The new movie “The Help” showcases Southern cooking, mostly from the viewpoint of the black maids who worked for white families in the South during the 1960’s. The movie is about a young journalist who writes a book about what it is like to work for Southern white families, gathered from stories by the black maids themselves. It is funny, heartrendingly sad, and a look at a by-gone era.
Back to the 1960’s
If you lived through the 1960’s you will laugh and remember the outlandishly-big cars and the exaggerated lacquered hair-do’s (how much hairspray did we use back then?) and the outdated home furnishings (remember colored phones…with cords, no less?). But throughout the movie, food is the underlying theme.
One of my favorite scenes occurs near the end of the movie where a young bride prepares a whole table of Southern food to thank her black maid who taught her how to cook. The table is laden with foods that we associate with the South: corn bread, braised collards, black-eyed peas, ham, cocktail meatballs, and lots of pies and cakes.
Fried chicken was a recurring theme throughout the movie. In fact, there were many scenes featuring fried chicken that made us so hungry. So I thought I would depart from my usual vegetable focus this summer and talk about fried chicken. You can certainly fry this chicken in Crisco as they did in the movie, but I much prefer to oven-bake my chicken for a much healthier version. In the movie, Minny (one of the black maids) speaks reverently of Crisco’s many uses (baby’s butts, husbands’ feet, ladies’ complexions, and so on).
Now we know that Crisco isn’t a healthy fat, but back in the 1960’s they thought it was the answer for everything. Many of my mother’s recipes call for it in cakes, pies, cookies, and so on. If a recipe said “shortening,” it meant Crisco. We had no idea that someday we would learn that hydrogenated shortening contained trans-fats that aren’t good for us. I prefer to bake my “fried” chicken, so here is my recipe.
Adapted with permission from Gluten-Free 101 by Carol Fenster (Savory Palate, 2010)
Soaking the chicken in buttermilk is similar to brining meat in salted water. The buttermilk adds flavor, along with the cayenne and garlic powder. If you don’t have time, skip the soaking and just dip the thighs in buttermilk. If you don’t have buttermilk, add a little vinegar to sour plain milk. If you prefer to fry this chicken, use canola oil or grapeseed oil. I like using chicken legs or thighs because they are small and cook quickly and evenly (unlike larger breast pieces) but use the type of chicken pieces your family prefers.
Makes 6 chicken legs.
½ cup buttermilk or ½ teaspoon vinegar plus enough milk to equal ½ cup
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¾ teaspoon salt, divided
¼ cup brown rice flour
¼ cup cornmeal
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon paprika
6 chicken legs (or thighs)
. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Generously grease a 13×9-inch baking sheet.
 In a large bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and ¼ teaspoon of the salt. Add the chicken thighs, cover tightly, and refrigerate for two hours.
 In a shallow bowl (or brown paper bag as they used in the movie), whisk together the flour, cornmeal, remaining salt, baking powder, pepper, and paprika. Remove each chicken thigh from the buttermilk mixture, shake gently, and then dip into the flour mixture turning to coat evenly. Place on prepared baking pan. Gently mist chicken pieces with cooking spray.
 Bake one hour, turning the pieces halfway through baking, until chicken is browned and crispy and an instant-read thermometer reads 175 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the meat. Serve, adding extra salt and pepper to taste.
Rice Flour for Frying and Baking
You will notice that I use brown rice flour for dredging the chicken. If you want an even crunchier crust, use white rice flour. The very grittiness that I dislike when using white rice flour in gluten-free baking actually makes a nice crispy crust in fried foods. I have seen Food Network chefs grind white rice in a coffee/spice grinder to make white rice flour for dredging, but most gluten-free households have white rice flour on hand.
What is Self-Rising Flour
You’ll notice there is baking powder in this recipe. Many Southern recipes?including some I’ve seen for fried chicken?call for self-rising flours. This is simply flour, mixed with baking powder and salt. It is called self-rising because it has the leavening agent already added…in this case, baking powder. I don’t know why they also add salt, but they do. My oven-fried chicken incorporates these ingredients, without calling it self-rising flour. If you find recipes that require it, here is the recipe I use to make gluten-free self-rising flour:
Gluten-Free Self-Rising Flour
¾ cup gluten-free flour blend of your choice
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt