I know I’m getting old and grumpy when someone minimizes a crisis in my life by dismissing it as inconsequential. One of the worst ever was back when I was living and working in Puerto Rico. I was barely able to meet the expectations of my grandparents while living at their house so when I was offered the cottage behind my uncle’s house I snapped it up faster than you can say “andale”! It was perfect. Plenty of privacy and air conditioning. I quickly settled in and began the day-to-day routine of work at Delta. Weekends were spent going out at night and during the day we enjoyed some down time at any number of beautiful beaches. Like stateside there would always be the random weekend when there were chores to be done, laundry, a little cleaning, the grocery store so I would hang close to the house and when finished with my tasks would reward myself by sunning outside in my itty-bitty bikini. My towel had been spread out in the direct path of the sun’s blazing rays. Radio was on. I had some sort of cold drink close by. Oh, but did it feel good. I closed my eyes and put my face up, up, up right into the sun. By all accounts it should have been perfect but I wasn’t comfortable even after shifting positions. I felt ooky. Something just wasn’t right. I opened my eyes and just inches away, maybe two inches, were two black beady eyes coldly staring at me. It was a full-grown, red and black fighting cock. Huge. Totally caught me off guard. I was startled but I didn’t want it to recognize the FEAR in me so I shooed it away. That bird gave me a look that said, in no uncertain terms, “Do you know whom you’re dealing with?” With that, and with lightning speed, he pecked my shin so hard that blood spurted out. Did I freak? You know I did. I screamed and grabbed all my tanning supplies, towel, radio, everything and ran into the cottage slamming the door behind me. Jesus. Life is hard enough. I called my uncle, furious. “”Oye, Panino, si, si es Manima. No! NO! Todo NO esta bien!” And I proceeded to inform him of the danger he had living in HIS backyard. How that brute of an animal attacked me and drew blood and, at any given moment, could wound or worse mutilate his two precious baby boys. He chuckled and gently said as if speaking to a child, “No, no. That’s not a fighting cock. It’s just a silly little chicken.” I was incensed, LIVID, and just a little bit scared. That thing was big. “Listen, you leave him alone and he’ll leave you alone” he calmly replied and that was the end of that. I stayed in my conditioned air cottage and fretted because I knew I couldn’t stay locked in forever. I had things to do. I hand washed a few things and looked through the window for that damned bird. Coast was clear. I almost dismissed the nasty incident while hanging the fine washables on my little wooden drying rack. Without warning I heard the war shriek of the fighting cock. I spun around to see him spread his enormous wings, talons unfurled ready for more blood, as I hauled ass for my house and safety. He let out another war cry while descending and that’s when his talons ripped into the backs of my legs. I was his prey. I shrieked and howled with pain. I was scared to death of that thing. It was clear who was in control. And it hurt. Did I mention it hurt like hell? I made it inside my little bungalow where I cleaned my wounds and felt sorry for myself. I was safe for the time being but I had to go to work the following morning and didn’t look forward to the long death walk down the driveway to the street. Whenever I left the cottage I walked backwards and started taking a broom with me. It was the perfect weapon. When I came home in the evening I would find my broom hidden between bushes and a wall. It was fine until the day I came out of the cottage and someone had taken the broom. It must have been midday, hot and quiet. I looked around and seeing nothing scurried down the drive. Killer cock made his move. As I heard his battle scream I felt his claws sink in…again. Sweet baby Jesus, that’s it. I burst into bottled up tears. Island life can be difficult. I missed my family, I missed the States, I missed hamburgers, I missed my friends, I missed my car, I missed salads and dammit, I was tired of being treated like a Yankee. I don’t remember where I was going but I made a beeline down the street to my grandparents house. My grandfather was a man’s man. His persona was as big if not bigger than Ernest Hemingway’s. NO ONE messed with Papa Pepe. Ever. He had horses and guns and knew quite well how to use them. He would save me. I found him upstairs on the balcony in his rocking chair. With his cane. “Dios mio, nena, pero que te pasa?” “My God, child, what’s wrong?” Nose running and with tears all over my face I sobbed the story of