Several months back, I was sitting in a bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side engaging in a cocktail and conversation with several other patrons. After a bit of chatter, one of the gentlemen asked, “Where do you live?” Sensing he picked up on my slight Southern drawl, I proudly proclaimed Nashville, TN. To my chagrin, the lady at the end of the bar bitterly mumbled, “Ugh, who do you think you are, some sort of Southern gentleman?”
When I responded with a humble “Yes,” I followed up by asking why such a moniker carried a negative connotation. She replied, “It’s just so stuffy.” Instead of arguing, I did what most of us do in bars and pubs — I challenged her to a bet.
I would stop ten women on the street and ask them what first came to mind when they thought of a Southern gentleman; I wagered that 10 out of 10 would respond favorably. Bet made (i.e. who would buy the next round of beers), I put on my coat and stepped out into the chilly February air.
The result? I won. 10 out of 10 gals responded with unbridled enthusiasm to my question — most making references to the lost art of chivalry, and several others going so far as to say that they wished they could find a nice Southern gentleman in the city.
Back in the bar with a fresh (free) beer in hand, the lady and I had a good laugh over our little social experiment. To be fair, she had never been to the South. Her idea of stuffy was in reference to seersucker suits, bow ties, and traditional customs and etiquette. My oh my, those things certainly have their place in Southern society, but the “New South” is much more dynamic these days.
For me the modern Southern gentleman is an adventure-seeking man — one who values hospitality, generosity, intellectual curiosity, and yes, chivalry. Of course, these attributes are not exclusive to those of the Southern rite. Gentlemen the world over should seek to incorporate these traits into their lives.
To take it a step further, I believe all of these characteristics can be found, honed, and showcased in the most unlikely of places: the kitchen.
For many of us, the adventurous stories of Mark Twain come to mind when thinking of adventure in the South. In fact, Huckleberry Finn still remains required reading in most schools throughout the United States. That said, something tells me that many of us are not causing a ruckus while rafting down the mighty Mississippi on weekends — so we must all find our own outlets to pursue adventure. Whether it’s a workout, an airplane ride, rock climbing, or exploring a new part of your city, we men should never stop seeking exciting and challenging experiences. And though it might seem strange at first, I quite often have these kinds of experiences in the kitchen.
Cooking should be viewed much more as an adventure than a task. Whether you are fishing, hunting, or simply acquiring goods at the local market — much of the thrill that comes from cooking lies miles away from any stovetop. For me, the idea of spending more time in the kitchen is all relative. My kitchen is sometimes at my home in Nashville, TN — but more often it’s on the road, afield at a hunting camp, or outside on the grill. To play off the title of one of Hemingway’s memoirs — A Movable Feast — a kitchen is anywhere you hang your cast-iron skillet.
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon in my adopted hometown of Nashville. Though I’ve called the city home for the past 10 years, it seems to be the “it” locale these days, attracting not only country crooners but retirees, recent grads, and families — most of whom are not from the South. When I ask folks what brought them to Nashville, the most common response I hear is not just the BBQ, but that everyone is so nice down here. Such a statement is solid country gold to my ears; the South’s most regarded tradition — hospitality — is alive and well.
Cooking and sharing food with others allows you to perfect this centuries-old practice. Inviting others into your home to sit and enjoy a meal cooked by hand is one of the most simple, yet fulfilling forms of hospitality. My kitchen table serves as an open invitation to friends, family, and strangers — it’s a place where we’ve celebrated the joy of friendship, the miracle of new kiddos, and sometimes the sting of loss, or the settling of differences. Breaking bread with others is one of life’s most primal instincts. It fosters tradition and community, and creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere in your home.
The dictionary defines generosity as the habit of giving without expecting anything in return. We often showcase this habit to others by sharing our gifts, whether it be money, talent, or time to help aid and serve others. The key component is giving freely — without expecting anything in return. Cooking and sharing food provides me with a daily platform to exhibit my own form of generosity to others. Sure, I’m talking about serving up generous portions of food to friends and family, but I’m also talking about being kind and gregarious in teaching your talents so that others might also reap the same rewards.
