ST. LEON, Ind. — If you see a steeple in southeastern Indiana, you can be pretty sure that fried chicken is nearby. If you see the steeple in St. Leon, about 20 miles from the Indiana-Ohio-Kentucky border, that chicken is fried across the street at St. Leon Tavern by the owner, Aaron Klenke. Most people would call the place a bar, but I call it a place that serves some of the best fried chicken I’ve tasted.
In this corner of Indiana, fried chicken is a part of the native soul — a staple of the after-church dinner and never very far from Sunday services.
“We call it chicken paradise,” said Janet Litmer, 60, manager of the Fireside Inn in Enochsburg. A common refrain here is “If the Colonel had been born in southern Indiana, he’d have been a general.”
Until my wife, the novelist Ann Hood, brought me to Greensburg, her father’s hometown, telling me I was about to have the best fried chicken of my life, I was certain that I made the best chicken I’d had in my life. To my delight, she was right.
So we returned recently to visit nine of the three dozen or so restaurants that serve a very specific form of a definitively American staple.
The secret to this fried chicken? Table salt, coarse pepper and flour. Those who want to gild the lily cook it in lard in a skillet.
In a food world that grows increasingly more complex, where fried chicken typically involves brining and buttermilking and all manner of seasoned flours, here are cooks whose chicken mirrors the economy and simplicity of the cornfields that surround them. (This year, those fields are covered in butterweed for endless miles; the heavy rains that have flooded the Midwest have left the soil too sodden to plant.)
“We don’t try to make it different from the way our grandmother did it,” said Ginger Saccomando, 69, who took over Wagner’s Village Inn, her parents’ restaurant, 21 years ago. A block away from the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis, it is one of two family-style restaurants serving southern Indiana-style fried chicken in Oldenburg, population 674.
This part of the state is a land of farms, churches and family-restaurant buffets. Order the fried chicken dinner, and it will arrive with mashed potatoes and gravy (and sometimes buttered noodles as well), canned green beans and coleslaw. The pedestrian sides only shine more light on the spectacular chicken.
So many restaurants serve this chicken that the Indiana Foodways Alliance created a “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner” Trail of 26 restaurants and cafes where visitors can seek out what here is a weekly routine.
“Fried chicken is associated with those times of Sunday gatherings,” said Lindsey Skeen, marketing and media director for the alliance, which promotes independently owned restaurants and the state’s food culture. “We’re Indiana people, and on Sunday after church we have fried chicken.”
Donna Tracy, 56, the owner of Bluebird Restaurant, in Morristown, said she has about 250 customers every Sunday, and serves 900 orders of fried chicken on Mother’s Day and Easter.
The demand has long been a natural result of Indiana’s ample supply of poultry. “People could raise chickens,” she said, “and a chicken could feed a lot of people.”
The area’s two other signature dishes also tell the story of this place. The pork tenderloin sandwich has its own “Tenderloin Lovers” Trail. The meat is pounded flat and as wide as a basketball, breaded and fried, like the schnitzel of the Germans who are so prominent in the area. (“Willkommen” reads the greeting sign on the road into Oldenburg.) Hoosier pie, sometimes called sugar cream pie or desperation pie, reflects the long, hard winters when there was little to make pie with beyond milk and sugar, thickened with cornstarch, set in a lard crust.
Ms. Saccomando believes that the first restaurant specializing in the fried chicken was the Hearthstone, in Metamora, in the 1950s. When her parents bought what would become Wagner’s Village Inn in 1968, the owners of the Hearthstone showed the Wagners how they fried it. “Then suddenly everyone wanted to be a chicken restaurant,” she said.
Ms. Litmer, who has worked at the Fireside Inn for 41 years, said the restaurant opened in 1950 but didn’t begin frying chicken until the 1960s.
In Brookville, where Dairy Cottage and Pioneer Restaurant & Lounge are the places to go for chicken, decorative concrete chickens line both sides of Main Street. At the town’s annual CanoeFest in 2010, the CanoeFest Fryers Club filled a canoe with fried chicken for what was then a Guinness world record for the largest serving of fried chicken: 1,645 pounds.
