Friday, August 31, 2012

Musings on Troy's Flying Chicken and Southern/Soul Food

Former star of Chicken Run
I'm going to talk about the new Southern/Soul food restaurant in Troy, The Flying Chicken, in a bit.  But first, at the risk of burying the lede--which is that The Flying Chicken is serving some really quality food--I want to get into the whole idea of Southern and Soul food, the dichotomy between the two, and what these differences might mean.

What gets me thinking about these matters, other than The Flying Chicken's food, is that their Facebook page calls the place both a "Soul food restaurant (and) Southern restaurant."  As of now, less than two months into their existence, the restaurant serves a pretty simple menu focused around fried chicken.  The special the day I visited was fish and grits, with sides including collard greens and sweet potato salad.  I ordered the chicken and waffles, with a side of real maple syrup.

I can't sit here and pretend I'm an expert on this type of cuisine.  I spent the past year living in a Southern state, North Carolina, but the town I lived in, Boone, is in the western mountains and not part of the real South.  Appalachia is its own world, defined by a rugged individualistic spirit, and on top of that Boone is a college town and mecca for tourists.

But there are some restaurants in Boone that strive for more traditional Southern cooking.  Between eating at those places and visiting cities like Charlotte, Greensboro, Charleston, and Savannah, I think I developed an idea of what's good and what's sub-par, imitation Southern food.  There was the fried chicken, of course, fried catfish and shrimp and grits, plus the collards, cornbread, biscuits, and hush puppies as sides.  And sweet tea to drink.  Always sweet tea.

Bertha's Kitchen in North Charleston, SC

A trip to Charleston in March, however, allowed me to look at Southern food--or was this now Soul food?--in a different light.  Bertha's Kitchen in North Charleston is a place like no other I've ever eaten in; it's been written about glowingly by some of the best food writers out there, yet it's more neighborhood staple than tourist destination.

The small building is mostly unadorned, standing unassumingly in an industrial part of town.  But inside, nearing dinner time and with March Madness games playing on a corner TV, a line snaked from the counter to the door.  And for good reason: the fried chicken was crunchy and juicy, and the lima bean soup was a revelation, so rich for having been stewed with ham hocks.  This, I learned, was not simply Southern food or even Soul food, but Lowcountry cuisine, its origins tied to the geographical region, rich in shrimp, crabs, and oysters and suitable for the growing of rice.

But beyond region, it must be acknowledged that when talking about Southern food and Soul food, race plays a historic role.  As Edna Lewis stated in Gourmet, "The early cooking of southern food was primarily done by blacks, men and women. In the home, in hotels, in boardinghouses, on boats, on trains, and at the White House. Cooking is hard and demanding. It was then, and it still is now. What began as hard work became creative work."  There is rich tradition associated with this food, with history and region and climate and economics all playing a part, but that doesn't mean that this cuisine can't be appropriated lovingly and respectfully. 

This is the case at Troy's Flying Chicken, found in a fairly small storefront with wide windows looking out onto downtown.  The chef, Josh Coletto, is a graduate of the CIA.  You don't need to go to the CIA to learn how to make good fried chicken.  No matter--the fried chicken at The Flying Chicken is cooked thoughtfully and skillfully, prepared with the care one might expect reserved for duck confit.  And for my money, this fried chicken is right there with Bertha's as the best I've ever tasted.

The Flying Chicken menu, p. 1

There's an art to frying chicken, though as with any other form of art, there are competing schools and styles.  Of course the chicken itself needs to be succulent and juicy.  But the breading: only salt?  Salt and pepper?  More spices than that?  Buttermilk in the batter?  You might as well throw some Impressionists, Dadaists, and Realists in the same tiny little studio.  In the Capital Region, I'm already aware of the reputation Hattie's in Saratoga has staked out for itself.  I swung by there on my first visit here, in June, and while the chicken was good, the portions were unnecessarily large and the prices a bit high.  Most importantly, I think The Flying Chicken wins the battle of flavor.

At The Flying Chicken, Coletto eschews the frequently minimalist approach to fried chicken and seasons the breading with not just salt and pepper, but other spices that give the chicken a nice kick.  It's drained properly--often a glaring error with fried food--and both the dark and white meat are juicy inside.  As mentioned above, I had the chicken and waffles ($7), a hearty serving of two breasts on top of a yeasted waffle unlike any I've tasted in years.  Firm on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside, it would be a treat on its own but paired extremely well with the chicken.  And with a heaping serving of real maple syrup provided on the side for a dollar extra, the meal became luxurious when these three items were eaten in tandem.

The Flying Chicken menu, p. 2

The collard greens were a small misstep; they're cooked vegetarian, and while there is a bit of tang from vinegar in there, this flavor could be amped up.  The gesture to make them vegetarian is commendable, but the lack of a meaty smokiness feels like a faulty departure from tradition.

The Flying Chicken is a restaurant worth visiting, the vision of a chef who respects tradition by making extremely flavorful food.  Edna Smith wrote, "The foundation on which (Southern food) rested was pure ingredients, open-pollinated seed—planted and replanted for generations—natural fertilizers. We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care."  I don't know if Josh Coletto or the rest of the team at The Flying Chicken is from the South, but it feels as if they have followed Smith's outline and lovingly planted something in a part of Troy that is ripe for growth.

The Flying Chicken is located at 122 4th Street in Troy, NY

1 comment:

  1. I think the biggest thing I learned today is that it's not "lead" as in "first", it's "lede". Bravo.