The Fried Chicken That's Been on Every Family Trip With Me Since 1962

July 10, 2018

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.

Photo by Danie Drankwalter

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.

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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.

My mother's on the left, with my brother Jamie. I'm on the right, sitting next to my sister Kaki. Photo by James E. Mitchell

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.

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Top Comment:
“My mom’s go to road trip cuisine was cold meatloaf sandwiches on Wonder bread, with orange and avocado colored Tupperware containers filled with southern-style potato salad and baked beans. Moonpies, Little Debbies and Goo-Goo clusters were handed out if we behaved like gentlemen between rest stops. And there was also plenty of milk jugs filled with sweet tea to wash it all down. Thanks for sharing your memories; it brought back a lot of my own as I sat reading your post this morning. Can’t wait to try your fried chicken recipe! Cheers ”
— Jeremy H.

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.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Shane is the author of Far Afield. She is also a James Beard award winner. This year she received the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing prize. Don't ask her to fry breasts. Team Drumstick.


Vincent May 25, 2019
Why do you not like beignets at Cafe du Monde?
Sonia G. May 4, 2019
Bless you for sharing your treasured story. It brought a tear to my eye. Oh, and I look forward to trying your recipe!!
I will touch base afterwards.
Mary August 8, 2018
Lovely growing up story- My mom gave us periodically cold fried chicken in our lunch and always a slice of buttered bread-pure heaven! She also gave us three halves of sandwiches - all- different- so you had a choice or you got to eat them all-I had eight brothers, so I now believe it was to keep them from starving. I asked her once why we never had leftovers, she told me she always gave them to my oldest brother when he came home hungry...............a big memory smile on my face............
Pam July 17, 2018
My Dad was a wonderful cook, and let me and my two older sisters help - sometimes. It was a rare event when any of us girls could actually cook in his kitchen without his supervision (AKA interference). Nonetheless, I do remember his Oven Fried Chicken As in your recipe, he used flour, S/P, and I think a dash of paprika, and a paper bag. Not grocery sized, but bigger than a lunch bag. I don't recall a buttermilk and egg soak before dredging with the flour mixture. But he rarely - if ever - deep fried anything (green tomatoes were the rare exception and still a once-a-summer necessity for me), so after shaking up the chicken (yes, breasts too!), we'd put it on some flat baking sheets and cook till golden. Time and temp? Who knows. It was delicious cold and the crust had softened as described in your article. Road trips were miserable; my sisters, much older than I, were off to college or marriage when I'd do road trips with my parents, in a hideous green (always green and hideous) station wagon (always a station wagon) before air conditioning. I got the back seat, of course, with windows at least parts open, my pillow, some apples and a box of triscuits. That was traveling food. Maybe a thermos of something - tang or tea-tang - or apple juice. I'd lie back there on my pillow and imagine shapes in the cloud formations, look at billboards, and interminably say "I have to go to the bathroom" (ONLY possible if there was a gas station on the RIGHT - left turns were too much trouble!) and "Are we there yet"? Yes, I drove the parents nuts. Oh yes, and I got carsick; legend has it that I'd throw up down my father's neck, but I'm pretty sure I used a rear window.

Those were the days.......
BeckinBigD July 15, 2018
The rolling, clutch start! Your parents were badass! I absolutely LOVE your story! Beautifully written and it brought back so many of my own memories. My family made the drive from NE Ohio to Texas. Two in the Windows down, warm (ok hot!) breeze, and always a baseball game crackling on the radio. For some reason, 50+ years later, I still find comfort in hearing a ballgame on the radio as the heat of the day dissipates and evening descends. Family memories and food. It doesn't get any better. I can't wait to try your fried chicken.
Shane M. July 16, 2018
Thank you! Your memory about ballgames on the radio is lovely.
maggiesara July 24, 2018
The sound of the ball game on the radio is one of the great sounds of childhood for me, too -- and I grew up in New York City. Whenever I get into a taxi and the driver has a game on, it makes me feel safe and....well, like a child.
Jeremy H. July 15, 2018
My mom would do the same thing when we traveled! For us, it was four rambunctious boys piled into a shag carpeted custom van complete with bean bag chairs and a stereo equipped with an 8-track player. My mom’s go to road trip cuisine was cold meatloaf sandwiches on Wonder bread, with orange and avocado colored Tupperware containers filled with southern-style potato salad and baked beans. Moonpies, Little Debbies and Goo-Goo clusters were handed out if we behaved like gentlemen between rest stops. And there was also plenty of milk jugs filled with sweet tea to wash it all down. Thanks for sharing your memories; it brought back a lot of my own as I sat reading your post this morning. Can’t wait to try your fried chicken recipe! Cheers
Shane M. July 16, 2018
Thank you. I'm a huge fan of Moonpies too.
Jen July 13, 2018
Is it possible to substitute buttermilk with a non dairy alternative?
Shane M. July 16, 2018
Substitute soy milk with a splash of white vinegar.
Linda S. July 11, 2018
I am so envious of the stories people post. I habe lively memories of my family but I could never express them as eloquently. Thank you for sharing.
Linda S. July 11, 2018
Have and lovely..not habe and lively!
Shane M. July 12, 2018
Thank you, Linda, but don't let that stop you.
Phyllis Y. July 11, 2018
What a sweet remembrance! My mom also grew up in Florence, SC (maybe she and your mom knew each other), and has the Charleston Receipts cookbook on her shelf. I have fond memories of picnicking by the roadside on family vacations long ago.
Shane M. July 12, 2018
Thanks, Phyllis. It's a small town so you never know. Rest stops are the best part of road trips.
mrslarkin July 10, 2018
What a great story, Shane! Thank you for sharing. Adding your recipe to my long list of to-try.
Shane M. July 11, 2018
Glad you enjoyed it!
Mayukh S. July 10, 2018
SHANE! What a delight to see your byline on Food52! <3
BrooklynBabette July 10, 2018
Thank you for a lovely reminiscence. My artist parents also banned coloring books(and stencils) which made me a pariah at my pre-school. I love your mother's choices in cookbooks: a balance of classic and local. Also, team drumstick all the way!
Denise M. July 10, 2018
Denise Martin
My mother was studying art in college, taking art psychology and learned coloring books inhibited kids creativity.
She was a great cook and taught me a lot.
Shane M. July 11, 2018
Yay, Team Drumstick!