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There’s much we respect about Southern cooking. First, there’s the history. Second, the sense of comfort and ease with which cooks serve their creations. Third, well, the food. We invited cookbook author and Southern home cook Rebecca Lang onto the show to discuss some aspects of Southern cooking, including fried chicken, cast iron skillets, slaw, pimento cheese, and much more.
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David: Hey, Renee.
David: Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, okay?
David: So what do you think of when I say Charleston, South Carolina?
David: Gritsapalooza. For those of you at home, Gritsapalooza was an incredible three-day blowout weekend party we had at Beth Price’s home. Beth is our Director of Recipe Testing [Editor’s Note: Like today’s guest, Beth is also a “chicken” of Nathalie Dupree, as is cooking legend Virginia Willis…we’ll talk more about these “chickens” later], and so many testers just descended upon Charleston and her home. It was amazing.
Renee: It was unbelievable. So many people, so many restaurant meals, so many home-cooked meals, so many great conversations about food. So many cocktails. David, I particularly remember you not being able to handle your own signature cocktail.
David: The fatty daddy.
Renee: The fatty daddy.
David: Yep. The fatty daddy had too many fatty daddies that night.
Photo: David Leite
Renee: And that oyster roast. All right, I’m going to change the topic, he’s starting to look a little red in the face.
David: Okay. The oyster roast. Do you remember The One ate so many oysters that Beth’s husband had to keep him away because he was eating so many oysters. Oh, that was such a great time.
Angry Guy: Sir, put the oysters down.
David: So many amazing chefs and food stars also joined us. There was Nathalie Dupree and…
Renee: Hugh Acheson.
David: Yes. And do you remember that Beth and Marilee crashed Art Smith’s birthday party? Do you remember that?
Renee: Oh, I’d forgotten all about that. That’s right. Oh my God.
David: Who else was there?
Renee: Well, Rebecca Lang, Southern food authority and cookbook author.
David: Of course. Yes. And she’s here with us today to talk about all things Southern.
Renee: David, “all things Southern,” that’s a lot of things. Can you be more specific?!
David: Well, yeah, she will talk about fried chicken, right? I do want to know more about fried chicken and slaw. But the thing that I truly, truly want to know more about is pimento cheese. That was just an eye-opening experience.
Renee: Oh my god, you and your pimento cheese fetish.
David: Yes. Well, give me mayo, give me cheese, and this boy’s in heaven.
Renee: I don’t even want to go there.
David: I’m David Leite, the founder of the website Leite’s Culinaria.
Renee: I’m Renee Schettler, its editor in chief.
David: And this is Talking With My Mouth Full. Welcome to the show, Rebecca.
Renee: We’re glad you’re here.
Rebecca: Oh, thanks so much. Me, too.
Photo: Ruta Smith
Renee: So Rebecca, I’ve got to ask. In your bio, you explain that you’re a professionally trained chef, which is pretty self-explanatory. You also mention that you’re a “chicken” of Nathalie Dupree.
Renee: Can you explain that, please?
David: What is that, a chicken?
Rebecca: That could mean lots of things, right?
What is a Nathalie Dupree Chicken?
Rebecca: So Nathalie is, as you all know, the godmother of all Southern food. And so when Nathalie takes a woman in particular under her wings and really trains them to be a professional and to be a self-supporting woman and really teaches you so many life lessons, it’s not just kitchen stuff. It’s everything. You become a “chicken.”
Rebecca: And Nathalie, which may kill me for saying this, but sometimes Nathalie has trouble remembering first names. So a lot of times, if you’re in a crowd and you’re at an event and Nathalie’s signing a zillion books and she needs you to come over, she’ll just call “chicken” and all the chickens will come running. So, once you’re a chicken, you’re always a chicken. So I’m middle-aged, I should say. And I’m always a chicken, you know? And the chickens live everywhere. There’s chickens all over the country. And so if you ever meet a person who’s a chicken, they know immediately what you’re talking about.
David: So that is sort of like the Southern woman’s way of a guy saying, “Hey, babe! Hey, babe, come on over here. Hey, babe!” She’s got chicken, right?
