ROBERT ST. JOHN: High jinks from childhood greatly missed in adulthood

robertstjohnPeople travel thousands of miles to visit Europe’s massive cathedrals. The American Southwest draws people from all over the world to view landscapes carved by Mother Nature’s natural wear and tear. Families will endure two day’s worth of noisy backseat car rides to visit an amusement park.

We travel for what we love. I travel for food.

I traveled to Philadelphia, Miss., last week to film a television pilot at Peggy’s restaurant. When I met with the show’s producers several months ago, they asked me to list various restaurant concepts around Mississippi they could visit for the program. Peggy’s was in my top three. It is where fried chicken lovers have been going for a hookup since before I was born.

If you haven’t been to Peggy’s, imagine what it would have been like if your grandmother had decided to open a restaurant in her home, using her china, and cooking the food you grew up eating from her kitchen.

Actually, that is how Peggy’s began. Peggy Webb and her family lived in the home that also served as a restaurant for several decades before it became a full-time restaurant.

Peggy’s is not your everyday, average, run-of-the-mill meat-and-three diner.

The food is served in large bowls that sit atop makeshift hot plates that sit atop a makeshift buffet table in what used to be a hallway that led from the dining room to the kitchen. The vegetables are Southern soft, the tea is Deep South sweet, and the entire operation is run on the honor system with a basket of bills and coins near the door where one is expected to make his or her own change.

It’s all quite charming. But what the Peggy’s neophyte needs to know is it’s all about the chicken. Some might say, “Fried chicken is fried chicken.” In that case “some” would be wrong. Peggy’s is the Mecca for fried chicken in the state of Mississippi and it is every bit worth a two-hour drive.

While I was there last week there was a couple who had driven from Birmingham for no other reason than to eat lunch at Peggy’s. Once they finished they hopped in the car and drove back home to Alabama.

Peggy’s prepares all the usual suspects that accompany a Southern meal – rice and gravy, peas, cornbread, and banana pudding, and they are all good. But it’s the fried chicken category where Peggy’s separates the players from the wannabes.
Peggy’s fried chicken is light.

How can fried chicken be “light” you ask? It’s a question I have pondered for years. On this visit I got an answer.

The film shoot started early in the morning and I was able to hang out in the kitchen with Larry Winston who has been frying chicken for 15 of the 52 years Peggy’s has been open. First, they use small birds. Not massive hormone-laced birds with enormous breasts. The birds were small. Therefore the chicken pieces, once cut, didn’t need to cook as long as larger birds. Larger chicken pieces overcook on the outside before you can finish cooking the inside.

Peggy’s doesn’t marinate their chicken in buttermilk or brine it in salt water or tea. They just hold it in cold water for a bit and then go straight into a breading of flour, salt and pepper. Just how our grandmothers used to do it.

I’ve eaten fried chicken all over the South. I’ve had it brined in tea and seasoned with every foreign spice one could imagine.

The key, I believe, is in the oil. Peggy’s doesn’t use lard laced with butter, they don’t use Crisco (like my grandmother did), and they don’t use peanut oil. Peggy’s uses cottonseed oil.

I’ve been using cottonseed oil for years. It’s one of the key ingredients in our Sensation salad dressing (a mainstay on our menus for two and a half decades).

Cottonseed oil doesn’t overpower other flavors; it enhances them. It has a higher smoke point than most oils with a clean smell and flavor. It’s also one of the healthier oils available.

The problem is unless you are in the restaurant business, cottonseed oil is very hard to find. The good thing, however, is that Peggy’s is not hard to find. Just go to Philadelphia, Miss. on a Tuesday or Friday (Peggy’s fried chicken days) and ask anyone in town. They’ll steer you to one of our Mississippi’s greatest treasures – and one that is most definitely worth the travel time.

Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books. This week’s recipes for SENSATION SALAD DRESSING AND SENSATION CHEESE MIX can be found at www.robertstjohn.com.

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This week’s recipes for BROCCOLI SLAW AND DRESSING can be found at www.robertstjohn.com.