both social and economic discrimination within the food industry, where her wages were significantly less than the earnings of her males counterparts, this being a phenomena experienced by all women across industries. Head chefs and cooks whose jobs are dominated by men hold more political and social privileges than women in cooking occupations who is at a greater position of vulnerability due to their gender and/or sexuality. Women, like my mother, are a huge supporting basis for restaurants’ labor base where, “women comprise 77% of the 6.5 million workers in food preparation and service; 68 percent of food servers and 78 percent of restaurant greeters are women” (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005b).
Although my mother was subject to acts of bias and harassment while working in the food industry, due to her race and class, her privileges created a pathway for her to get a firm grip within the kitchen. She was licensed and qualified and unlike many other woman, was eventually able to establish her career as a pastry chef with the capacity to further her livelihood.
The complexities behind a woman’s work and life, her struggles and strengths, can not be categorized within a single feminist theory. “These intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, and class define who does what work in the food systems and under what conditions” (Allen & Sachs, 2011). My mother is grateful for her ability to work within a professional setting doing tasks she loves to do. She hopes that more women in the future can attain their goals in whatever field they so choose without the discrimination and inequalities of past generations. The implicit American heteronormative structure of the home kept my mother’s story intrinsically tied to food and her sexuality. Our home and community was one of millions around the world where gendered constructs were so imbedded with the ideological notion of women’s subordination in the home, specifically as it relates to food. Growing up my mother fed me the best homemade breakfasts, lunch, dinners, and desserts a person could ever desire. I certainly took this food for granted while I was home, and it wasn’t until I moved away for college that I finally understood the unacknowledged labor my mother had always did to support me. Most of my fondest memories of my mother are her in the kitchen, and I think this is why I love to cook. It connects me to the women in my life, mostly my mother, who most influenced and inspired me to the courageous and generous woman I am today.
Tennessee Fried Chicken
24 cups of water
1 cup coarse salt
1⁄2 cup plus 1 tablespoon honey
18 bay leaves
30 unpeeled garlic cloves smashed
3 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
5 large rosemary sprigs
1 1⁄2 bunches fresh thyme sprigs
1 1⁄2 bunches fresh italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely grated garlic lemon peel 3⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
3 – 3 1⁄2 pound chickens
6 cups all purpose flour
5 tablespoons garlic powder
5 tablespoons onion powder
4 teaspoons paprika
4 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper 4 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
6 cups buttermilk
12 cups peanut oil for deep frying
Bring all ingredients except chickens to a boil in a large pot. Boil 1 minute stirring to dissolve salt. Cool completely. Chill brine til cold, about 2 hours. Rinse chickens; add to brine, pressing to submerge. Chill at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours, drain chickens and pat dry removing any herbs or spices sticking to skin. Cut chickens into 8 pieces.
Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Mix first 6 ingredients and 4 teaspoons of salt in a large bowl. Place buttermilk in another large bowl. Dip each chicken piece in flour mixture to coat; shake off excess. Dip pieces into buttermilk, coating completely, then dip into flour mixture again, coating thickly (do not shake off excess). Place chicken on prepared sheets. Let stand 1 to 2 hours to dry. Pour peanut oil into heavy pot. Attach deep fry thermometer to side of pot and heat oil over medium high heat to 320 to 330 degrees (fahrenheit). Working in batches of 4 pieces at a time, add leg and thigh pieces to oil (use splatter screen to protect yourself from hot oil). Adjust heat as needed to maintain temperature. Fry until cooked through and skin is a deep golden brown, turning once with wooden spoons (to prevent crust from breaking), about 13 minutes. Using wooden spoons, transfer chicken to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Add breast pieces to oil and fry until cooked through and skin is a deep golden brown, turning once, about 7 minutes. Transfer chicken to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with coarse salt.Transfer chicken to platers. Serve immediately or let stand up to two hours and serve at room temperature.
Allen, Patricia & Carolyn Sachs. (2011). Women and Food Chains: The Gendered Politics of Food. In C. Counihan & P.A.Williams-Forson, Taking Food Public : Redefining Foodways in a Changing World. New York: Routledge
McWilliams, Mark. (2012) The Story Behind the Dish : Fifty Classic American Foods, ABC-CLIO, LLC. ProQuest Ebook Central, (pgs.87-92). http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usflibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=882645.
U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2005). Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2004. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor. http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2004.pdf
U.S. Department of Labor. (2005). “Income and Poverty, Chapter 3 in National Agricultural Workers Survey”. http://www.dol.gov/asp/programs/agworker/report/ch3.htm