When I was 19, 20 and 21 years of age … I seemed to be on a yo-yo between my boyhood home in Illinois and the place I was seeking. I wanted sunlight. I wanted music. I wanted good books.
I didn’t know I wanted … Fried Chicken too!
I rode a bus from central Illinois to Jacksonville, Florida on one such sojourn with a buddy of mine. The bus we were on had a stop in Macon, Georgia and the driver announced that we would have one hour to “stretch … eat or shop”. We were young men and our noses led us to a soul food cafeteria. We opened a rickety screened door into a large room that smelled incredible! Black women in matching service uniforms stood behind the long, gleaming counter. They smiled as they ladled, spooned, sliced and poured food and drink for a steady line of customers. We entered the queue and I know I felt some preternatural instinct for the absolute quality of what we were about to experience. I ate nearly an entire fried chicken! When it was time to board the bus again I felt I had entered a state of grace and wasn’t sure Jacksonville could compete. But my buddy’s folks had a place near the ocean we could crash for free for ten days … so we climbed aboard …. watching that cafeteria as long as we could … through the smudged bus windows.
We didn’t have that all American classic at our home. It wasn’t in the repertoire of my mother’s dishes. I occasionally had it at my best friend Wade’s home, but it was only served cold and brought to summer picnics. While good, it was not … right out of the fryers … and possessing a textural quality that I would search for in the years to come.
In 1983 … and by then a working chef ... instead of an unemployed dreamer… I traveled to New York City. One of the new ones then was a place called ‘Texarkana’. One dish on the menu that I missed that night … (they’d run out) stayed with me as an idea.
It was called “Fried Chicken Salad”. I set out to work on it only having the title to … ignite my brain. For some reason … I reached for sesame oil when creating the dressing part of the recipe to accompany the salad. I think it is the reason it became so popular. How popular? Let’s fast forward. In 1985 I got an offer to return to work in Key West. It was the biggest break of my career to date … when I took on the job as Chef of “Louie’s Backyard”. The ownership was divided and … that is always tricky. The gentleman that hired me was at odds with one of the other proprietors. She wanted, (demanded!) that I keep a salad that had been on the menu with their previous chef. It was a “Steak Salad” and it was a big seller. I was not, (not!) going to have some other chef’s dish on my menu… So … I presented a “Hot Fried Chicken Salad”.
Time passed … My career rolled on towards new places beyond that track of time.
17 years later, my wife, Janet, and I went back to Key West for a visit … and to ‘Louie’s Backyard’…
The “Hot Fried Chicken Salad”? It was still on the menu.
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2014 Norman Van Aken. Photo credit to Norman Van Aken. Like this? Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM.