WEST HARRISON, Ind. >> If you see a steeple in southeastern Indiana, you can be pretty sure that fried chicken is nearby. If you see the steeple in West Harrison, about 20 miles from the Indiana-Ohio- Kentucky borders, that chicken is fried across the street at St. Leon Tavern by the owner, Aaron Klenke. Most people would call the place a bar, but I call it a place that serves some of the best fried chicken I’ve tasted.
In this corner of Indiana, fried chicken is a part of the native soul — a staple of after-church dinner and never far from Sunday services.
“We call it chicken paradise,” said Janet Litmer, 60, manager of the Fireside Inn in Enochsburg. A common refrain here is “If the Colonel had been born in southern Indiana, he’d have been a general.”
My wife and I recently visited nine of the three dozen or so restaurants that serve a very specific form of a definitively American staple.
The secret to this fried chicken? Table salt, coarse pepper and flour. Those who want to gild the lily cook it in lard.
In a food world that grows increasingly more complex, where fried chicken typically involves brining and buttermilking and all manner of seasoned flours, here are cooks whose chicken mirrors the economy and simplicity of the cornfields that surround them.
“WE DON’T try to make it different from the way our grandmother did it,” said Ginger Saccomando, who took over Wagner’s Village Inn, her parents’ restaurant, 21 years ago. A block from the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis, it is one of two family-style restaurants serving southern Indiana-style fried chicken in Oldenburg, population 674.
This part of the state is a land of farms, churches and family-restaurant buffets. Order the fried chicken dinner, and it will arrive with mashed potatoes and gravy (and sometimes buttered noodles), canned green beans and coleslaw. The pedestrian sides only shine more light on the spectacular chicken.
So many restaurants serve this chicken that the Indiana Foodways Alliance created a “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner” Trail of 26 restaurants and cafes.
“Fried chicken is associated with those times of Sunday gatherings,” said Lindsey Skeen, alliance marketing and media director. “We’re Indiana people, and on Sunday after church we have fried chicken.”
Donna Tracy, owner of Bluebird Restaurant, in Morristown, said she has about 250 customers every Sunday, and serves 900 orders of fried chicken on Mother’s Day and Easter.
The demand has been a natural result of Indiana’s ample poultry supply. “People could raise chickens,” Tracy said, “and a chicken could feed a lot of people.”
Saccomando believes that the first restaurant specializing in fried chicken was the Hearthstone, in Metamora, in the 1950s. When her parents bought what would become Wagner’s Village Inn in 1968, the owners of the Hearthstone showed the Wagners how they fried it. “Then suddenly everyone wanted to be a chicken restaurant,” she said.
If there’s a single thing that most distinguishes Indiana fried chicken, it’s the heavy use of pepper.
The version at the Brau Haus, a block from Wagner’s, is covered in so much pepper it almost looks gray. And it is fabulous.
TO LEARN the craft of southeastern Indiana chicken, I went to the person I believe is the best of the best: Chris Harvey, at Wagner’s.
“There’s no recipe,” Harvey said as he worked six chickens in three 15-inch skillets. “Just salt and pepper till it looks right.” He can handle six pans, with 120 pieces, at once, sometimes 5,000 pieces in a weekend.
Harvey walked me through his process: He put two chickens in a pan, added a heavy dose of salt, a serious shake of pepper (“more of both than you would think,” he said) and massaged the seasoning in until he could see the pepper was evenly distributed. He coated them in plain flour in a second pan, then put them into the hot fat.
While almost every other local restaurant deep-fries the chicken in soybean or vegetable oil, he uses lard. He said it was important to find lard without BHT, an antioxidant that prevents rancidity but leaves a bad aftertaste.
And he makes the most of his lard, he said. When one pan of chicken was done, he removed the pieces, then emptied the pan — the fat, the “crumbs” at the bottom, and all — back into the stockpot of lard. The crumbs sank to the bottom, and would be used to flavor the roux base for making the gravy.
He then scraped the pan clean with a wide spackling knife and toweled it out until it was shiny and black, before refilling it with the used, golden-brown fat for the next batch.
This means Harvey’s using a peppery, chicken-flavored lard — probably why his chicken is so rich.
The finishing touch: Just before he removes the chicken, he adds about 2 tablespoons of water, which makes the oil bubble up. It “seals in the flavor,” he said, admitting that he didn’t know if that was true. “They used to use beer.”
I don’t know if this adds anything, either, but I do it because it’s a tradition and a festive conclusion to frying chicken, like flaming a crepe suzette. The result, after 20 minutes in the fat, is a crisp, peppery, moist chicken of exquisite simplicity.
INDIANA FRIED CHICKEN
By Chris Harvey
- 1 (4-pound) chicken
- 1 tablespoon fine table salt, plus more to taste
- 2-1/2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 3 to 4 cups lard or canola oil
- 3 cups flour, for dredging
- 4 tablespoons water, at room temperature
Cut chicken into pieces, separating drumsticks, thighs, wings, breast and back. Cut breast in 4 pieces; the back in 2 pieces. Discard neck.
Place pieces in large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat, rubbing pieces to make sure seasoning is uniformly distributed.
Add lard or oil to a large, deep cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven to depth of about 1 inch, enough so chicken will be about three-quarters submerged. Heat on high to 350 degrees, reducing temperature as needed to medium or medium-high to maintain steady temperature.
Dredge chicken in flour until thoroughly coated. Working in 2 batches, carefully lay half the chicken in the hot fat and pan-fry, turning frequently until golden brown and thighs are cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes per batch.
Just before removing chicken, turn off heat. Carefully add 2 tablespoons water to fat. (It will boil up immediately; add water at close range in center of skillet to minimize splatter, using a ladle if you don’t want to get too close.) When water has cooked off and vigorous bubbling has subsided, transfer chicken to a paper towel-lined plate.
Turn heat back on, return oil to 350 degrees, and fry second batch of chicken, turning off the heat before adding final 2 tablespoons of water. Transfer chicken to another paper towel-lined plate. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
Nutritional information unavailable.