Love That Chicken from Popeyes
by Brian Clarey
Here’sa dirty little culinary confession: I love fried chicken. Freakin’ loveit. Always have. And when I moved to the South 20 years ago (good god)I was introduced to a whole new universe of fried chicken. I’ve had itin restaurants and take-out joints, I’ve had it delivered and eaten itat the kitchen tables of sassy African-American women, each of whomclaimed hers to be the best. But my favorite fried chicken is the spicystuff that comes only from Popeyes. And with the fairly recentdeath of Al Copeland, the New Orleans legend who built the franchiseinto a flamboyant personal empire, I felt it was time to go back.Copeland built the franchise in his native city on the strength of achicken recipe that crossed cultural barriers; he inspired much beefwith politicians, businessmen, journalists and neighbors; he createdthe greatest Christmas light display in front of his gaudy Metairie house that the suburb had ever seen. And when he passed in March, I vowed to eat some Popeyes in his memory. WhenI was in college, I used to frequent the Popeyes fried chicken joint onSouth Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans to get a weekly fix of thatspicy stuff and an extra box of biscuits, which my stoner roommateliked to eat with honey. After college, when I lived in theFrench Quarter, I’d hit up the Popeyes on Canal Street for a big box ofspicy white meat and then spend a whole Sunday watching football andeating it out of my fridge. Every Mardi Gras I’d find myselfat the foot of St. Charles Avenue outside the Popeyes there, dippingspicy popcorn chicken into mashed potatoes and Cajun gravy, trying toget the pieces into my mouth while drinking beer and catching beads. Iwas broke and hungry back then, and when I ate my Popeyes I ate it downto the bones, stripping off every nugget of fried batter, prying outeach morsel of meat. “Look at that white boy go at that chicken,” awoman on Canal Street once exclaimed. There are 45 Popeyes chicken joints in the city of New Orleans. In the North Carolina Triad there is exactly one, nestled into a TC truck stop out in Whitsett. Andhere I am, out with the lot lizards and long-haulers and folks who haveloaded up on cigarettes and cowboy hats and perfume at the outlet storejust down the road on Interstate 40/85. The chicken concern is just asmall part of this bustling operation, and I approach the short counterand weigh my options. I decide on a two-piece — in the old days, when Iwas less concerned about diet and nutrition, I used to get three. Ialso used to get a lot of heartburn. Two pieces of chicken, a thigh and a breast, marinated in deep spices then battered and fried into blistering perfection. Ipeel off the crispy skin, not to discard it — that would be a sin — butto eat it all on its own. The meat is ample and juicy, and it brings meback. On the side I’ve arranged a portion of mashed potatoes with Cajungravy, absolutely the best side item in all of fast food dom. Thepotatoes are real, or as real as you’ll get in a fast-food place, andthe gravy… just look at it… this is no homogenized brown syrup. It hascharacter and depth, and you can see the ingredients suspended in thesauce, giblets, black pepper and cayenne. You can dip the biscuit inthis, and I do. I also procure a side of dirty rice which, to behonest, was not as I remembered it so I only take a couple bites. But Iwipe out the potato cup with the remnants of my biscuit and pile it onthe table, next to a cairn of chicken bones picked clean.
To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@ yesweekly.com.