Before you take the trouble of preparing a fried-chicken dinner, there's a decision to make: Just how much trouble? There are populist cookbooks that promise basic recipes for basic people. These take shortcuts and try to speed the process. Meanwhile, lots of fancy, big-name chefs write folksy cookbooks for the little guy, too. But it's a very specific sort of little guy they have in mind—the kind willing to toil for days on end just to get food on the table.
Representing the populists, armed with a shaker of Lawry's seasoned salt, we have Ree Drummond, the Oklahoma ranch wife best known for her chatty, open-hearted blog, the Pioneer Woman, in which she documents her daily life frosting cinnamon rolls and herding cattle. Published last fall, Drummond's best-selling The Pioneer Woman Cooks offers recipes for easy, family-style comfort food, like pot pie and cobbler.
In the other corner, with his fleur de sel and palette knife, hovers Thomas Keller, the perfectionist founder of hallowed Napa Valley restaurants, including the French Laundry. Published last fall, Keller's best-selling Ad Hoc at Home promises recipes for "doable" family-style comfort food, like pot pie and cobbler.
You would be hard pressed to find two books that offer more radically different interpretations of the same cuisine. Drummond's breezy volume includes snapshots of horses, kids, and her husband's Wranglers-clad butt. Keller devotes an entire page to a close-up of a soft-shell crab claw. Drummond proudly cuts corners. Keller lives to take pains. Drummond buys Reddi-wip. Keller, the patron saint of the kitchen bitch, makes his own soup crackers.
I decided to make an identical menu from each book: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, iceberg lettuce salad, and pineapple upside-down cake. Since it's family-style food, my family would serve as judges.
Advance preparations for the Drummond feast were minimal—I just had to submerge the chicken in a bowl of buttermilk the night before. The following afternoon, I started the run-up to mealtime by getting the mashed potatoes out of the way. Her instructions: "Add the butter. Feel really guilty. Add the cream cheese. Feel even more guilty. Next, add the half-and-half and stir together. And let go of your guilt. Food is to be enjoyed!" It's hard not to like Pioneer Woman.
You then spread the potatoes in a casserole that you can pop in the oven whenever you're ready to eat. Another reason it's hard not to like Pioneer Woman. Biscuits are biscuits and Drummond treats them that way: shortening, flour, baking powder, buttermilk. Stir, shape, put in the oven. The cake, which calls for canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries, is similarly no-frills: It requires a single bowl, and you bake it in a massive cast iron skillet. For the salad, I whacked a stiff head of iceberg into wedges and poured ranch dressing over the top.
Everything was a breeze up until the frying of the chicken, which is never a breeze. Drummond favors a clumpy batter in which Lawry's overbearing seasoned salt plays the starring role. I winced. When you're going to the hassle of frying chicken, shortcuts with the seasoning seem shortsighted. But I did as instructed and reluctantly dumped a full 3 tablespoons of Lawry's into the flour.
A stove-splattering session later, the crunchy batter clung thickly to the chicken like a mangy coat. "This tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken," said my daughter, Isabel, then paused. "Or how I imagine it tastes." I knew what she meant; the chicken had a synthetic commercial je ne sais quoi, thanks to the Lawry's. But my husband, Mark, didn't seem to mind. And our son, Owen, was devouring his drumstick so avidly I thought he was going to eat the bone.
The side dishes are almost as important as the chicken in this kind of a feast, and Drummond's held up. "These are the best kind of mashed potatoes," said Isabel. "Buttery and plain." And everyone gobbled up the biscuits, slathering them with jam. But if a warm biscuit is irresistible, an iceberg of lettuce is easy to steer around."I like your regular salads better," said Owen, who was raised on leafy greens that don't require a steak knife.
Nobody needed to eat more, but dessert was a requirement for this particular mission. Flipping the gargantuan iron skillet to release Drummond's upside-down cake was like wrestling a steer, but what a gaudy, ravishing cake it was with its glistening pineapple rings and cherries. I didn't think it tasted especially wonderful—I've never understood the appeal of a cake built around canned pineapple. But it made my husband and children happy—which is what the Pioneer Woman is all about. I felt not so much proud of this meal, as maternal and beneficent.
