WEST HARRISON, Ind. — In case you see a steeple in southeastern Indiana, you could be fairly certain that fried hen is close by. In case you see the steeple in West Harrison, about 20 miles from the Indiana-Ohio-Kentucky border, that hen is fried throughout the road at St. Leon Tavern by the proprietor, Aaron Klenke. Most individuals would name the place a bar, however I name it a spot that serves among the finest fried hen I’ve tasted.
On this nook of Indiana, fried hen is part of the native soul — a staple of the after-church dinner and by no means very removed from Sunday providers.
“We name it hen paradise,” mentioned Janet Litmer, 60, supervisor of the Hearth Inn in Enochsburg. A standard chorus right here is “If the Colonel had been born in southern Indiana, he’d have been a basic.”
Till my spouse, the novelist Ann Hood, introduced me to Greensburg, her father’s hometown, telling me I used to be about to have one of the best fried hen of my life, I used to be sure that I made one of the best hen I’d had in my life. To my delight, she was proper.
So we returned not too long ago to go to 9 of the three dozen or so eating places that serve a really particular type of a definitively American staple.
The key to this fried hen? Desk salt, coarse pepper and flour. Those that wish to gild the lily prepare dinner it in lard in a skillet.
In a meals world that grows more and more extra complicated, the place fried hen usually includes brining and buttermilking and all method of seasoned flours, listed below are cooks whose hen mirrors the economic system and ease of the cornfields that encompass them. (This 12 months, these fields are lined in butterweed for infinite miles; the heavy rains which have flooded the Midwest have left the soil too sodden to plant.)
“We don’t attempt to make it completely different from the way in which our grandmother did it,” mentioned Ginger Saccomando, 69, who took over Wagner’s Village Inn, her mother and father’ restaurant, 21 years in the past. A block away from the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis, it’s one in all two family-style eating places serving southern Indiana-style fried hen in Oldenburg, inhabitants 674.
This a part of the state is a land of farms, church buildings and family-restaurant buffets. Order the fried hen dinner, and it’ll arrive with mashed potatoes and gravy (and generally buttered noodles as effectively), canned inexperienced beans and coleslaw. The pedestrian sides solely shine extra gentle on the spectacular hen.
So many eating places serve this hen that the Indiana Foodways Alliance created a “Winner, Winner, Rooster Dinner” Path of 26 eating places and cafes the place guests can search out what here’s a weekly routine.
“Fried hen is related to these instances of Sunday gatherings,” mentioned Lindsey Skeen, advertising and marketing and media director for the alliance, which promotes independently owned eating places and the state’s meals tradition. “We’re Indiana individuals, and on Sunday after church we now have fried hen.”
The demand has lengthy been a pure results of Indiana’s ample provide of poultry. “Individuals may increase chickens,” she mentioned, “and a hen may feed lots of people.”
The world’s two different signature dishes additionally inform the story of this place. The pork tenderloin sandwich has its personal “Tenderloin Lovers” Path. The meat is pounded flat and as extensive as a basketball, breaded and fried, just like the schnitzel of the Germans who’re so outstanding within the space. (“Willkommen” reads the greeting signal on the street into Oldenburg.) Hoosier pie, generally referred to as sugar cream pie or desperation pie, displays the lengthy, arduous winters when there was little to make pie with past milk and sugar, thickened with cornstarch, set in a lard crust.
Ms. Saccomando believes that the primary restaurant specializing within the fried hen was the Hearthstone, in Metamora, within the 1950s. When her mother and father purchased what would develop into Wagner’s Village Inn in 1968, the homeowners of the Hearthstone confirmed the Wagners how they fried it. “Then all of a sudden everybody needed to be a hen restaurant,” she mentioned.
Ms. Litmer, who has labored on the Hearth Inn for 41 years, mentioned the restaurant opened in 1950 however didn’t start frying hen till the 1960s.
In Brookville, the place Dairy Cottage and Pioneer Restaurant & Lounge are the locations to go for hen, ornamental concrete chickens line each side of Major Road. On the city’s annual CanoeFest in 2010, the CanoeFest Fryers Membership stuffed a canoe with fried hen for what was then a Guinness world report for the biggest serving of fried hen: 1,645 kilos.