what had just happened and what had been happening. “Nena, tu eres una molestia. Deja de llorar, caramba!” “Child, you’re a pain. Stop crying, darn it.” “Please, Papa. Help me! Panino won’t listen. He says it’s just a chicken but it’s not” I cried. Without saying a word he got up and went to his bedroom. He came out with his sunglasses on, (always with dark green lenses), and his hat. Can’t go out without your hat. Lord, but that man was handsome. Still not speaking he left the house and walked down the street to my uncle’s with me stumbling and sniffling behind him. He flung open the gate and he made the death walk loudly asking “Where is it, dammit?” “Y donde esta, conyo?” “Maybe over there?” I answered and waved my hand towards some shrubs. He marched over to the bushes and angrily parted them finding my friend Cujo Bird ready to attack. Gripping his cane tightly he pulled his arm back and with a seething, “Mira, bruto! @#&**@”^&%$##@!!” gave that bird a mighty, mighty beating. It was fabulous. I was so happy. I was almost dancing! He just whaled on that bird until it stopped screaming and just lay on the ground playing possum. My grandfather didn’t even break a sweat. Hat didn’t move…there was no blood on his linen clothing or dress shoes. There may have been a few splatters on his walking stick. And with that, and not saying a word, he turned and walked back to his house. No one, but no one, made mention of that incident until a few weeks later I was making the walk of death and realized I hadn’t seen my foe, the rooster, in a while. I found my uncle and casually asked, “Y el pollo? No lo he visto.” “And the chicken? I haven’t seen it lately.” And do you know how he answered? This is rich. “Oh nooooo! That was no chicken. That was a fighting cock. It attacked one of the boys so I put it in a bag, drove it out to the country and let it loose!” Really? REALLY? In celebration of the wonderful memory I offer you, gentle reader, Fried Chicken.
I know it’s hard to make out but to the left of the photograph one can see Papa Pepe’s pistola, his pistol, dangling from his holster.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken
- low-fat or non-fat buttermilk, about 4 cups
- skin on pieces of chicken with excess fat cut off
- Tony Chachere, Sazon or the spice mix of your preference
- freshly cracked black pepper
- all-purpose flour, for dredging
- peanut oil or shortening
I’m just going to talk you through this. I’m sorry but Fried Chicken is like a running conversation to me. I can’t do bullets. Clean your chicken pieces and, leaving the skin on, trim any bits of excess fat. Mix buttermilk with 2 or three tablespoons of Tony Chachere or spice mix of your choosing. If you like heat add some now, cayenne is great. Place the chicken pieces in a shallow dish and pour mixture over making sure the pieces are well coated. Place in refrigerator and let marinate for as long as possible, overnight is great. When ready to start frying set up an assembly line. Place a colander in a deep bowl and drain the chicken in the colander. Season chicken liberally with spice mix, still allowing it to drain. I put that to my left. In a large bowl or glass dish mix 3 or 4 cups of flour with a couple of tablespoons of spice mix. That I position in front of me. To my right I have a large jelly roll pan or sheet pan covered with cooling racks, the same racks you use to cool your cookies. Tin foil is okay in lieu of the racks. In a cast iron skillet or heavy pan add oil or shortening until it comes up about 1/3 of an inch high on the side of the pan. Heat to 325° but no higher. I use a candy thermometer. It’s a little hotter than medium. While the pan and oil are heating up the I dredge the chicken. My left hand is my wet hand and my right is my dry hand. With my left hand I place one piece of chicken in the flour mixture and using my right I cover the piece with flour, turning and patting to make sure each piece is completely floured. Shake the excess flour off then put it on the rack or tin foil. You get a better scald on the chicken if it drys a bit. When the oil has reached 325° I place the thighs in the middle of the pan skin side down. They take longer to cook and the middle is the hottest. Legs, wings, breasts go on the sides. If I have a lot of chicken to fry I often use two frying pans. But don’t crowd the pan. No more than 4 or 5 pieces at a time depending on the size of your pan. Fry chicken 10-12 minutes per side. Keep your eye on the heat adjusting so the four doesn’t burn but making sure the chicken is cooked all the way through. When the chicken is done let it drain on cooling racks over a sheet pan. DO NOT drain on paper towels. You’ll get soggy chicken and after all that work…well, that would just be a shame!