Monday, March 21, 2011

Beer Can Chicken

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 359

You can take the boy out of the South...

Growing up in Tennessee I spent an undue amount of time focused on what I didn't have instead of really appreciating what I did have, often in abundance.

One of the things I took for granted is something I readily seek now, real food. The sorts of dishes composed from largely real ingredients, often locally grown or raised or harvested or otherwise sourced. Scratch built meals orchestrated from memory or guided by hand me down recipes or from consulting ratty, butterfly wing fragile clippings from newspapers long since used to spark off the kindling in a wood stove or fire place.

Food Network Chef and total darling dreamboat Michael Simon wrote a preface in one of his books stressing the importance of real ingredients. While I'm not sure how he feels about beer, I'm certain he'd agree with me on the importance of procuring a quality bird. This is a bit of armchair gastronome's nostalgia, a gastronaut's absurdest rocket shot squarely into eye of the moon of sensibly salivating summation.

In the 70's in Eastern Tennessee lots of people where I lived grew their own produce, or knew someone who did, because buying that stuff from a grocery store cost money folks I grew up around simply didn't have. Filling your back yard with corn and tomato stakes, potatoes, onions, and watermelon could offset considerable costs along the way, and you could always can what you didn't eat into mason jars that'd keep well through several presidential elections.

What folks on our end of the economic ladder, the end with all the mud on it, when we did buy from the grocery the contents typically came dressed in a white boxes or wrapped with white labels, bold black text sandwiched between rows of black stars, generic foodstuffs because name brand packaged foods cost too much. I don't believe I actually tried Kraft's version of Mac & Cheese until I was in junior high, or Oscar Meyer's version of sandwich meats until I'd gotten well past puberty.

The neat thing, from a childhood perspective that is both naive and blissfully unaware of the contrary, there were tasty treats growing everywhere, and far as I knew, they were largely fair game. Apples, tomatoes, wild onions that I couldn't get enough of, honeysuckle blossoms on vines weaving along fences and up the sides of houses like kudzu, blackberries nestled among thorny bushes than grew in and along the rain sodden ditches next to gravel roads linking pastures and porch wrapped farm houses.

Mamaw Crawford was a sort of village to raise a child type grizzled grandmother at 40 chain smoking iron-sides tough love with a huge pumpkin-sized Solid as goddamn Gold heart that looked after my brother and I in during the day when my Mom worked multiple jobs and school had no use for us. She had a host of kids gallivanting around the place, most of them related but not all. Even after my Mom met the lucky fellow that became my Step-dad, Mamaw still took care of my brother Matt & I quite often until our family moved out to Telford, which is next to Limestone, and both those no-horse towns sit next to what is officially referred to as the Middle Kingdom of Nowhere, also known as Greeneville. I exaggerate a little, and digress a lot, so moving on now.

Mamaw's kitchen was her roost, her seat of power a wooden chair she leaned back against the wall with, her feet always bare and thick calloused souls, toenails like bear claws. She wore round lensed glasses like the sort Radar O'Reilly wore on M.A.S.H. and her hair fanned out something like Gene Wilder's did in Willy Wonka, and struck me as something made of wire and willpower, when angry I believe sparks could leap from her iron hair like lightning. No one messed with Mamaw. She could stop rolling renegade rail cars with a glare while feeding two babies at once and rubbing whiskey on the teething-sore gums of another. Chuck Norris might be the sound of one hand clapping, but Mamaw Crawford kept the bears and mountain lions out of Jonesboro, her reputation for protecting all her kids something even rattlesnakes shading themselves under Arizona flat rock had heard tell of.

Talking to my brother Matt recently, he remembered a spot the kids all knew to avoid in the kitchen where the wood had rotted out beneath the linoleum tiles and no one could be bothered to do anything about it. I remember to step on it was like stepping on a sponge or tentatively touching the forbidden soft spot on a baby's head; you just couldn't muster the bravado to put your full weight on it, and I never did for fear of breaking through and falling into a pit of demons or some such like one of those Jack Tales folks used to tell around the campfire every summer.

Mamaw's house was a single story place, shallow and wide, with one end forbidden and off limits since her Fireman Chief husband slept during the days. Recall the one time I ever saw old Zeke Crawford woken from his daytime slumber to come out and make a citizen's arrest of a fellow suffering a serious case of morning drunk hugging the solitary stop sign pole near the porch side corner of the yard while every kid around rubbernecked from whatever purchase or peephole they could find.

