Mama was not a very good cook.
She was an inspirational schoolteacher, the kind to whom people sent tear-wrinkled letters of gratitude, years after they left her classroom. She pulled off the highway whenever I asked for a pecan malt at Stuckey’s. At Easter she put out enough candy to hyperize six classes of fourth-graders. There was no end of things to make you love Mama.
But Mama was not a very good cook.
She produced the obligatory ’60s and ’70s Jell-O molds, and nobody got sick. She cut the crusts off my pimiento cheese sandwiches because I liked them that way. Her cakes came out of the pan in one piece more often than not. In the kitchen, she got by.
Mama’s problem was that she considered Swiss steak her specialty, and my brother and dad and I never figured out how to get her to stop making it. She made it in Houston, and after we moved to San Antonio she made it there, too.
Swiss steak is not inherently evil. At Luby’s it’s a perfectly fine entree if you don’t want the baked ham or stuffed flounder. But Mama’s Swiss steak was a challenge. Unburdened by flavor or masticability, its appearance brought to mind a disassembled Bass Weejun, flattened like a run-over Houston toad and smeared with brown-tinted library paste.
Mama’s Swiss steak was one of those things dietitians call “calorically negative,” meaning you burn more calories by chewing them than you take in by consuming them. Raw celery is calorically negative and so was Mama’s Swiss steak. Finishing a plate of it on a Thursday night took you all the way through “The Flip Wilson Show” and halfway into “Ironside.”
But to the enduring fortune of us men in the family, Mama could fry chicken like a champ. Her chicken had an amnesia-inducing quality to the extent that as we ate it we forgot for a while about the Swiss steak.
For fried chicken to work, its various components — each an independent exercise in art, heart and skill — must work. Perfect crust doesn’t excuse blandness. Exquisite seasoning doesn’t make up for gumminess. The road to bad fried chicken is fraught with good intentions.
Mama had the seasoning down — just salt and pepper. And she didn’t bother with brining, soaking or double dipping. A quick milk bath and a roll in flour was it. She used solid Crisco for frying.
I’ve tried many times over the years to recreate Mama’s fried chicken — to fry chicken well at all, in fact — but I don’t have the knack. I was blessed with biscuit fingers and pastry hands, neither of which sounds appealing in terms of physical appearance but both of which make for good eats. Alas, the chicken gene passed me by.
Once, in the 1980s, after I had moved away from home but still wanting my culinary connections, we spent an hour on the phone, me in Chicago and Mama in San Antonio. She talked me through the entire process from refrigerator to flour to skillet, but it was a no-go. My Chicago chicken was dullsville. I still take occasional stabs at fried chicken, always with Mama’s in mind, but it’s tilting at windmills.
Mama wasn’t a very good cook but she could fry chicken. I have to give her that.