If there’s a single thing that most distinguishes Indiana fried chicken, it’s the heavy use of pepper. The version at the Brau Haus, a block from Wagner’s, is covered in so much pepper it almost looks gray. And it is fabulous.
“It’s the pepper,” confirmed Carisa Wells, 42, who tends bar at St. Leon. “If you don’t like pepper … ” she trailed off, shaking her head.
But in my estimation, what makes this chicken so good is a number of things.
Most of the places we visited buy their chicken from O’Mara Foods, in nearby Greensburg, which provides a smaller bird than is typically offered in grocery stores.
O’Mara once sold only Indiana chickens, but in 1982 it stopped slaughtering, expanded into the wholesale meat business and now buys about 9,000 chickens a week from Golden-Rod Broiler, in Alabama, most of which it distributes to about 40 restaurants making the fried chicken.
Each three-pound bird is cut into 10 pieces, “an old country-style cut” that includes the entire back and ribs of the chicken, said Blake O’Mara, 36, who runs the business. “Families here had eight to 10 kids,” Mr. O’Mara said. “The mom, who was the one cutting the chicken, knew how to cut it to feed as many as possible.”
To learn the craft of southeastern Indiana chicken, I went to the person who I believe makes the best of the best: Chris Harvey, at Wagner’s.
“There’s no recipe,” Mr. Harvey, 48, told me as he worked six chickens in three 15-inch skillets on Memorial Day weekend. “Just salt and pepper till it looks right.” Dressed in a short-sleeve sweatshirt, jean shorts and sneakers, he can handle six pans, with 120 pieces, at once. By the end of the weekend, he had fried roughly 5,000 pieces of chicken.
The chickens are younger than you can find in most stores, so they are more tender, the proportion of crust to meat higher. The quality of the birds was evident in their firm flesh and clean, white skin.
Wagner’s, like most restaurants in the area, fries the back pieces as well. If you’re from here, you don’t waste a thing. “The back’s my favorite piece,” said Mr. Harvey, who has worked at Wagner’s for the last eight years, seven days a week.
Mr. Harvey walked me through his process: He put two chickens in a hotel pan, gave the pieces a heavy dose of salt, a serious shake of pepper (“more of both than you would think,” he said) and massaged the seasoning in until he could see that the pepper was evenly distributed. He coated them in plain flour in a second hotel pan, then put them into the fat.
While almost every other local restaurant deep-fries the chicken in soybean or vegetable oil, he uses lard. He said it was important to find lard without BHT, an antioxidant that prevents rancidity but leaves a bad aftertaste. And he makes the most of his lard, he said, adding to the supply so often that it stays fresh.
When the fat in a chicken-filled skillet got low, he dipped a pan into melted lard kept in a stockpot beside the stove and filled the skillet up nearly to the brim and kept on frying. When one pan of chicken was done, he removed the pieces, then emptied the pan — the fat, the “crumbs” at the bottom, and all — back into the stockpot of lard. The crumbs sank to the bottom, and would be used to flavor the roux base for making the gravy.
He then scraped the pan clean with a wide spackling knife and toweled it out until it was shiny and black, before refilling it with the used, golden-brown fat to fry the next batch.
What Mr. Harvey cooks the chicken in, then, is a peppery, chicken-flavored lard — my guess as to why the flavor of this chicken is so rich.
The coup de grâce: Just before he removes the chicken, he adds about two tablespoons of water, which makes the oil bubble up. It “seals in the flavor,” he said, admitting that he didn’t know if that was true. “They used to use beer.”
I don’t know if this adds anything, either, but I do it because it’s a tradition and a festive conclusion to frying chicken, like flaming a crêpe suzette. The result, after 20 minutes in the fat, is a crisp, peppery, moist chicken of exquisite simplicity.
“It’s a taste of home,” said Ms. Saccomando, watching Mr. Harvey cook. “Most young people don’t know good fried chicken anymore. This comes from our parents’ recipe, and our parents’ parents’ recipe.”
They were, after all, Indiana people.
Recipe: Indiana Fried Chicken
By Michael Ruhlman