Monday, 7 July 2008

Independence Day in England: Oxymoronical?

The dictionary tells me that an oxymoron is "a rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined" (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd Ed.). Even better is the original Greek "oxumoron" -- which translates as "pointedly foolish."

Am I just being pointedly foolish to even attempt to celebrate July 4th in England? For what am I celebrating exactly? As a current dependent of the UK, is it not just a little bizarre to keep this wholly American tradition going? Never mind the "oxy" bit, am I just a moron?

Without the parades, the fireworks, and the patriotism, what does July 4th really offer for an expatriate American? I've pondered this question long and hard, (well, at least short and superficially), and I have a very satisfactory answer: July 4th is a good excuse to get together with American friends and eat fried chicken.

I've never had a stock way of celebrating the 4th, but there are definitely key ingredients. Here is my ideal (and like most ideals, never actually experienced): the fried chicken (of course), potato salad, corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes, cold watermelon, biscuits and peach cobbler. A warm summer night. A dip in the lake. Sparklers. Homemade ice cream -- made the old-fashioned way, with rock ice and a churn and a grandfather. Good people.

If you have good food, and equally good people to share it with, isn't that all the sense of "occasion" that you will ever need?

I don't know when or why fried chicken came to epitomize July 4th for me -- to be its very essence -- but there it is. No matter where I am in the world, I want to eat fried chicken on Independence Day -- even if I have to fry it myself. The funny thing is that I don't recall my family ever frying chicken. Indeed, we were probably more likely to have hamburgers or grilled pork tenderloin. In the mythical days of my childhood, when we used to have July 4th at my grandmother's lake house, I remember having barbequed chicken -- but definitely not the fried stuff I insist on now. If my obsession with fried chicken as the symbol of July 4th is rooted in any reality at all, I think that it has to be traced back to the annual church picnic. Whenever church people gather for potluck, you can always count on someone bringing a bucket of fried chicken. Because I grew up during a culinary era dominated by mystery casseroles and jello salads, I think that I learned early on to make a beeline for the fried chicken -- the always reliably delicious choice.

The truth is that I would never bother to make fried chicken in Texas. I'm not that crazy; I'm not that in need of a 4-6 hour project in which I am likely to burn myself. When you've got Church's, Popeye's and KFC on your corner, there really is no point in trifling with home cooking. However, in the English countryside, if you want to eat fried chicken you are going to have to do for yourself. This year, although I lingered over Homesick Texan's recipe, I decided to go with something tried and true: Nigella Lawson's recipe from Nigella Bites. Her recipe is a bit unusual, but it really takes the anxiety out of frying chicken. Her secret? You cook the chicken before you fry it. To be more specific, you brine the chicken in salty milk overnight -- and then you gently poach the chicken in its milk bath. You actually just fry it for a couple of minutes -- so when the crust looks golden enough, the chicken is done. (No burnt chicken! Even better, no fear of raw chicken!) I had a piece for lunch today -- and even though the crust was not at its best, the meat was still tender and juicy.

I realize that it is a bit ironical to consult an English cook for a quintessentially American recipe, but hey, that's the nature of my life. That's why we drank Pimm's and ate peach cobbler: I like to cherrypick the best from both cultures.

Last week Barrie Summy issued a call-out for favorite summer recipes. I knew that I had to post my beloved recipe for Hill Country Peach Cobbler -- because it is easy, delicious, summery and it tastes like home to me. Unfortunately, I've been running late all week . . . and I've missed the publishing deadline. But just because Just a Plane Ride Away said that she liked it, I present my notion of a perfect summer dessert.

Hill Country Peach Cobbler
(courtesy of Martha Smith, of San Antonio)

3/4 cup flour
dash of salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 cup sugar (plus an extra 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top)
3/4 cup milk
4 0z butter
3 cup sliced peaches

Sift flour, salt, and baking powder together. Mix in 1 1/2 cup sugar. Stir in milk. Melt butter in 8x8x2 inch (or similar) pan. Pour batter over the melted butter; do not stir. Lay peaches on batter. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Bake for 1 hour at 350F/180C oven.

I don't make peach cobbler very often -- mostly because I am the only person in my family who truly likes it. Sigmund never misses a chance to tell me that it is like a crumble -- but not as nice. While I would never disparage a good crumble, I think that there is something magical about this cobbler. I love its silky, buttery texture. I love the way it makes its own doughy crust. I love the voluptousness of the peaches. I also especially love this recipe because of its storied history. Years ago, or back when I was 23 years old and newly launched into the adult world, I had a "grown-up" dinner at the home of a newly married friend. We went to the Farmer's Market on the old Austin Highway in San Antonio, and we bought plump ears of corn, juicy tomatoes, and beautifully ripe Fredricksburg peaches. As we chatted away, my friend Martha put together a simple, but unbelievably delicious, summer dinner: Barbeque chicken, corn, fresh green salad, glistening cut tomatoes . . . and peach cobbler, with Homemade Vanilla Blue Bell ice cream, for dessert. I begged Martha to copy the recipe down for me, and I still have that recipe card -- almost 20 years later. No cobbler that I make will ever be able to duplicate the perfection of Martha's cobbler, but I keep trying!

