Fry Me a River

Fried chicken is one of those all-American dishes, like apple pie, barbecue and Hostess Twinkies. But does it represent an America of another time? While I was writing my review of The Overlook and its deep-fried chicken (see review, page xx), I realized that, as much as I like to eat fried food, I don’t really order it that often, because even at my most wildly self-indulgent, I know what’s healthy and what isn’t.

Like Mississippi-based food writer John T. Edge, author of the upcoming Fried Chicken: An American Story (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, $18.95), I think of fried chicken as celebratory food, a dish you eat on special occasions instead of once a week. It’s like foie gras, chocolate-covered strawberries and funnel cakes.

Even though the current obsession with low-carb and low-fat foods has tarnished the reputation of most fried foods, when Edge was researching his book — which includes several Kansas City venues, such as Stroud’s and Opal’s — he discovered that most of the famous chicken restaurants around the country aren’t crying foul. “They’re doing quite well,” Edge tells me. “It’s a testament to the enduring importance of fried chicken.”

On the flip side, when I asked Laura O’Roarke of the Culinary Center of Kansas City if the center had ever offered a class in frying chicken, she said it had been several years. “Maybe if we called it ‘An Evening of Southern Cooking’ and offered other dishes, we might have some interest,” O’Roarke says. “But the whole low-carb, low-fat publicity has pushed fried chicken out of favor. It carries a bad rep.”

“The secret of really good fried chicken is a particularly dirty word,” whispers cookbook author Lou Jane Temple. “And that word is lard.”

Temple says that back when her midtown restaurant Café Lulu was in business, she hired actor Mark Manning to pan-fry chicken Nebraska-style on Sunday nights. “I suspect he used half cooking oil, half lard,” she says.

“The original recipe called for lard,” Manning confesses, “but I used corn oil.”

The other day, I blushed as I ordered fried fish and chips for lunch at City Tavern (101 West 22nd Street), though the light and crispy hake fillets were dusted in rice flour and fried in soybean oil, not lard.

“Do very many people order this for lunch?” I asked server Justin Romick.

“Are you kidding?” he answered, laughing. “It’s our number-one lunch seller!”

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