Rebecca: She has chicken. I think “chicken” works better than “babe.” I would take that any day.
David: I think so, too. So speaking of chicken, I think this is a very appropriate segue, right, Renee?
Photo: John Lee
David: We’re going to be talking about fried chicken, Rebecca, because, of course, you have a book out on fried chicken and…
Renee: And it’s so Southern.
What is the perfect bird for making fried chicken?
David: Very Southern. We want to get your ideas, of course, on how to make the perfect fried chicken. And Renee and I were talking, we kind of think that there are three major elements to fried chicken. The three big elements are, of course, the chicken. And then the coating, which includes any kind of liquid that you’re using to soak it in. And also the oil. So why don’t we start with the chicken? What kind of chicken do you use?
Rebecca: I prefer a chicken that is, a perfect case scenario would be about three pounds. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t fry a bigger chicken. I have fried a lot bigger chickens and for some applications, bigger chickens work great. But if I’m going to fry chicken at my house on a Friday night, I’m going to use a chicken between two and a half to three pounds. And the reason I say that is because—and this is true even with every other animal, probably with ourselves as well—so the older we get, the tougher we get, the more…y’all know what I’m saying, okay?
David: Yeah. I’m a tough old bird. Okay.
Photo: John Lee
Rebecca: Yes. I think we all move in that direction. So a younger chicken is a more tender chicken. It’s also a lot easier when you’re cutting up a chicken and you want all of the same size pieces, obviously, then a young bird works better.
Renee: So on the topic of equal-sized pieces, I saw recipe one time that was a game-changer for me with regard to fried chicken. It had you cut the bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts in half crosswise, and it just ensured a quicker cooking time because sometimes they’re mammoth these days.
David: They are.
Renee: And so what that does is it effectively gave you more surface area and less possibility for that exterior to be scorched and the interior to be raw. Right? But I’m just curious if you have a different way around that.
Rebecca: I think that is the best-case scenario when you have a huge chicken breast. And so you don’t ever want to fry eight pieces of chicken, which is what the normal, you would cut a bird into, and have a little thigh and a little drumstick and this gigantic chicken breast, which happens all the time if you buy…
Rebecca: Right. Right. And if you buy a package of chicken with all of the chicken cut up in a package, that’s when you end up with those huge chicken breasts. And that’s because most of those pieces in that package, or all of them, came from eight different birds. So you may have a thigh from a bird that was little and you got a breast from a bird that was huge.
Renee: That’s interesting.
Rebecca: And so one reason to prevent that is to take your own chicken, a whole chicken, and cut the chicken up yourself. And then you have much more proportionate pieces, if that makes sense.
Photo: John Lee
David: Mmhmm, it does. I don’t know where I can find two and a half pound or three-pound chickens around here. They just don’t exist. Where are you finding these?
Rebecca: So in the South, that’s a very common size and we call them a fryer chicken. So if you went to the grocery store in the South and looked for a fryer, it’s going to be a little chicken. And what we have here, we have a lot of, obviously, poultry production in the South. And we have a local company, Springer Mountain Farms that probably ships up your way as well. But they always have small, good chickens, but you have to look for a young chicken and maybe they’re labeled differently where you are, and they may not be a fryer chicken, but as you move into bigger chickens, you get labels like a broiler chicken, and you get those older, angry birds. So you want to look for the little ones.
David: Angry birds! Very funny.
Rebecca: Angry birds. If you can’t find the little bitty guys, then just go ahead and fry nothing but drumsticks or fry nothing but thighs, which is my favorite cut of chicken by far.
David: Mine too. And that’s a great tip. You know why? Because the average size up here is between four and five pounds. We’ve had some five and a half pounds.
Rebecca: Oh, that’s like a turkey!
David: That’s right, it’s like a small cat. You know?
Rebecca: Yeah. It is.
David: And so it’s hard to find two and a half pound–
Renee: I can’t get that visual out of my mind. Okay. So enough about chicken, I don’t want David to go on. What about the coating? Right? Do you brine it first? Do you flour it? Do you batter it?