As for my ideal July 4th, well, it was a bit less than perfect. It was too cold and windy to sit outside, so we had to huddle around my kitchen table. I forgot to serve the potato salad. I put too much butter in the peach cobbler. We didn't have homemade ice cream. Almost everyone had to leave before it was dark, and we didn't really get around to doing the fireworks.

However . . . there was fried chicken. There was peach cobbler. There was champagne, brought by Audrey, and the most delectable brownies, made by Just a Plane Ride Away. And most of all, best of all, there were good people. Old friends and new -- with a foot on each side of the pond.


Barrie said...

I'm glad you had a chance to celebrate the fourth--in your own way. :)

Thanks for posting the recipe. It looks delicious.

I linked to it. I know it's after the fact, but you never know when someone's googling. ;)

Bitty said...

July 4th is a good excuse to get together with American friends and eat fried chicken.

That's pretty much how we see it on this side of the ocean, too!

Kate said...

Have you tried Laurie Colwin's recipe for fried chicken?
It's divine.
Here in the cul de sac, eight families celebrated the Fourth. My husband's margarita infused smoked chicken got the kudos. If I'm ever on death row, my last meal request will include that chicken. ;)
P.S. Is your husband's name really Sigmund?

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Bee--Thank you, thank you, my dear, for including us in your lovely celebration. It was so delightful meeting you, your enchanting daughters, and Sigmund, your resident fireworks expert.

Hurray--the recipe for your Peach Cobbler! While it was cooking I wanted to sit by the oven and smeeeeeeeeellllllll and pretend I was home. Boo hoo, Blue Bell. I haven't found its British substitute. I suppose I could try making my own, but for some reason I am always wary about raw eggs. What do you think?

I have never heard of poaching chicken before frying. Mr. DJ and I were marveling at how tender and ungreasy the chicken was! Part of the reason I've never cooked it at home is I've always been worried I'd over or under cook. Thanks for sharing your very important tip.

BTW, Mr. DJ said that he was sorry he missed your potato salad. It's his favorite.

I raise my imaginary glass of the most addicting drink I’ve had on this side of the pond--Pimm's--and say with all earnestness, "Cheers, Bee!"

Bee said...

Thanks for including me in your recipe potluck! I had to get up early this morning . . . because my oldest daughter is still at school . . . and I spent some time checking out the other recipes. It's a fun way to find new links.

Isn't it funny how most (all?) holidays get boiled down to these two elements: friends/family and food!

I'm a big fan of READING Laurie Colwin's recipe for fried chicken, but I've never actually tried it. I don't have the right equipment, for one. BTW, Colwin is one of my all-time favorite writers.

Your husband's chicken recipe sounds wonderful, too. Would you consider sharing it?

My husband's name is not really Sigmund -- but it is something close to that. Sigmund is actually an old family nickname for him, and of course I like the Freudian association!

Now you will have to join us for Halloween and/or Thanksgiving as well!

I'm so glad that you liked the peach cobbler. It always makes me sad that my own family doesn't appreciate it. As for Blue Bell, there is no substitute. When we get back from holiday I might just set myself the task of mastering a good vanilla ice cream.

I have to admit that since I discovered the poaching tip I haven't really wanted to do fried chicken any other way. But I do feel that I should try Homesick Texan's or Colwin's recipe someday.

Isn't a Pimm's cocktail the perfect summer drink? Thanks for the toast!

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I’m so sorry to miss your July 4th party as it sounded perfect even without potato salad. Plenty enough potatoes in England as is! You were so lucky with the weather too. Did you get that crazy hail yesterday?

We had an odd July 4th punting with my parents, but we did at least toast the USA over dinner. I think it’s great to hold onto your heritage wherever you land. Especially if you can add Pimm’s – my favorite English summer drink.

And speaking of landing, I’ve posted early this week as I’m going into frantic packing mode. So sad to think that it’s my last Oxford post, but I’ll keep going in Maine. Lucky you to have more time in England.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Pimm's and fried chicken? You are truly a girl of the world now Bee. That strikes me somehow as just right.

The method of frying chicken you describe sounds very nice. I will certainly give it a try. I'm totally with you on frying chicken. I almost never do it at home.

How is it you can buy fireworks over there for the fourth?

btw - Peach cobbler is the quintessential summer dessert in my part of the world, and certainly in my home.

Minx said...

I suppose you don't need a special occasion to eat with friends. The Hog Festival in Outer Pygmalia is next Tuesday - I'm right there with them!!

Alyson said...

