Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.
The night before a long road trip, my mother always fried chicken. She wrapped each piece in waxed paper, enough for three hungry kids, and packed them in a tin-lined cooler. Then, she boiled eggs and filled a large thermos with orange Tang. (This was 1962, before the rise of fast food franchises on the freeway.) She was a thrifty traveler.
My parents owned a Volkswagen Type 2 T1, a boxy rear-engine van familiarly known as the VW Microbus, which would eventually come to symbolize a counterculture era of peace, love, and vagabonding. Steel grey and ivory two-tone, with a dial-operated radio that crackled between AM signals and spillproof rubber floor mats, our “Vee-Dub” was customized with Mom-made curtains on the rear windows and a folding table my father built and bolted to the interior paneling. He also flipped the bench seats to face each other, so we could dine at rest stops together on the way down to South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where we'd visit extended family during summer vacations.
The bus had an awkward gearshift column and faulty battery; whoever was behind the wheel often needed to jumpstart it on a dead roll out of our steep driveway. If the engine didn’t kick over by the bottom of the hill, we weren’t going anywhere that day.
When we did make it to the open road, chugging along at a top speed of 60 mph, my siblings and I filled the long hours tussling in the way back. No child restraints existed then, let alone rear passenger safety belts. We invented our own weird word association games—one was simply called “ICA” and involved guessing what the other person saw. We sang nursery rhymes over and over; “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” drove my parents around the bend. My father was an artist, and banned coloring books because he thought they stifled creativity, but we never lacked for blank notepads and giant boxes of crayons. When it got too dark to draw or read Little Golden Books, we snuggled under blankets with our favorite stuffed animals and counted stars outside the window.
The chaos and clutter attending family road trips intensified after my two youngest sisters were born, increasing the backseat population to five, along with several beloved dogs, including one who ran away during a terrifying thunderstorm when we stopped in a strange town. She was never found and we cried for days. Thank goodness for pet microchips now.
We puttered the Jersey Turnpike, crossed the Chesapeake Bay on a car ferry, bought souvenirs at wacky roadside attractions in the Smoky Mountains, erected sandcastles on Myrtle Beach, and occasionally detoured for no better reason than a billboard advertising fireworks or an underground cavern with a stalactite organ.
Everywhere, we ate my mother’s chicken.
One of the photographs from this era that I treasure shows Mom sitting in the VW at the Slack Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway in northern Virginia. She was peeling a hard-boiled egg as I gnawed on a drumstick. Flower-decorated Dixie cups, miniature plastic salt and pepper shakers, and paper plates set on the picnic table; a cardboard Ball jar box loaded with a bag of Wise potato chips and other road snacks close to hand. My brother Jamie sucked a Tootsie Pop, my sister Kaki clutched her sock monkey.
Cold fried chicken may not appeal to every palate, but we kids loved the softened crust and depth of flavor that only time in a picnic cooler confers. It wasn’t as hot and crisp as it'd be right out of the frying pan, but it still made us happy, miles away from one of her home-cooked meals. My mother grew up in Florence, South Carolina, and even through the Depression—like a lot of comfortably situated white Southerners at the time—her parents could still afford a cook, so Mom didn’t learn how to prepare dinners until she married and moved up North. Turns out she was pretty good at it. Her two favorite cookbooks were Larousse Gastronomique and Charleston Receipts. They were her only cookbooks, actually.
The Microbus eventually gave out, and my folks scrapped it. Too bad they didn’t know then how much a vintage model in mint condition sells for at classic car auctions today. But those early road trips taught me to appreciate the rhythm of a long journey.
My husband and I still drive South to visit family. Pillows, check. Dog toys, check. Cue the podcasts, set the GPS, pin pet-friendly rest stops. Toss a coin to see who gets behind the wheel first. The route we follow from northern New York passes countless Cracker Barrels and Pilot Flying J truck plazas, continues through the Shenandoah Valley and over the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we pause to picnic at the same overlook near Rockfish Gap my parents once favored. And yes, there is still cold fried chicken. My husband gets dibs on the drumsticks.
To interrupt this trip down memory lane, however, I should make clear that my mother never passed on her recipe, because she was one of those parents who refused to relinquish control of the stove. (She died way too young in 1989, before we could truly appreciate her kitchen legacy.) So, like her, I had to teach myself.
- 4 pounds chicken thighs and drumsticks, about four pieces each
- 2 cups cold buttermilk
- 2 small eggs, beaten
- 1 teaspoon Crystal or Tabasco hot sauce, or more to your liking
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably White Lily
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups peanut or safflower oil
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