Hitting the Chicken Dinner Trail

I've just been back to visit my folks in Ohio, where an annual summer phenomenon is in full swing, or should I say "squawk." Every weekend, from April through November, tiny rural Catholic churches on either side of the Ohio/Indiana border gear up to feed the multitudes. 

The home-style fried chicken dinners have made converts out of staunch atheists as well as picky restaurant critics. Carl Heilmann, a self-described Cincinnati chicken dinner fanatic, has even created a web site devoted to these events. Check out the schedule and the menu at each one.

Imagine sitting down at a long school-cafeteria table to platters of crispy, golden chicken fried in lard, a huge bowl of real mashed potatoes, and that authentic chicken gravy that has no peer. The chicken, potatoes, and gravy are standard at all churches. But then each one branches out with side dishes and desserts that follow tradition or the garden.

See the turtle soup for sale and one of the church volunteers frying up the chicken.

And, my oh, my, the pies! At St. Anthony's of Padua near Brookville, Indiana, there's even a pie room--shelves and shelves of pies waiting to be served.

Side dishes follow the season, from celery seed cole slaw, marinated cucumbers, seasoned green beans, sliced fresh tomatoes, real creamed corn, and squash casserole.

No pilgrims to Canterbury were ever as devout as the crowds that seek perfect fried chicken in the rolling farmland of the Ohio Valley.

So, imagine you're in the mood for a fried chicken dinner at home. First consideration, of course, is the chicken. Not any old chicken. We don't eat fried chicken every Sunday anymore, so this chicken has to be good. Free range at least. Free range and organic, even better. But the best?

Heirloom, free range, and organic. Heirloom chicken breeds are, as the name suggests, older chicken breeds. Many had fallen out of favor commercially, usually because they took too long to grow to market size. But following on the success of Frank Reese's heirloom turkey--which tastes like the turkey-est, most velvety turkey you've ever put in your mouth--heirloom chicken breeds are making a comeback. Check out Reese Turkeys to see two of the heirloom breeds: Cornish, which is also known as "Indian Game," and Barred Plymouth Rock, which was first exhibited in America in 1849.

Okay, we've got the chicken. Now, let's set the table. In honor of the Chicken Dinner Trail, let's make it look Midwestern--pure prairie. And what is more Midwestern than a vintage, printed tablecloth from the 1940s and 50s and flowers from the garden? See the photo at the right.

I found a great online club for vintage tablecloth enthusiasts. Their motto is "Making the world a cozier place--one tablecloth at a time." In my next posting, I'll give you a mouthwatering recipe for that deep mahogany-colored, crispy fried chicken that brings everyone to the table.


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