Rebecca: I have done all of the above countless times. And really, if you want to get down to the heart of the tradition in the South, it’s buttermilk brining. And the reason that we soak it in buttermilk is because buttermilk was very common. Everybody had buttermilk. And the buttermilk actually has enough acid in it that it is breaking down some of those tough proteins in the chicken that not only makes the chicken more moist, but it makes the chicken a lot more tender at the same time.
To brine or not to brine?
Rebecca: But, saying that, the world was frying chicken long before we fried chicken in the South. So there are other countries that fry chicken that have never thought about putting it in buttermilk. So a lot of times you’ll see in other places around the world where they’re using just salt, and strangely enough, my grandmother, who I learned almost everything I know about a lot of things from, used only salt.
Rebecca: She didn’t use water. She didn’t brine the chicken in a traditional sense, but she had her chicken, her little happy chicken, and she sprinkled it with salt and then left it sitting in the fridge overnight. And that was it.
David: My grandmother did the same thing, Rebecca. She would coat the chicken in salt. She didn’t fry chicken traditionally the way it’s done in the South, she would make other dishes, but she definitely would coat it in salt.
Rebecca: And you know, salt is kind of a magic ingredient. And I think our grandmothers knew that. So when I started working on the fried chicken book, I was just amazed at all the ways, even within the South, that chicken is fried that I didn’t realize because I was so engrossed in the way that my grandmother fried chicken. It was really a fascinating learning process.
Rebecca: And she only did, as I said, the salt. It came out of, literally from the salt, went straight into a light coating of flour, and it is an all-purpose Southern flour, and then straight into melted shortening in a skillet.
What coating do you use for fried chicken?
David: All it was was flour and salt and pepper. Is that what you’re saying? The coating?
Rebecca: That’s what I’m saying. And it’s so funny because no matter what the fried chicken is, you may not find that fried chicken to be amazing, but I find it to be amazing because that’s the fried chicken that is in my soul. I grew up with that chicken.
David: Of course. You grew up on it.
Rebecca: And it happens so much with fried chicken. Nobody can say, “Oh, I tried a fried chicken at so-and-so restaurant, it’s the best I’ve ever had,” because if you grew up in the South, the best fried chicken you ever had was either at your mom’s stove or at your grandmother’s stove.
Renee: I love that.
Rebecca: And it just always seems to work that way.
What about a buttermilk soak?
David: So just to go through, you have a buttermilk brine, is there any salt in that buttermilk?
Rebecca: Well, when I use buttermilk at my house, I do salt the buttermilk. I think salting in layers is essential. It doesn’t matter what you’re cooking, salt is your friend, which the cardiologist is going to not like to hear that, but I do put salt in the buttermilk and I think really using whole buttermilk, I don’t know what you all can find where you are, but for us in the South finding whole buttermilk, doesn’t make any sense, but it’s difficult. So I actually buy whole buttermilk only at one grocery store that I can find it. And it’s shipped down here from Pennsylvania.
Rebecca: So I don’t really care for light buttermilk. It’s really kind of watery and thin, and a thick buttermilk should have personality and come out and talk to you. I mean, you know when you have whole buttermilk.
Renee: What brand is this buttermilk?
Rebecca: It is called Marburger, and it comes in a perfectly sized little jug. And this is a lesson I learned from Nathalie Dupree, which may stress y’all out, but buttermilk will not go bad. So if you looked in my refrigerator right now, then you would see buttermilk that’s dated like maybe early April, late March. And it’s totally fine.
Renee: Readers, we are not recommending that you do this at home. We’re just sharing our own personal experience of our guest. We take no responsibility whatsoever.
David: You’re taking your health in your own hands, listeners.
Renee: So now that we’ve got the buttermilk brine, we’ve got the simple flour, salt, pepper coating, right? We’re about to fry. I’m interested in the kind of oil you use, but I’m also kind of interested in how much oil and in what type of vessel. Do you use a skillet, do you use a much deeper-sided pot to prevent spatters? Take us through the process, please.
Rebecca: So when I wrote the book, I started out believing with every bone in my body that skillet-fried chicken was really the only way to go. And that’s how my grandmother cooked her chicken. I was raised on skillet chicken. I just thought you were kind of selling out if you deep-fried.