Just holding Thomas Keller's opulent six-pound book, on the other hand, made me feel tired and inadequate. My resentment toward Keller began to build two days before the second fried-chicken dinner, as I mixed the gluey dough that would eventually become brioche and, even later, croutons to adorn an iceberg lettuce salad. "It delights me to offer here a big collection of family meals and everyday staples, delicious approachable food, recipes that are doable at home," Keller writes. "No complicated garnishes. I promise!" I would argue that croutons made from homemade brioche define "complicated garnish." As directed, I let the dough rise for three hours then rest in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day, I baked the bread. I put tomatoes in the oven to dry for six hours—another garnish. I cut up the bread and let it air dry. I poached some garlic in oil to make a confit that would flavor both the blue cheese dressing and the mashed potatoes. I boiled together honey, fresh herbs, and lemons to make brine for the chicken.
The third day was dinner. Although Keller's biscuits call for cake flour and butter, they are as straightforward to pull together as Drummond's. While they baked, I assembled the many salad components—the croutons, the tomatoes, some applewood-smoked slab bacon (it required a trip to a special butcher), the lettuce—on a platter. The upside-down cake calls for fresh pineapple and, annoyingly, a silicone pan. I don't have one, but, for the record, the metal cake pan I used ended up working fine.
Keller calls for rolling the chicken in flour that has been generously seasoned with garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne, then dipping it in buttermilk, and then dipping it again in the flour. Simple enough. The only challenge I encountered while frying it was that I was simultaneously trying to run the potatoes and poached garlic through a food mill. Keller offers a tip for making the potatoes in advance, but I had failed to follow Keller's No. 1 rule of cooking: "Be organized."
By the time the meal was on the table, I had gone through 36 cooking vessels over three days. That compares unfavorably with Drummond's demands of two days and 17 vessels.
I was prepared to hold this against Keller until I tasted the chicken. The crust was crispy and light; the meat was firm and juicy, seasoned through to the bone. I looked around the table for confirmation that this here was some life-changing fried chicken.
"This crust stays on better," Owen said, his life unchanged.
"It's a thousand times better than Pioneer Woman's," I announced.
"I wouldn't go that far," Mark said. "It's better, but fried chicken is fried chicken. And wasn't hers less work?"
The tender, fluffy biscuits were the best biscuits I've ever baked. I expected exclamations. Again, I seemed to be the only one who noticed.
As I had anticipated, even dressed up with multiple garnishes, the iceberg lettuce remained inert and unloved. And the garlicky pureed potatoes belonged on the menu at a bistro, not alongside a fried chicken served to children. "These taste weird," Owen said. Drummond would have known better.
The cake, however, was stunning: a slender, golden disc lined with glowing yellow tiles of juicy pineapple. I took a bite. Keller's delicate cake struck me as the sublime to which tacky pineapple upside-down cake had always aspired.
"It's not as pretty," said Isabel.
"I don't know about this cake," said Mark. "I want a 1950s classic to taste like a 1950s classic. I want it to be sticky and a little bit artificial."
It's impossible to argue with nostalgia. I'm telling you, though, this cake was killer.
Keller's recipes were harder, but they were also, on the whole, better. A lot better. I'm not surprised by that. What surprises me is how little anyone—except me—cared. Apparently, when it comes to comfort food served around a kitchen table, good enough is good enough. What ultimately mattered about the fried chicken was not the seasoning but that there was fried chicken. A middling hot biscuit made with Crisco was as welcome as the perfect all-butter biscuit made with cake flour.
I will add that in the weeks since this experiment, I have not tackled another dish out of Ad Hoc at Home, gorgeous though it is. I have thought about it, but I grow weary just reading the recipes. Meanwhile, I have baked Pioneer Woman's sheet cake and brownies and scones; I have cooked her meatloaf and pizza and steak sandwich. Keller's is the superior book, but the book that helps me put a good enough dinner on the table, night after night, turns out to be the book I need.