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In this week's edition of Tabletop Wrestling, Mike Seely and Hanna Raskin spar over the point of very expensive fried chicken.
Mike Seely is content with the chicken he buys at Albertson's
I love fried chicken, possibly more than any other food. But, paradoxically, I don't love paying top dollar for my top-ranked food. It's such a working-class, picnic-level delicacy (which is to say, it isn't a delicacy) that there's something off-putting about paying more than a buck a thigh.
I don't doubt that the product put forth by purveyors of pricey fried chicken platters is somehow superior to that of, say, Albertson's. But not $10-$20 better (a 10-piece thigh and leg combo box can be had for $6 at Albie's). Fried chicken is a rather simple art; there's not enough room for the sort of culinary bells and whistles which would justify such a significant marking-up.
At the end of the day (or meal), certain dishes just don't lend themselves to artisanal preparations and the corresponding price hike, and fried chicken is one of them. It's a lowbrow delight, and when lowbrow goes highbrow, you get a confused Hughnibrow, which is nobody's idea of appetizing. Put my ass in the grass with a bucket of Original Recipe, day-old and cold, not at a white-linen table with shiny utensils that I've got no use for.
But Hanna Raskin thinks the overpriced fried chicken could mark an important advance for American food culture.
I love that fried chicken is still a topic worth taking up in the first week of 2013, four years after Serious Eats' New York crew saw fit to rank the city's best fancy-pants fried chickens. The trend's got legs, so to speak.
Yet even among hardened fried chicken fans, there's some dissension over the $15 fried chicken supper. It's been generations since chicken was considered so special that Herbert Hoover summed up his aspirations for everyday Americans by promising "a chicken in every pot and car in every garage." But since 1928, per capita chicken consumption has quintupled, and many eaters feel entitled to get their chicken on the cheap.
My favorite fried chickens are grouped at the more affordable end of the chicken price spectrum: In Dallas, Babe's charges $11.99 for a meal which includes all the mashed potatoes, cream gravy, green beans, green salad, corn and biscuits you can eat. A quarter-chicken dinner is $6.05 at Price's Chicken Coop in Charlotte, and a three-piece serving is $5.49 at Popeye's.
That doesn't mean that every low-cost fried chicken is automatically superior to fancy fried chicken, nor does it even mean that every low-cost fried chicken is good. Chefs shouldn't pull their skillets off the stove just because a few chains have mastered the art of seasoning chickens. With their scrupulous sourcing and command of culinary technique, chefs should be capable of producing a chicken to rival the great low-end contenders. I've had plenty of chickens which came close.
But what's most important to me is that upscale restaurant chefs keep trying. Chefs have long been judged on their ability to make a perfect mayonnaise, omelet or beurre blanc. It's not uncommon for chefs to put a roasted chicken - "the real test of a good chef," Julia Child proclaimed - on the menu, just to prove their aptitude.
Maybe all the chicken-frying going on in restaurant kitchens is yet another indicator that our break from Europe is complete. We don't roast chickens: We fry them. While the expense may grate, there's nothing wrong with a contemporary American chef demonstrating his or her mettle by producing a bespoke version of a native dish so democratic that it's sold for five bucks at Popeye's. Dark meat, please.