What an interesting 4th. It would be odd to celebrate our independence from the British, while in Britain.

I wish I had your zest for cooking. I'm always intimadated and think everyone will judge my cooking too harshly. I keep thinking I'll entertain that way someday, but usually just end up with a good pizza or my hubby at the bbq. So, I'm envious of your skill in the kitchen! I aspire to be there someday!

Anne said...

What a great holiday! It's hard to go wrong with good friends, fried chicken, and peach cobbler. I can't wait to try that cobbler recipe. My mom's peaches are just starting to be harvest-ready, but they're white peaches, and I've always felt that yellow peaches are better suited to cobbler than white peaches are. I shall make a trip to the farmer's market for some yellow ones.

Lucy said...

How delicious, the whole description!

I think it must be an expat thing to start to crave food from one's country of origin that one never ate much there; I find I crave British style sausages, marmite, etc which I scarcely thought of there...

I seem to remember in The Joy of Cooking - a cookbook I love though the use of cups and exclusively volume measures often confounds me - there's a recipe for some kind of fried chicken pre-cooked in milk.

The use of peaches in baking, cobblers, pies etc, in US food always intrigues me. On the whole I prefer the more robust flavour of apricot, but perhaps if one had American peaches... Cobblers for us are a savoury favourite, beef or chicken, and really wonderful too. My American aunty used to make chicken and biscuits, which was very good...

Now I'm feeling really hungry! I'm going to check JoC for that recipe.

Bee said...

Yes, we've had hail and buckets of rain. In comparison, Friday night's weather was positively balmy!

I'll be thinking of you as you pack and prepare to leave. I do feel sad that you won't be in Oxford anymore, but now I have another excuse to visit Maine someday.

I do love a Pimm's!!

Sigmund got the fireworks at a garden centre. Why they had them I do not know. They are perfectly legal where we are . . . and during Guy Fawkes week, at the beginning of November, you can hear them going off for about a week.

The Hog Roast in "Outer Pygmalia" (is that really a place?) sounds very intriguing!

I always think that if you can read, you can cook. However, I will admit that my mom was a great cook . . . and so maybe I absorbed information (and thus take certain things for granted), without realizing it. When you get truly interested in it, I'm sure you will dive in -- with great aplomb!

I agree that the peach cobbler needs yellow peaches. Not sure why, though; maybe BSR knows? I bought some more peaches today -- these are Italian ones. Just writing about this peach cobbler made me want to make it (and eat it) again!

I think that your thought about craving the food that represents "home" is so spot-on. I'm sure that the fried chicken thing started years ago when I was first in England.

I would love to know if Julia does indeed give her fried chicken a milk bath. I think it is common to soak the chicken in milk, or buttermilk, but not so usual to actually cook it in the stuff. Do you have a set of measuring cups? If you do, then using "cups" is a breeze.

Texas is famous for its peaches. Homemade peach ice cream was one of the great delicacies of my childhood. My grandfather had an old churn, and I used to sit on the top of it (as an anchor) while he cranked away. I don't remember eating apricots at all -- except for dried ones!

Speaking of biscuits, I made biscuits for strawberry shortcake -- but we ate them all with the chicken! Of course the English folk amongst us called them "scones."

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, yes! Come and visit me in Maine. Assuming I ever get there. I should be packing, but this day is too blah to focus. At least the kids are packed and shipped off to my in-laws. Now to do the rest!

Audrey said...


Thank you so much for hosting July 4th. I have to say, it feels at the moment like we should be thinking about roasting a bloody Turkey and not fireworks if the outside temperture dictates this kind of thing. Oh well, it was really fun and I loved the food and I still feel stuffed thinking about it. Except when reading your recipe and now I feel hungry.

JaneyV said...

God it all sounds FANTASTIC! I adore fried chicken and as I'm Irish - potato salad -'nuff said! One of the wonderful things about living here in England was discovering Pimms. Isn't it the best summer drink ever! Happy belated 4th everyone! There's always a good reason to celebrate the place that made you!

BTW The Peach Cobbler recipe sounds amazing. I will definitely try it out! And the Nigella tip for fried chicken is a godsend! or a Beesend!

Bee said...

Poor Sarah. Are you having the packing day blues? At least the awful weather should make you feel a teensy bit better about leaving England!

We HAVE had Texas Thanksgivings a lot warmer than this July day! BTW, I made another peach cobbler . . . because writing about it made me hungry too!

What are your favorite Irish foods? Is there an Irish holiday that you insist on celebrating in England?

JaneyV said...

Irish stew - made with mutton. Love it! Somewhere in heaven my mother is cussing me and all the arguments we had as I was growing up refusing to touch it. Now I think it's a glorious dish.

Nope - no Irish holidays - I don't even do St Paddy's day. It's because it's a total bust here. No parades! No day off work! You can't buy a decent bit of shamrock!