Biscuits from on High: The Fried Chicken Throwdown at West Town Tavern
See, here's the thing: JRH's birthday is just two days before M. So every year for the last . . . 4 or 5 years at least, we've celebrated their birthdays together. This year, pulling that off involved a 3.5-hour drive from State College, PA, to Washington, DC (sorry J and W: it was an action-packed weekend with no time for side socializing), a 2-hour flight home, whirlwind changing, and a journey up to West Town Tavern. And all of that was on very little sleep to begin with plus an hour snatched away by a greedy government.
But it was all worth it, oh yes, it was worth it. The Fried Chicken Throwdown at West Town was designed as a benefit for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization whose mission is "to celebrate, teach, preserve, and promote the diverse food cultures of the American South"—work that's obviously more important now than ever. And far be it from pal M, TLBO, M, JRH, our pal B, and me to refuse to eat ourselves sick in the name of such a worthy cause.
Susan Goss kicked off the evening by introducing John T. Edge, the director of the SFA, who gave us a brief introduction to the SFA, fried chicken (which, he emphasized, has a silent "DEEP" in front of it, as far as any legitimate purveyor is concerned) in general, and the relationship between the SFA and the creators of the first two courses. He also explained that the complicated AV set up was required for the screening of a short film that the SFA had made about André Prince Jeffries whose hot chicken formed not only the second course, but the inspiration for next year's birthday bash. As intrigued as we were by the shiny equipment and the prospect of a little MSTing, I think we were all relieved that food was imminent and the film was definitely after-dinner entertainment.
The first course was Susan's rendition of Willie Mae Seaton's Scotch House Fried Chicken. Although this pre-Katrina reviewer foolishly leads with the pork chop, his assessment of the chicken is a good one: The batter is light and crisp, almost more like that found on really good fish and chips, but there is no question of it being heavy or trapping oil between itself and the chicken as can sometimes happen. In terms of seasoning, again, I concur with the reviewer that it is not particularly dependent on heavy spices, but mostly uses salt and maybe a little something else to bring out the juicy flavor of really good chicken. Our servings were smallish boneless cutlets accompanied by succotash and The Biscuit (more on those in a minute).
At our table, we had a refresher course on succotash before the food arrived: B hasn't had it in ages, as his wife, the possibly imaginary G, won't touch the stuff. This seems to be a girly phenomenon, because TLBO and pal M both eschew the mushiness of the lima bean. (In fact, I have it on good authority that "nothing bigger than a lentil" goes in pal M's mouth.) I have no lima bean objections, but I'm not overly fond of cooked carrots, which have always been a part of my succotash experience. (I see, however, upon checking a dictionary that this is yet another culinary fraud perpetrated upon me.) Much to my delight, then, did I note that the nasty, nasty carrots had been replaced by delicious chunks of bacon. Is it any wonder that Susan is one of my favorite chefs in the whole wide world?
And then there was The Biscuit. These are billed on the menu as Lora Tatum-Smith's Buttermilk Biscuits. I don't know who Lora Tatum-Smith is, but she is my Messiah now. That biscuit was like velvet to the touch. It was neither too dense nor so air filled that it was hard to get a handle on the taste. It was not too salty. It was not too floury. It was the Essential Biscuit. And it was only with difficulty that I did not weep when mine was gone.
The second course was a pair of Prince's Hot Chicken wings, rampant, on a caesar salad. Having now seen Ms. Jeffries and her devotees discussing various aspects of the hot chicken, I can only assume that we were experiencing the mild version. The wings were sticky to the touch, but not with the heavy, syrupy quality that often characterizes such things. The heat, to me, seemed to have a black-pepper foundation, with a tangy, hot pepper overlay. The quality and flavor of the chicken were still discernible underneath the heat, which, again, is not what you usually find when the heat is emphasized.
The caesar salad was remarkably good as well, with a light, fresh dressing, and slivers of practically perfect cheese. pal M opined that she would have added a single crouton to make it truly perfect. This led all and sundry at the table to express their extremely fond wishes for MORE BISCUIT MISS MAH BISCUIT SO MUCH! It was then that a staff member appeared from the ether with AN ENTIRE BASKET OF BISCUITS. As TLBO noted, this sudden response to intercessory baked good prayers presents something of a problem to the godless among us, particularly when the biscuits kept a-comin'.
The third course was Susan's own West Town Tavern Fried Chicken. Considering that I've eaten there, oh, let's call it an even 50 trillion times, this should be nothing new, right? WRONG. I have been depriving myself of this chicken for years, because I am a fool. Susan's chicken is not so different from Ms. Seaton's, although the batter tends more toward the crunchy end of the spectrum, so it's not quite as light. In other words, it was ideal for a more rib-sticking third course. The garlic mashed taters and the mushroom gravy were lusciously delicious, and the greens of unspecified latin name were also good (not vinegary or bitter, which is too often the case with greens). If someone forced me to criticize something about the whole meal, I'd say that the breast for course three might have been a touch too large. I think that pal M, through her moans of distress, might have been in agreement by the end of the evening.
The movie started up while we were all eagerly awaiting the lemon chess pie and blueberries (despite our groans of fullness). The pie was an excellent capper for the meal, being about as light as desserts get, yet still giving that satisfying sweet happy ending.
Mr. Edge had been a bit circumspect about the film aspects of SFA's endeavors. He repeatedly referred to the movies as "irreverent, but respectful." They'd intended to show both the movie about Prince's Hot Chicken and that about the Scotch House at the Throwdown, but the latter has been growing and growing. It currently stands at near an hour. The Prince's Hot Chicken movie was a lean, mean 12 minutes, which is fortunate for those of us who nearly laughed ourselves sick.
Much of it features an interview with Ms. Jeffries herself, who has a hilarious deadpan delivery, even when (especially when?) she is creating euphemisms on the fly for hot-chicken-induced rumpy pumpy. Other interviewees included a pair of members of film crew who are also addicts of the chicken. They imparted useful information about using the hotness of the chicken for self-defense. Another gentleman talked trash about the heat, then revealed that that he, himself, orders mild. But holding his own against the owner was the interviewee who turned out to be the Mayor of Nashville. That is a man I'd vote for without asking any further questions about his politics.
Interspersed among the interviews were educational film clips about the urges we experience and Your Friend the Digestive System. It was something that could have so easily become labored and unfunny, and yet the SFA did an absolutely stellar job keeping things light, funny, and informative. Immediately after the film ended, JRH declared "Next year in Nashville." And so say we all.
While we lingered, both Susan and Mr. Edge came over to chat with us. M and I were gratified to learn that Leah Chase will be reopening her place the Thursday before Easter. We're determined to get there (and Scotch House, now, it goes without saying) before the year's out.