From Breasts to Balls
A recovering food writer and a photographer head south in search of women chefs with stories to tell, traditions to share, and meals to cook
Day 5: Atlanta
The early bird catches the fry.
Today, we have back-to-back interviews set up and the first is with a woman whose fried chicken people travel for. Taught by the most revered advocate for Southern food, Edna Lewis, Chef Number Five has been dropping breasts, wings, and drums into hot fat at a certain restaurant since 1998. Now she only performs her poultry duties one night a week. She graciously agreed to make an exception for us this morning, and although it might not be a normal breakfast by most standards, we’re chomping at the crispy bit for an early-day bite of her specialty.
As much as I can’t wait for my teeth to snap the flesh of what I already know will be the best fried chicken of my life (100% certain), I’m more excited about meeting its maker, hearing her story, and gleaning her wisdom. She has come prepared with a bag full of required reading, photos of her mentor and close friend Edna, and the latter’s handwritten recipe for pie crust, given to our chicken tutor’s son, whom “Miss Lewis” taught to bake.
In an attempt not to disclose too much of the how-to, I’m going to walk you through the fry-up process pictorially. Ready? (Note: The bird is brined, then buttermilk-soaked beforehand.)
After my first bite, I am still 100% certain that, yes, this is the best fried chicken of my life. The search for that particular holy savory grail is over.
Chef Number Five tries to give us the entire bird batch, but we aren’t having that. We insist she share it with the restaurant staff, and agree to accept a single (full) box. She agrees to this compromise, as long as we also take something called “hot milk cake.” We all know I’m not one to put up a fight when I’m being offered cake, and since this one has been sitting in the oven while we’ve been indoctrinated into the Tao of bird crispification, its heavenly, vanilla-scented wafts have already weakened my defenses.
In hindsight, having tasted this dense dessert that seems like a more streamlined, concentrated form of bread pudding, I wish we’d asked for a hot milk cake lesson while we were at it. Next time.
And it’s onto our second victim — after a brief detour to Star Provisions, a food hall, of sorts, created by chefs Anne Quatrano and Cliff Harrison, the spouses behind a fleet of Atlanta restaurants. It comprises a coffee cart (the excuse I made for going), a hybrid bakery-sandwich shop with jars of colorful candy and specialty bars made from the newest generation of Southern chocolatiers, a cheese counter (you’d be amazed how many local cheesemakers there are in this region), butcher, selection of housewares, and, next door, a small shed that contains stylish gardening supplies. It’s full of good taste — aesthetic and otherwise. When I tell the chicken expert we are headed there for a shot of caffeine, she speaks on behalf of the brown sugar shortbread cookie. I stand in a long line of lunch orderers to purchase a single shortbread, and I’m glad I do. The slight, sugar-powdered, plain-looking rectangle crumbles like wet sand, or, actually, brown sugar, which is also, aptly, the flavor that permeates the whole.
Now, we’re ready to focus on Chef Number Six, who owns a bakery-sandwich shop of her own. Although sweet potato cheesecake has become her national claim to fame, the Atlanta native trained at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York (that is, the Culinary Institute of America, a different kind of intelligence agency) can and does happily cook outside the cake box.
Right now, she can’t stop eating her blueberry chess pie (I had a hard time cutting myself off, too). My eyes, and nose, kept going back to the thick slabs of simple pound cake on the counter. I couldn’t leave it behind, especially after the chef told us that she can’t keep it in the shop or at the farmers’ market. Sure, it’s “just” butter, eggs, flour, and sugar, but for whatever reason (its creator will say the difference is the love she puts into it), this slice (which, on its own, could weigh a bound) is rocking my pastry-filled world. The crust is crumbly, crunchy and golden (I picked an end piece, because I like as much crust as I can get), and the cake is tightly butter-bound.
It’s now close to 5PM. In between mouthfuls of pound cake, Melanie and I pat ourselves on the back for completing a double-header. We return to our lodgings to get some work done. Two hours later, I need a break and a non-food-related reward. There is a gorgeous rooftop pool at our hotel, and, guided by fate, perhaps, I’ve packed a bathing suit (along with my scented candle, numerous tangled headphones, box of Band-Aids, and other “necessaries”). I forget that it’s Friday happy hour. Up on the roof, people are gathered around the pool, having drinks with friends. It’s a scene, and no one is swimming. Standing there, in my terry robe, with my sneakers on, I feel more than a little foolish and out of place, but I’m not wasting this opportunity. For the next forty minutes, I am in a state of pure, relaxed bliss. Swimming is my meditation. My mind goes calm, and all I think about is touching the wall, and gliding through the water as I go back and forth. In spite of all the wonderful people I’ll meet, food I’ll eat, and landscape I’ll see, this will prove my favorite moment of the trip.
Doing laps makes you hungry, which is exactly what you want to be when you show up at Linton Hopkins’s restaurant Holeman & Finch. A lot has been said of (and by) the burger here. It’s all true. I can vouch. But, because there are only twenty-four made each night, and these off-the-menu rarities aren’t available until 10 p.m., the likelihood of your having one is small enough that it seems cruel to rub your nose in the spectacularity of this homemade — from bun top to bottom — double cheeseburger. Its juiciness necessitates a trip to the dry cleaner, let’s leave it at that. Oh, and the bread and butter pickles are marvelous — not sickeningly sweet, they’ve got bite, in flavor and texture. Our omniscient server, Stephen, gives me my very own dish of them on the side.
I’ve eaten a lot of burgers in my time — most of them during my childhood, when I had a weekly habit, so I tend to find them more comforting than revolutionary. In the latter category, I’d place a plate of lamb fries. Sliced up cutlet-style, real thin, then lightly battered and pan-fried, these sheep testicles (uh huh) are served with compressed peaches (remember, we’re in the “Peach State”) and a reduced vanilla-whisky syrup. Melanie and I unabashedly drag our fingers through the garnishing dots of that sticky, viscous sauce; we can’t help but squeal with delight. It’s so much better than maple syrup, and, combined with the fruit, gives the offal-centric dish a breakfast-like familiarity. Why waste your time on waffles when you could have mutton balls?
Melanie finds love with the Crunchy Lady, a hopped up Croque Madame that, while we’re on the subject of the first meal of the day, is reminiscent of a toad-in-the-hole with the addition of smoked ham and some wicked-sharp mustard. What makes it a Lady? Obviously, there are no lamb fries involved, for one. But, as with the French Croque Madame, if you put an egg on it in Atlanta, the grilled cheese sandwich goes from male to female. Stephen the Wise suggests we go for broke and get the runny, sunny-side up topper when he registers our order for a Crunchy Gent. Bless his heart. This is culinary transgendering at its best. The thick, wet yolk bleeds over the pile, coats the ham, and is soaked up by the toast.
For once, there really is no room for dessert. I’ll have to go back one day for sorghum stack cake with lemon buttercream and fried peach pie, and another order of lamb fries.