Rebecca: So over the process of writing this book, I really fell in love with deep frying. I find it to be massively easier than skillet frying. You don’t have to pay as much attention to it, within reason. And it’s so much easier to control how the chicken browns. And I say that because when you fry in a skillet, you have to really stand there and turn the chicken. You’ll easily get too brown on one side and not be brown enough on the other. And when you had that little tiny dark spot from the chicken when it’s frying in a skillet where it sat on the bottom just a quarter of a minute too long…
David: Too long, yep.
Rebecca: Too long. I learned this from my grandmother, that’s called “the kiss.” So if that chicken sat on the bottom of the cast iron skillet for a little bit too long, it has that little spot, but you don’t have any kisses when you’re deep frying. So there’s no…
David: Well, if that’s called “a kiss,” I have to say that when I fry chicken, mine have hickies. They’re just loaded with hickies because I always do them in a skillet. This is really great to know.
Rebecca: Okay. I’m picturing your old angry birds covered in hickies at this point.
Renee: That paints quite the visual.
Rebecca: It does.
Renee: I’m curious, Rebecca, an old Southern chef once conveyed to a reporter I know that when chicken is done, the oil, the sound of the oil bubbling and burbling in the skillet or the pot takes on a different character. And after I heard that, I kind of experimented with that, right? And I thought I could hear it, but I don’t know if it’s maybe my imagination. I’m just curious if you have any experience with that.
Rebecca: That is true. But I think you would have to have fried hundreds of chickens, which I have, to be able to pick up on that. The reason that there’s this infinitely tiny difference in the oil from the beginning to the end, as far as what you can hear, is because so much moisture has already come out into the oil and is gone. So you’re hearing that difference. It’s really a science experiment of when the chicken went in and you hear that immediate sizzle and it’s searing off the outside as to what you hear on the backend. I think for an average person frying chicken, that would be almost impossible to detect.
Renee: Sort of an elusive fried chicken whisperer sort of thing.
Rebecca: Right, maybe that’s the level everybody should try to get to is to let your ear notify you your chicken is ready to come out.
David: So the Rebecca Lang method of frying chicken is you have a salted brine that you put the chicken in for how long?
David: Overnight. Then it goes into a flour, salt, and pepper coating. And then it goes into a deep fryer, which you use shortening, right?
Rebecca: When I’m deep frying, I actually use, most of the time, canola oil.
David: Canola oil. Well, that is a very simple process. I think I’m going to start changing up how I do fried chicken, because as I said, my chicken is loaded with hickeys. I’m going to try this version.
Renee: We can’t have that. Okay. Now that we’ve got our perfect fried chicken, what about the sides? Right? What about the slaw? Rebecca, we’ve got two of your recipes on our site, a South Carolina slaw and a lime slaw. I know that’s kind of classic combination, but why do you think that is?
Rebecca: I think with a slaw, it’s normally tangy and it’s kind of that perfect marriage of something tangy and crunchy and sometimes a little bit sweet against this chicken that’s so salty. It’s just like they were made to go together. It’s a perfect marriage.
Renee: Yeah. I like it. Balances one another out. So of course there’s a million and one slaws, just like there are fried chickens, but in terms of a favorite, are you more of a creamy coleslaw type of gal? Or do you like the tart acidic vinegary sugary type of slaw?
Rebecca: I’m the opposite of a creamy coleslaw person. I do not like creamy coleslaw. I think that a really acidic coleslaw is much more user friendly. I think it tastes better. It smells better. It is better all around. So I kind of throw out the mayonnaise coming into slaw. I do, on my lime slaw, I use just a tiny bit of mayonnaise, but in general, I stay with a fresh, bright slaw, and you all know when slaw sits and people take it places, which they do in the South a lot, it does not want to hang out long. It does not like that. So when you use more acid in your slaw to brighten it up, it can travel with you. It’s easy to take along. It’s easy to go somewhere and get along with other foods, much better than creamy slaws.
David: See, I’m a classic creamy cole slaw kind of guy. I just like long strands of the cabbage. I don’t like it all chopped up. And I like it very creamy. That’s just me.
Rebecca: I think a lot of people do. I think that’s not unusual. And I used to be a creamy person and then I kind of switched over.