The yard sloped down from the front door and held steady for a bit before a sharp up-sweep of an embankment kissed the shoulder of the narrow, well worn asphalt of a single lane road that rolled about a block onwards to intersect with the heart of downtown, Jonesboro. The lower elevation has been worn patchwork bare by a myriad kid's games, most of them improvised variations of things seen yet not well understood on TV, and included whatever tools or balls or costumes could be found, had rolled of the roof during the last thunderstorm, or had been pinched from the clothes line when adult attentions were elsewhere.

Mamaw sometimes had missions for the kids. One I'd been too young to be entrusted with involved making your way down to the creek to catch bullfrogs Mamaw could steal the legs from to bread and fry up in a big old iron skillet on the range top of a creaky mustard greenish beige Kenmore stove. She might've even called them creek chickens, or I might've just made that up. I recall the kids thundering in with shirts full of squirming frogs, hoping Mamaw would pick one or two frogs from them before making them return the unfit ones, the ones still too small to be truncated, back to let loose into the creek. Picked frogs meant grocery store spending, as frogs were worth a quarter apiece and two frogs meant a 35 cent pack of Star Wars cards with change left over for a jawbreaker or some of that sour apple gum Mamaw hated the smell of and forbade inside the house. Economy for kids is measured by tangible material goods.

Around the side of the house Mamaw had a chicken coup, not unusual for an working class or rural country household to have, I believe she had rabbits and a turkey or two on occasion. For a fair portion of one summer there was a rescued baby raccoon living in a wire cage in the den. Pretty freidly little guy, got fat off al the treats the kids kept sneaking to it, carrots, hot dog bits, crayons...

The standing rule of the household forbade any child from coming round the animal menagerie corner of the house when Mamaw lumbered out of her kitchen lair and went around to fetch up something for dinner. So of course I tip-toed around to watch her once, see what all the secrecy about, and discovered there are some things in life you can't un-see. One of them is witnessing her windmilling that hen around by the head like a cartoon bunny winding up a major league pitch until the weight of the body gave in to physics and snapped the doomed bird's neck with an audible pop! A hatchet clop later the headless bird began getting defrocked of feathery plumage and I ran away to curse my curiosity.

That sacred promise to all fowl kind lasted about three days until my Mom on a rare night home early made buttermilk and cornflake breaded skilled-fried chicken. Fast forward thirty plus years, my love for most Southern approaches to preparing the bird hasn't diminished one iota through the years, just gotten far more difficult to arrange. Organic, free range, had a healthy childhood sorts of birds cost a lot since they're the exception instead of what should be the rule. Fried chicken is not advisable as a daily treat for cholesterol concerns, though the concept chicken and waffles deserved a national holiday. Rotisserie chicken is tasty however not a lot of venues offer the authentic product in the North West.

One variation of preparing chicken transcends modern concerns and hearkens back to the sorts of rotisserie roasting of chickens Kenny Rogers turned into a mid-western fast food paradigm. The idea might've started from using colas as a caramelizing glaze in efforts to add more flavor and moisture to pork BBQs, the beer can bird is a treat that is best shared with friends on a special occasion, though true the meal is special occasion enough on its own.

And additional to a quality bird, the secret ingredient that makes the meal sparkle is beer, specifically in a can, more precisely in a can shoved up into the roast ready bird's greater cavity.

I'll defer to the Food Network's ample recipe for detailed instructions and focus instead on the result, a delectable treat that makes me want to call home and brag to Mama. Particularly if the white meat is moist like young love and while the skin serves as a cracklin' crispy counterpoint. That said, I do want to point out one key element in Food Network's recipe instructions, "Open beer can and take several gulps (make them big gulps so that the can is half full)." And those instructions remain largely true through the rest of enjoying the bird as well, with friends, ideally out under a clear, open sky.

And when you do, give a wave to Mamaw for me, 'cause if it weren't for her, I'd not have the respect and appreciation for the lives chickens give up that I do now.



  1. OK - I grew up in KY and have never even heard of beer can chicken before...I'll have to tell DAC and see if my personal chef would like to put an English twist in the mix. I'll keep you posted on results!

  2. Noice, I'd love to hear how the project turns out, hopefully tasty!