Where would we be without the invention of the fork? The ancient Greeks had a two-pronged kitchen fork that was used to keep the meat from slipping around while they carved it, but they still used their hands to eat. Chopsticks go all the way back five thousand years in China. The fork didn’t become commonly used in Europe until the Middle Ages, and then it was usually reserved for the rich and upper class. In France they thought that using a fork was pretentious. In India people only used their rights hands to eat with, the left one reserved for wiping off excrement. Even today, it’s a rarity to see a left-handed person around. So eating food with your fingers has been, and still is, the most popular way of eating around the world.
This brings us to the subject of “finger foods,” or more specifically, fried chicken. Fried chicken was one of America’s original finger foods. In the rural south, a piece of fried chicken, along with an apple or other piece of fruit, stored in a shoebox for easy portability, became the first “box lunches.” The chicken was usually leftover from the previous Sunday. Sunday was the day that you invited the reverend over after church for the biggest and best meal of the week.
Fried chicken was pretty much a regional dish of the south until the 1950’s when Harland Sanders opened up a gas station. He had a kitchen in the back where he would cook up fried chicken for his family. Occasionally, customers of the gas station would get a whiff of what was cooking in the back mixed in with the gasoline fumes. Pretty soon he had to cook so much chicken for his customers that he stumbled upon the idea of using a pressure cooker to speed up the process. Add that to his “11 herbs and spices” and KFC was born. After franchising his recipe to other restaurants, it spread down the new highways and byways of a mobile America like some “finger lickin’ good” virus. Others tried to compete, but couldn’t. One company, Henny Penny, offered home delivery, but eventually went into the equipment side, selling those huge pressure fryers that would seal in all of the flavor.
But the small regional fried chicken joints still remained. Today every city has them. Here are a few of the best in St. Louis:
I remember going to Hodak’s at 2100 Gravois when I was a kid. Back then, Sunday dinner was still somewhat of an occasion. The deal was to get fried chicken at Hodak’s and then dessert at the Velvet Freeze Ice Cream that was right up the street. There was usually still room for a double scooper. The chicken at Hodak’s is made for the purist: perfect crust, juicy, and crunchy. The chicken here isn’t marinated, so once you get past the coating, there isn’t a whole lot of flavor except for the flavor of the chicken meat itself. The place is usually crowded and noisy, but the service is friendly, and you can still get a half chicken meal at a very reasonable price.
Close to Hodak’s and a real hidden gem for fried chicken lovers is Mary’s Bar and Grill, near the intersection of Gravois and Jefferson avenues. Mary’s is a smoky rundown bar that’s been around forever. The chicken is similar to Hodak’s: not a lot of bells and whistles, but still delicious. They also have great and cheap hamburgers and lunch specials throughout the week, and waitresses that call you honey.
Romine’s Restaurant up north on Riverview Drive is well worth the drive and the search. It’s a little hard to find, but just follow your nose. The chicken was nicely spiced and hot with a crunchy crust. The side items here, especially the green beans, make the meal a true Sunday treat.
Porter’s Fried Chicken on Big Bend is a favorite destination of mine. The inside of the place is tiny, so you’ll have to get your order to go. The chicken is delightfully spicy with a good sustained warmth, but not overly so. You don’t hear it mentioned very often, but this place also has some of the best fried catfish around, with a tender and mild taste and minimal breading. It’s cooked to order, so I recommend that you call ahead of time and place your order. A lot of folks criticize the sides here, but I think that the mashed potatoes are ok, if not a little lacking in taste. I don’t like the coleslaw though, it’s usually bland and limp. I don’t know about the green beans and baked beans because you can only order them by the gallon, which leaves your choices of sides limited to mashed potatoes and slaw for an individual meal.
For those of you who don’t care for finger foods because of the grease that they leave on your fingers, there are a couple of inventions that you might be interested in: the popcorn fork is a tong-like invention with a built-in salt reservoir. For the latest in fork technology, you might want to get the self-turning spaghetti fork. It’s battery powered and the 22 RPM’s it generates is the perfect speed for turning that pasta without all of the effort. Now, if they only had something to hold the fried chicken with.