David: Rebecca, whether creamy or not creamy, what are some tips for making a great coleslaw?
Rebecca: Starting with completely fresh cabbage. Never buy cabbage that has been pre-sliced and put in a package. And then starting, I love to have fresh herbs. I love to have citrus, just like you would think of making a great salad, apply that to a slaw.
Renee: Very nice. And how long can you keep it? You mentioned that they don’t travel well in the South, but can you keep it in the fridge for up to several hours or even overnight?
Rebecca: Not overnight. You could keep it for several hours. When I serve slow when I have people over, I do all the prep and I combine all the vegetables and make my dressing and hold it separately. And then I toss it together right before people come over.
David: So you don’t want to have that slight softening of the cabbage and the vegetables in it, right?
Rebecca: I don’t like the softening. No, I’m on the opposite team as you. I’m sorry.
David: Oh, you are. I’ve always been on the opposite team of most people, by the way, for many reasons. But I do like when it softens, I do, I just love to put it on sandwiches and all kinds of things, but I do like it when it softens.
Renee: I’m the same with David, actually, or at least midway between the two of you. Right? A little bit of textural contrast, but to each your own, that’s why we have so many recipes on the site.
David: Exactly. So Rebecca, the last thing I want to talk about, and I know this is very cliche, but as a Southerner, could you please tell us what is so beguiling about pimento cheese? And I ask because I had never had pimento cheese until the time that I met you down at Beth Price’s at that wonderful Gritsapalooza event that we had for Leite’s Culinaria. And I really thought, “Oh God, pimento cheese.” I tasted it, and I went wild for it. I went so wild for it that she had a container in the refrigerator that I went back the next morning and for breakfast, I ate half the container.
Renee: I remember that.
Renee: I was there. By the spoonful.
David: Yes, you were. Everyone was appalled. What is it about pimento cheese that is so beguiling?
Rebecca: I think it’s so comforting. You know, pimento cheese is something that I come back to if I’ve had a great day, if I’ve had a terrible day, if I have a picnic, if I have an Easter lunch, there is pimento cheese. And it’s something that we all grew up with, you all were not that fortunate to have pimento cheese three times a week like we were, but it’s a very basic staple, but there are a few rules of the South that you have to remember, and this may not be the case for you all. But, so when I was growing up, there was pimento cheese for sale in the grocery store. The pimento cheese was literally fluorescent, glowing orange, like it had been radiated.
Renee: Well put.
Rebecca: And so you knew, yeah, not to judge people in the grocery store, but you knew even as a kid, I knew if somebody bought that, they have not had real pimento cheese, or they wouldn’t buy that. So people that grew up eating the pimento cheese, bless them, in the grocery store they have to be converted into regular pimento cheese people. I say this because I’ve met people all over when I’m teaching classes all over the South and they’re like, “Oh, we had pimento cheese growing up. We don’t like it.”
Rebecca: They taste it, just like you, David, they’ll taste pimento cheese for the first time that’s a good pimento cheese and they’re blown away, because it’s so simple. I mean, it’s up to three things, it can be 20 things, but I think it’s something that grew up with all of us in the South. And it was known first, really came across, during the Depression. It was a food that was economical to eat and economical to make. And pimentos were grown in Georgia and canned in Georgia. So pimento cheese just spread about, and we can’t get enough of it to this day. It’s everywhere.
Photo: David Leite
Renee: Well, so tell us, how do you make this pimento cheese of yours? What type of cheese do you start with?
Rebecca: So I have made a zillion pimento cheeses, and I like to do it different all the time, but my basic go-to pimento cheese that lives in my heart is nothing but extra sharp Cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, a little bit of grated onion…
David: With Duke’s, I’m assuming.
Rebecca: This might be the version you had. Yes. Duke’s all the way. And then my mom always put a touch, like a little tiny splash, of Worcestershire. And I like to have that in it just because that gives it a little bit more depth to it, and a little salt and pepper and pimentos. That’s it.
David: And that’s it.
