Chef Eric Harvey's fried chicken may be the death of me. He serves it for lunch every Tuesday and Saturday at Munch's Restaurant & Sundries. The first thing I do after slinking onto a stool is glance around for the doctor who always harps about me lowering my cholesterol.
If I don't see Dr. Conscientious I wave to Miss Carmen, the blond server who knows me as "Honey." No need for me to order. A few minutes later she places my lunch — white and dark meat, mashed potatoes and sweet tea — before me in triumph.
Miss Carmen always provides a knife and fork, but I prefer to attack fried chicken with fingers, because that is the way fried chicken is supposed to be eaten at Munch's, a home-cooking place that opened a few months shy of six decades ago. Sometimes when I see newcomers using utensils, I know they must be from Indiana or possibly Chicago and can't possibly know how to eat fried chicken properly.
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The old restaurant at 3920 Sixth St. S has served honorable fried chicken since Dean and Clariece Munch opened the doors. "Every Saturday they offered a 99-cent chicken dinner," their son Larry, the current proprietor, tells me. "They had an eight-burner gas stove and fried chicken going in eight cast-iron skillets."
About five years ago, Munch's already fine chicken got even better when chef Eric tweaked the recipe. As word got out, customers of every color and creed took possession of booths, tables and stools on chicken day. During tourist season, when crowds tend to swell in Florida, chef Eric sometimes tossed the last piece into the deep fryer before 1 p.m.
Even now things can get a little crazy. Sometimes fried chicken eaters include the mayor, Coast Guard petty officers, preachers, cops, ponytailed hippies, suit-and-tie business types, landscapers, artists, actors and anglers fresh off the water. We turn our hungry eyes toward the kitchen.
The chef is a baby-faced 42. He has friendly brown eyes and wears a ball cap, T-shirt and shorts covered by an apron.
"I can tell you I wanted to be a cook from the time I was a little boy," he says while he works. "That's because I grew up surrounded by great cooks. The way I fry this chicken — I do it the way my mom and my grandmother taught me."
I know enough not to ask for the secret recipe. But I watch closely as he dips the already seasoned chicken into a milk-egg wash, drains off excess liquid and dips each piece in flour. Next each breast, wing and drumstick goes into peanut oil heated to 375 degrees.
"My grandmother was from Mississippi before moving here,'' he continues. "She was the classic Southern cook, Minnie Harvey, but I called her Big Momma. She was a hard-working woman — a nurse's aide — but man, could she cook. I'd stand next to the stove and watch her do the chitlins, turkey legs, pig's tails and chicken. Soul food.
"Just a good woman. She'd take me to Webb's City — remember Webb's City? — and we'd watch the dancing chickens and the mermaids and she'd buy me cookies. She died when I was 7. Look at me. I'm tearing up. I feel like crying just to think of her."
Turning away, he spoons chicken onto a plate. Another cook adds mashed potatoes and garlic toast. Someone else opens the window and shoves the plate toward the waiting Carmen.
"My mother — her name is Diane Harvey — is another amazing cook. She cooked for a living a long time, mostly baking. Let me tell you about her red velvet cake. Sometimes when I was a kid she'd make her red velvet cake at home and tell me to call my friends to come over and eat cake. I associate Southern food with friends and family.''
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When I was a child in Miami, Peggy and Walter Turnham, retired rural folks from Alabama, lived behind us. My adopted grandparents, the Turnhams grew their own food in a backyard garden. Often my brother and I climbed over the fence to consume Miss Peggy's corn bread, collards, pork cracklings, sweet potato pie and, of course, fried chicken. And yes, Mr. Walter and I played checkers after our repast.
My mother, the late Beatrice Mary Grace O'Donnell (Klinkenberg), alas, was a Chicago refugee. She was also a stereotypical Irish cook, good at boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage and corned beef, and almost nothing else. Frying a glorious chicken was not among her culinary skills.
I can see her now, standing at the gas stove in our steamy (no air-conditioning) house, hair held up by bobby pins. A Pall Mall perches in the corner of her mouth like a tired flagpole while the growing ash somehow defies gravity.
As I watch in horror, she is ruining something in the cast-iron frying pan in which thousands of bad meals have been prepared over the years. I intuitively know she is following her habit of cooking in oil never quite hot enough, which will result in chicken both soggy and undercooked. As her older son, I also know from experience that if I'm smart I will eat this masterpiece with a grateful smile.
Dumb as a turnip, I grimace, mumble something that to her ears sounds somewhat insulting, and am rewarded with the usual slap on my head by the still-scalding spatula. Oh, me Ma! I associate fried chicken with pain and pleasure.
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He wipes his hands on his apron, counts chicken, looks out the window and silently counts customers.
"Now after high school,'' he says, "I went about learning everything I could about cooking. I learned organizational skills at the Kopper Kitchen, Italian at Jo-Jo's in Cita, cheesecake at the Hilton. I learned seafood at a bunch of beach restaurants and paid attention to the barbecue at Lee Roy Selmon's. For a while I washed dishes at Chateau France just so I could learn more about what they call the 'Mother Sauces.' Once you master the Mother Sauces the sky is the limit. You can do anything.
"At home I like to page through Le Guide Culinaire by Escoffier. It's the classic French cookbook. I like to write down ideas, things I might like to try, in a notebook. The thing I love about cooking at Munch's is the way Larry tells me to go ahead and try things. I can experiment. If it doesn't work, we take it off the menu. So I do some Italian. I invented this smoky turkey hash. You ever try that?"
"I usually wake up every morning at 3:30 and go to Munch's because I'm real excited to start cooking. I go home after we close at 3 o'clock, but that doesn't mean I'm finished cooking for the day. I love cooking for my wife, my kids, for my mom, for my aunts and uncles. I tell them to come on over and I'll cook for you. Even my dad. I'll be honest, he wasn't there when I was growing up. But you got to forgive people because if you hold a grudge that's a burden on you. So I love my dad.
"Food brings people together, you know what I mean? FOOD! You can't lose.''
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On the inside the chicken is tasty and moist. As I nibble at the crispy skin, I can feel my cholesterol rising. Miss Carmen asks if I have saved room for dessert.
No, thanks. Not until they start serving Lipitor.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.