For a fried chicken supper at this past weekend’s Southern Foodways Alliance’s 16th annual symposium, organizers divvied up the most popular parts of the bird amongst cooks representing three of the region’s most iconic skillet-borne chickens. Sarah O’Kelley of The Glass Onion drew thighs.
“(Director) John T (Edge) said ‘you won the chicken lottery’,” recalls O’Kelley, who spent more than six hours in an Oxford, Miss. restaurant kitchen frying up 500 dark meat segments.
For the meal celebrating the program’s theme of “Women at Work,” O’Kelley was invited to prepare fried chicken in homage to Martha Lou Gasden’s rendition of the dish. Her chicken compatriots in the service tent, where symposium-goers clutching illustrated cardboard buckets thronged the tables, were Andre Prince Jeffries of Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville and Kerry Seaton-Stewart of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans.
“I definitely felt a little bit of pressure,” O’Kelley says. “We do a great job with chicken, but we make it once a week. They do chicken all day, every day.”
O’Kelley this summer spent a few hours with Gasden, observing her technique. At The Glass Onion, which serves fried chicken every Tuesday night, the chicken’s brined twice: Once in salt water and once in buttermilk. Martha Lou’s, by contrast, sticks with a basic dry brine.
“It’s not nearly as complicated as our process, but it’s similar in some ways,” says O’Kelley, who scaled back the seasonings she’d typically use, in deference to Gasden’s reliance on salt and black pepper, and substituted whole milk for buttermilk so the chicken’s sweetness wouldn’t be distorted by tang.
Otherwise, O’Kelley didn’t adjust her methodology: “I wanted to make it so it wasn’t straight-up our chicken, but I trust our process,” she says of the preparation she adapted from a 12-year old Cooks Illustrated recipe. “It’s all kind of a pain, but it really works.”
The Glass Onion’s Jenna Powell, a cook who’d never before participated in a festival event, accompanied O’Kelley to Oxford.
“They really wanted it to be as all-girl as possible,” O’Kelley says. “So my partner Chris (Stewart) is great, but he’s not a girl.”
The rigors of frying kept O’Kelley and Powell in the kitchen for much of the symposium, but O’Kelley says they appreciated the lectures they were able to observe.
“As a woman in this industry, it was very inspiring and affirming of why we’re in this business,” O’Kelley says.