Rebecca: So it’s an easy thing to make. I’ll whip it up. It’s great. Even if you wanted to put it on some toast in the morning with a fried egg, it’s awesome. But I made it so many different ways. Yeah. Everybody has their different pimento cheese. It’s very personal. So people in the South know who makes good pimento cheese and who makes bad pimento cheese. So you know where…
Renee: Oh, now this is interesting.
Rebecca: You know the pimento cheese that you want to eat and the ones that you aren’t in the mood for today.
Renee: You’re hoping the dog is around so you can stealthily…
David: Give it to the dog.
Renee: …backhand it, yeah.
David: Now, I have made pimento cheese hand pies. Have you ever had those?
Rebecca: I have not, but I think I would love them.
David: Doesn’t that sound good?
Rebecca: That sounds very good.
Renee: Sounds amazing. I think I’ve seen on Southern menus, like, grilled ramps and grilled scallions with pimento cheese kind of melting on top. That’s always intrigued me.
Rebecca: I think melting pimento cheese is almost better than pimento cheese that’s not melting. I’ve even done cheeseburgers that are filled and stuffed with pimento cheese. So after they’re grilled and you bite into it…yeah. It’s great.
David: Oh, wow. That’s wonderful.
Renee: So one last question for you, Rebecca, before you go. I’ve heard about this habit you have of rescuing and adopting cast iron skillets.
David: Yeah, what is that about?
Rebecca: So I find a cast iron skillet to be incredibly personal. I have my grandmother’s cast iron skillet that she fried the chicken that we’ve talked about in. And you know, it’s so black and shiny I could check my makeup in it, and I would never, ever, ever let go of that. So if I see at a yard sale or at an estate sale a cast iron skillet that is being given away by somebody’s family, number one, that person deserves to come back and return the favor to the family member that put it out for sale. But second, it needs a home and it needs somebody to love it because they’re made to be loved and they are such a workhorse. Most people that use a cast iron skillet work it to death, and that’s what it’s made for. So I never want them to be unloved. And so they come in my kitchen and they start frying chicken. And they’re all happy there.
Renee: I think maybe your next book should be about cast iron skillets. Or at least your next poem.
Rebecca: That’s a good point. It should.
David: Rebecca, thank you so much for coming on the show. We loved talking fried chicken and slaw and pimento cheese with you.
Renee: It was really a pleasure. Thank you.
Rebecca: I had a great time, you all. Thank you.
David: Rebecca Lang is a recipe developer and author of seven books on Southern cooking. She is a ninth-generation Southerner, so don’t you go doubting her pedigree. You can find Rebecca at rebeccalangcooks.com and on Twitter and Instagram @RebeccaLangCook.
Upcoming Recipes On LC
Hungry Diner: I say, young lady, can I have a menu and big ole glass of sweet tea?
David: Renee, I’m sure that with having Rebecca on the show, you must have some marvelous Southern specialties lined up for next week.
Photo: Leo Gong
Renee: I do. We take a definite Southern bent this week. We take a little leisurely approach to things since it is summer. We’ve got a homemade Sriracha sauce that you let ferment for quite some time, but let me tell you, it’s worth the patience. We also give you a recipe, one of our finest, for raspberry jam. So simple, just two ingredients, berries and sugar.
Renee: We take it outside, long and slow, barbecue beef ribs. And then for those of you who are stuck inside, pull out your slow cooker. We’ve got a pulled pork recipe that you will never guess wasn’t outside on the smoker from dawn till dusk.
David: Oh, that’s great.
Photo: Time, Inc.
Renee: For dessert, a twist on a classic. Blueberry hand pies. We take the filling that you’re accustomed to, but we have you wrap it within individual portions of pastry, and then you deep fry it until it’s crisp and flaky on the outside, molten on the inside.
David: So this might be the very first time that I thank the Lord above that he has blessed me with very large hands and you know what that means, don’t you, Renee? Big hands? Lots of hand pies.
Renee: But who’s counting?
David: This podcast is produced by Overt Studios, and our producer is the good old boy, Adam Clairmont. You can reach Adam and Overt Studios at overitstudios.com. Remember to subscribe to Talking With My Mouth Full on your favorite platform and listen to us wherever you go. And if you like what you hear and want to support us, leave a review and rating on iTunes. Chow!