Grandma’s Fried Chicken: Willie Mae Adams Takes It from Skillet to Plate
Willie Mae Adams washes chicken parts in the kitchen sink of her apartment at the corner of Church and Cone streets using tap water she’s boiled on the stovetop.
‘“I boil all my water first,’” she says, ‘“even cooking water.’”
She’s got a pot of it going on the stove now, and another next to it simmering with some rice. She’s removed the skins from the chicken pieces and now she rubs them with her secret ingredient, a brand of powdered chicken base she says is unavailable here in Greensboro.
‘“I send back to Chicago for it,’” she says, and opens her pantry door to reveal 14 more jars of it stacked on the bottom shelf.
Willie Mae spent most of her life on Chicago’s South Side; it’s where she raised her 11 children and then took in another five after her sister died.
She drops two big dollops of Crisco into a hot skillet and while it melts she seasons the chicken with salt and pepper.
‘“I don’t measure anything,’” she says. ‘“I cook by taste.’”
Her sensibility for fried chicken comes from the cotton fields of central Mississippi where she was born and her parents, grandparents, and undocumented generations before them toiled in the rich red dirt. She was birthed on the plantation by an aunt who prophesied shortly after the delivery that Willie Mae would bear 10 or 11 children.
‘“I had a baby every year until the last two ‘— they were two years apart,’” she says. ‘“I was built to have them.’”
Using her hands she coats the chicken pieces with a fine dusting of white flour and sets them one by one in the sizzling shortening. Just as the aroma begins to fill the small kitchen her front door opens and four of her grandchildren enter the apartment.
‘“How’d you kids get here?’” she asks.
‘“We took the bus.’”
Willie Mae has 45 grandchildren, many of them right here in town, and she says she can remember all of their names but has trouble keeping track of their birthdays. The kids, siblings Ricky, Katrina and Michael Hollie and their cousin Saketa Hollie, gather on the couches and watch music videos, giggling periodically at the dorky journalist and photographer as a dark storm rolls in from the west, visible through the second-story window. The kids, aged 12 through 16, pose for some photos. In the kitchen Willie Mae turns the chicken in the skillet with a fork.
‘“You’re not going to take my picture,’” Willie Mae says. ‘“No no no no no. I woulda got my hair done or something.’” After some encouragement, though, she consents to a few shots. ‘“At least I put on my eyebrows,’” she says.
The chicken crackles and pops on the stove and the smell intensifies.
‘“I didn’t cook fried chicken for my kids,’” she says. ‘“Fried food is not good for growing children. I would boil it, do chicken and dumplings, roasted chicken. There’s lots of ways to do chicken.’”
In Chicago, Willie Mae worked for 40 years in the kitchen of a South Side restaurant named Daley’s. ‘“The mayor had nothing to do with the restaurant,’” she says. She fried many a chicken in that kitchen on East 63rd Street, but during her tenure there she became known for her sweet potato pies.
‘“My pies are my specialty,’” she says. ‘“People fight over my pies.’”
The grandkids concur.
She pulls the chicken from the skillet piece by piece, drops them onto a foil tin to drain. ‘“Now let me show you how to make Southern-style gravy.’”
She pours a trickle of grease from the chicken skillet into a fresh pot, adds flour and lets it brown, adding more flour and grease in small increments. She grabs a container of boiled water from her refrigerator.
‘“You have to keep it from lumping,’” she says. ‘“You never put in hot water ‘— you use cold. Hot water will make it lumpy.’”
She stirs and scrapes and the gravy deepens in color and aroma. With sure hands she slices onion directly into the pot and the smell takes on stronger character. When the onions soften a bit she spoons up some rice on a plate and covers it with the gravy, serves it to her guest with some of the fried chicken. It is well received. She shakes her head.
‘“I’ve never seen someone get so excited about fried chicken,’” she says. ‘“Now I’m gonna get out of this kitchen. It’s hot.’” And she takes her place on the couch among her grandkids.
‘“I’m making pies this weekend,’” she says. ‘“You can come back on Monday and get one.’”