I count myself fortunate to have found my love for cooking at an early age. Since my parents were strict on schedules and routines, I was often rushing home after football or baseball practice to fulfill my nightly chore of helping mama in the kitchen. It was those nightly lessons, standing side-by-side with mama, where I learned the recipes of our family. I learned the joy that results from being able to conceptualize, execute, and serve a “from-scratch” meal, much to the delight of others, without spending hours and hours in the kitchen.
Generosity is contagious, and I believe we men can help build stronger families and communities if we generously and kindly share parts of ourselves, and our work, with others — without of course, expecting anything in return.
One of my favorite lessons I picked up in college was to have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Think about it, an insatiable thirst? How powerful! No matter how much is studied, learned, practiced, and repeated — you will never be able to quench your desire to stop learning! I’m of the mindset that we are all at our best when we are constantly challenging and educating ourselves.
It’s that intellectually curious attitude that keeps me exploring and learning in the kitchen. Cooking offers an autonomous and never-ending challenge to continue to study and evolve. New ingredients, types of cuisine, techniques, and equipment create opportunities for each of us to challenge ourselves. Learning the nuances and complexities of slow-smoking a pork shoulder is just as manly and stimulating as finely tuning a carburetor on a motorcycle.
Perhaps I’ve saved the best for last. Those ten women I stopped on the street were all crying out for one thing — better men! Good behavior and social practices remind us to open doors, to offer up your seat on the bus or train, and to stand when a lady enters the room. We all know these things, but how often do we put them into practice? Still, these are only the outward actions of being a good gentleman. To truly practice chivalry, one must pursue, understand (or try to, at least!), and fulfill the heart of a woman. I believe we men must take on a bit of adventure and risk to pursue said heart.
Of course you see where I’m going — you can do this in the kitchen! One of the simplest ways to express your love and care to your gal is by serving her food prepared by your own two hands — a routine that I live out each night for my wife in our home in Nashville. A home cooked meal is just one of the many ways that I can let her know I’ve been thinking of her and that I care about her. And yes, from time to time I want to show off a bit of skill in the kitchen! Women love a man who can cook.
So, now that I’ve got your wheels turning, hopefully you’ll soon begin to share my passion that the kitchen can be used as your workshop — a place to cook great meals, enjoy the company of others, and more importantly, work on yourself.
Sitty’s Fried Chicken
Since y’all clamored so much for it in the past, I’m happy to share one of the well-guarded recipes in my family from the new book — my grandma Sitty’s Fried Chicken.
My grandmother Sitty’s secret recipe for fried chicken is all about the dredge, which uses basic seasoning, flour, and water. Simplicity is the key — after all, the star of the show is the chicken. Mama said that my grandfather Giddy, who was a butcher by trade, taught Sitty that the best chickens were those that weighed around 3 lbs. Preparing the chicken in the following manner will yield a very thin, crisp coating, and juicy, tender chicken beneath.
- 1 whole chicken (3 lbs), cut into 8 pieces
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- peanut oil
- Rinse chicken with cold water and pat dry. Place chicken in a large bowl; sprinkle with salt and pepper, tossing to coat. Sprinkle flour and ½ cup water over chicken; toss chicken with flour mixture, using fingers to rub flour paste into skin until thoroughly coated. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill anywhere from 1-24 hours.
- Pour oil to a depth of 1 inch into a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Heat oil over medium heat to 350 degrees F.
- Fry drumsticks and thighs in hot oil, bone sides down, 8 minutes. (Increase heat for first few minutes, if necessary, to maintain oil temperature at 350 degrees F.) Carefully turn chicken, rotating pieces away from your body; fry 8 more minutes or until browned and desired degree of doneness. Remove chicken, and transfer to a wire rack over paper towels. Repeat procedure with remaining chicken pieces (breasts and wings), reducing frying time to 7 minutes on each side.