As the eldest, I got to ride on the mule’s back while Granddaddy plowed. Cynthia pulled carrots and fell on her bottom, and our roly-poly brother Wesley giggled on a handmade quilt set at the edge of the garden. Grandma had made sure that Granddaddy put another quilt between me and the mule, but the stiff hairs still tickled my ankles. We made furrow after furrow in parallel lines until it was time for Sunday dinner, the midday meal for a farm family. Cousins, aunts, uncles, babies and various and sundry visitors crowded around the table and bowed their heads for grace. The table groaned, and behind my head, the deep freeze was crowned with freshly baked pies and a fudge cake. But the centerpiece of the meal was, and always will be, Fried Chicken. Grandma had made her peace with one of the pullets earlier in the day, and had dressed her in a veil of flour and salt and pepper. Fried in a bath of lard and bacon fat and ham grease until shatteringly crisp, nothing could compare. Yes, the ham was as good as any prosciutto I have ever eaten, the mashed potatoes redolent, the string beans stewed with a piece of fatback until they melt in your mouth, and that chocolate cake – you could peel the frosting off and eat it like candy – but it was the chicken that spoke to me deeply of home and heritage and family.
Flash forward a number of decades. I am living in Manhattan, working as a private chef after 20 years of cooking for love instead of money. My dear friends, Kevin and Rob, have asked me to assist in the planning and oversight of their upcoming wedding – and they want the Sunday dinner menu. Rob Ashford, the celebrated director and choreographer, grew up in Beckley, West Virginia, and this iconic meal defines love and family for him as it does for me. I work with Pierre Schaedelin, one of New York’s greatest chefs, to recreate my grandmother’s recipe. We tinker with the seasoning in the flour, we test out a buttermilk marinade, we discuss the reasons that the birds must be tiny (fyi – so that the meat cooks through in the same time that the crust browns). The wedding is a smashing success, so much so that Madison Cox, the celebrated landscape designer, invites me to Tangier, Morocco to prepare a picnic lunch as part of a special event to raise money for The American School. Over the course of a weekend, 80 lucky (and deep-pocketed) guests will attend a cocktail party at The American Legation, they will view a staged reading of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer (with Tom Bateman, Marisa Berenson, Linda Lavin, Zoe Rainey, Jake Robinson, Summer Strallen and Ruth Wilson) in the garden of Villa Leon l’African, the Tangier home of Pierre Bergé, followed by a full-on Moroccan dinner party at Villa Mabrouka, the house Yves St. Laurent shared with M. Bergé in North Africa.
Villa Mabrouka in Tangier. On a clear day you can see Spain.
My part in the festivities is to prepare the picnic lunch on Saturday afternoon at The Sea House on the coast. In honour of Tennessee Williams’ love affair with the American South, and the time he spent in New Orleans, we will serve an old-fashioned box lunch on the very coastline that inspired “Suddenly, Last Summer.” Pitchers of lemonade and sweet tea accompany the fried chicken, potato salad, succotash, biscuits, cornbread and pecan pie bars. There will be tons of young dancers and actors to help me with prep and filling the boxes and transporting everything to the beach, as Rob and Kevin are importing a coterie of delicious and delightful artists to perform for the weekend. I am excited and overwhelmed, and immediately begin to make lists. Madison and Kevin help me figure out what foodstuffs I will need to bring with me – bacon, fresh corn, cornmeal, pecans, biscuit flour. We order the lunch boxes, biodegradable utensils, gingham napkins, Chinese food boxes for the salads, waxed paper bags for the chicken. We debate the various pros and cons of tiny pecan pies vs. pecan pie bar cookies. I decide that I shall bring a stash of flaked Maldon sea salt, my secret weapon. Buttermilk isn’t a common ingredient in Morocco, so I test recipes using plain yogurt and milk as an adaptation. All the while, my head spins with thoughts of that 6-year-old girl on the back of a mule. My paternal grandparents were farmers – sustenance farmers – and here I was, heading off on the adventure of a lifetime to make fried chicken in Africa. While I am determined to make sure that my clients are overjoyed, I am even more anxious to make sure I do the Marshall clan proud.
The finished product. We packaged the chicken into individual boxes-- the better to picnic with. ADD WHAT YOU WANT HERE