I come from a long line of big eaters, food-lovers, and hungry, happy, passionate homecooks. Our pours are hearty, our helpings are large, and (more often than not) our bellies are full. My uncle is a food industry veteran with a knack for southern-style gumbos and home-cured charcuterie. My mother is known for picture-perfect table settings and flawless risottos. And my grandmother… her magnum opus is an indescribably delicious sausage gravy. In my family, let’s just say “more is more.”
In April, we attended the “Made in America” cookbook release dinner at Rye, the second outstanding Kanas City restaurant from celebrated husband and wife team Colby and Megan Garrelts. They served an heirloom collection from their new cookbook: fried okra, hanger steak, potato salad, and the star of the show, fried chicken. It was Americana on a plate—exactly what Rye has perfected and the stuff of my Midwestern childhood, picnics, and summertime daydreams.
I left the “Made in America” dinner inspired (and, of course, stuffed). I would treat my family to a Garrelts-caliber feast at our upcoming reunion. The setting? My father’s farm in southern Missouri. The menu? My favorite dishes from “Made in America.”
I enlisted my mother, my sister, and floral genius Randy Neal, and the planning began. We would serve corn fritters; the cucumber-dill salad and the Yukon Gold potato salad with summer corn, country ham, and garlicky lemon-chive dressing; the famous Garrelts’ fried chicken; and a homemade “MoKan” nut pie. Mr. Neal would arrange simple, lovely flowers, and I would create a family-style masterpiece. Rustic-chic, effortless, elegant….
With recipes selected and provisions gathered, we were ready for our pastoral dinner party.
It all began smoothly—a country vision with borrowed tin tableware, a red checkered runner, and Mr. Neal’s fresh flowers. I prepared the salads early in the day and began making the crust for (what would have been) my very first pie. Now, I’m not a seasoned baker. I have neither the precision, nor the patience. But I tried my best to channel Chef Megan.
The chilled pie dough looked perfect. (One point for Anna.) But I melted a plastic strainer making the brown butter filling and spilled liquefied butter and plastic all over my parents’ kitchen. (One point for Chef Megan.) A word to the wise, when a recipe calls for a “fine-mesh sieve,” use a fine-mesh sieve. I had ruined a strainer and made a mess. “The freaking pie can wait,” I said to no one in particular.
Dinnertime was fast approaching, and I still hadn’t fried a thing. Time and fritters wait for no man.
I threw back a glass of wine, prepared the cornmeal batter, and with the help of my “kitchen Sherpa” uncle, fired up the home fryer. Dollop by dollop, we had a dozen perfect, golden-brown fritters. “Another win,” I thought.
I would come to regret this act of hubris. A mid-pie photo-shoot? That crust never had a chance. Thirty minutes later, it was
incinerated a tad overdone. I laughed (to keep from crying and/or ripping my hair out), scrapped the pie, and moved on. The chicken awaited.
Let me first say that the Garrelts’ chicken was absolutely spectacular—probably the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten, and without question, one of the best dishes I’ve ever had a hand in preparing. But my God, what a process. An overnight brine, huge vats of slurry, two Dutch ovens filled with scorching hot oil. By the time we started frying the chicken, my mother and I were sweating profusely and completely covered in flour. With intermittent breaks to mop up grease pools and give each other pep talks, we fried chicken for upwards of two hours. We laughed. We cried. We laughed some more. But we did it.
We were pie-less and exhausted, and the smell of canola oil had permeated the entire house. It wasn’t elegant, and it certainly wasn’t effortless. But our country-fried adventure was perfectly imperfect—a joyful comedy of errors, undeniably delicious, and even a little bit rustic-chic.