If there’s a single factor that the majority distinguishes Indiana fried hen, it’s the heavy use of pepper. The model on the Brau Haus, a block from Wagner’s, is roofed in a lot pepper it virtually seems grey. And it’s fabulous.
“It’s the pepper,” confirmed Carisa Wells, 42, who tends bar at St. Leon. “In case you don’t like pepper … ” she trailed off, shaking her head.
However in my estimation, what makes this hen so good is a lot of issues.
Many of the locations we visited purchase their hen from O’Mara Meals, in close by Greensburg, which supplies a smaller chicken than is often provided in grocery shops.
O’Mara as soon as bought solely Indiana chickens, however in 1982 it stopped slaughtering, expanded into the wholesale meat enterprise and now buys about 9,000 chickens per week from Golden-Rod Broiler, in Alabama, most of which it distributes to about 40 eating places making the fried hen.
Every three-pound chicken is minimize into 10 items, “an previous country-style minimize” that features the whole again and ribs of the hen, mentioned Blake O’Mara, 36, who runs the enterprise. “Households right here had eight to 10 children,” Mr. O’Mara mentioned. “The mother, who was the one slicing the hen, knew the best way to minimize it to feed as many as attainable.”
To study the craft of southeastern Indiana hen, I went to the one that I imagine makes one of the best of one of the best: Chris Harvey, at Wagner’s.
“There’s no recipe,” Mr. Harvey, 48, informed me as he labored six chickens in three 15-inch skillets on Memorial Day weekend. “Simply salt and pepper until it seems proper.” Wearing a short-sleeve sweatshirt, jean shorts and sneakers, he can deal with six pans, with 120 items, directly. By the tip of the weekend, he had fried roughly 5,000 items of hen.
The chickens are youthful than you’ll find in most shops, so they’re extra tender, the proportion of crust to meat greater. The standard of the birds was evident of their agency flesh and clear, white pores and skin.
Wagner’s, like most eating places within the space, fries the again items as effectively. In case you’re from right here, you don’t waste a factor. “The again’s my favourite piece,” mentioned Mr. Harvey, who has labored at Wagner’s for the final eight years, seven days per week.
Mr. Harvey walked me by means of his course of: He put two chickens in a lodge pan, gave the items a heavy dose of salt, a critical shake of pepper (“extra of each than you’d suppose,” he mentioned) and massaged the seasoning in till he may see that the pepper was evenly distributed. He coated them in plain flour in a second lodge pan, then put them into the fats.
Whereas virtually each different native restaurant deep-fries the hen in soybean or vegetable oil, he makes use of lard. He mentioned it was essential to seek out lard with out BHT, an antioxidant that forestalls rancidity however leaves a nasty aftertaste. And he makes essentially the most of his lard, he mentioned, including to the provision so usually that it stays recent.
When the fats in a chicken-filled skillet received low, he dipped a pan into melted lard saved in a stockpot beside the range and stuffed the skillet up almost to the brim and saved on frying. When one pan of hen was achieved, he eliminated the items, then emptied the pan — the fats, the “crumbs” on the backside, and all — again into the stockpot of lard. The crumbs sank to the underside, and could be used to taste the roux base for making the gravy.
He then scraped the pan clear with a large spackling knife and toweled it out till it was shiny and black, earlier than refilling it with the used, golden-brown fats to fry the subsequent batch.
What Mr. Harvey cooks the hen in, then, is a peppery, chicken-flavored lard — my guess as to why the flavour of this hen is so wealthy.
The coup de grâce: Simply earlier than he removes the hen, he provides about two tablespoons of water, which makes the oil bubble up. It “seals within the taste,” he mentioned, admitting that he didn’t know if that was true. “They used to make use of beer.”
I don’t know if this provides something, both, however I do it as a result of it’s a convention and a festive conclusion to frying hen, like flaming a crêpe suzette. The consequence, after 20 minutes within the fats, is a crisp, peppery, moist hen of beautiful simplicity.
“It’s a style of house,” mentioned Ms. Saccomando, watching Mr. Harvey prepare dinner. “Most younger individuals don’t know good fried hen anymore. This comes from our mother and father’ recipe, and our mother and father’ mother and father’ recipe.”
They have been, in spite of everything, Indiana individuals.
Recipe: Indiana Fried Rooster