Let me cut right to the chase on this one. Take a look at this image:
Does the sight of a plate of perfectly cooked fried chicken (spicy on the left, regular on the right) make your mouth water? Maybe bring back memories of your mother or grandmother frying up a chicken for dinner? Then this blog entry is for you. If fried chicken is not your thing, move on. Nothing to see here.
OK, now that the Vegans and Fat Phobics have left the room (and no disrespect to them—everyone has the right to make their own diet choices), let’s talk fried chicken.
My father was born and raised in a little town (barely a spot on the map) about half way between Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama. When he grew up, he moved to Michigan, met my mom and the rest, as they say, is history.
When I was growing up, we spent our summer vacations in Tennessee and Alabama, where most of the Pruetts lived. The best part was always visiting Grandma Pruett in her big house in the woods. There she practiced traditional Southern Cooking in all it’s glory. Fresh vegetables from the garden or from neighbors (who were often relatives). Ditto fresh eggs and chickens. Her biscuits and fried chicken were legendary. The biscuits were so light and flakey they threatened to float away if you didn’t hold them down with a good slather of butter and maybe some jelly. The fried chicken was juicy, beautifully seasoned, and wrapped in a crunchy, never-greasy coating of golden brown deliciousness.
I tell you all that to establish my credentials as a connoisseur of fried chicken. Sorry Col. Sanders; your original recipe is an OK snack (don’t get me started on the awful extra crispy), but it pales in comparison to a batch of homemade fried chicken cooked up a traditional Southern Grandma (mom, aunt, uncle—any such expert you are lucky enough to know).
I consider myself a very good home cook, but I have never been able to duplicate my grandmother’s wizardry with a cast iron skillet, some lard or Crisco®, and a cut-up frier. I have had some really good fried chicken in restaurants across the USA, but more often it is OK at best, tragic at worst.
I had heard about a place called The Southerner in the little Michigan town of Saugatuck that was supposed to have amazing fried chicken. Saugatuck is basically a resort community for summer getaways to Lake Michigan, sand dunes, antique shops, art stores and the like. Traditionally, the food in these locations was pretty basic and the “chefs” were anyone who opened a restaurant and could manage traditional (and usually not very flavorful or creative) Midwest cuisine from the 50s and 60s. If you could manage a hot dog, some fries, a burger, a steak, some meatloaf, grilled chicken and fish sticks, you were good to go.
Having grown up in the Midwest, I have no problem with any of these things, but the culinary world today is so much bigger. Dishes that were only available to those rich enough to eat in very expensive restaurants or travel to Europe or the far east can now be found in small towns across America. Where talented and well-known chefs once flocked only to the world’s major culinary capitals, now you can find them churning out creative, delicious dishes in towns sometimes to small to even have a McDonalds. This is a good thing.
So, I was skeptical at what might pass for fried chicken at The Southerner, but Valeria and I made a trip to Michigan to visit my family there, and decided to stop for a couple of days of R&R in Saugatuck. It was late in what had been an extremely cold April. Most places in town were still closed for the winter, with plans to reopen around May 1. Nevertheless, we had a great couple of days at the Hotel Saugatuck (recommended, should you plan a visit), wandering around the small town, it’s neighbor, Douglas (The Hotel Saugatuck sits between the two and you can walk back and forth easily) and visiting the nearby sand dunes on Lake Michigan.
We headed straight for The Southerner the first night. The parking lot is unpaved and the restaurant looks a bit like an oversized mobile home parked at the back of the lot.
This is not necessarily a bad sign if you have explored the small restaurants in the south or the best barbecue joints anywhere in the USA. The ones that look the least impressive from the outside can be full of culinary deliciousness on the inside. Such is the case with The Southerner. It’s neat and clean, but casual, on the inside, with a partial view to the kitchen.
There is a large screened in porch area that was still closed on the cool April day we visited.
Next to us was a collection of memorabilia from my childhood: games and vinyl records (those of you under 30 may have to Google those) and an old record player.
The table decorations and water glass were also suitably homestyle southern. Nothing says down home quite like drinking out of a Mason jar (or similar).
So yeah, this is not a restaurant that will win architectural or home beautiful awards, but that is perfectly fine. You come here for the food. Specifically, the item in the middle of the menu.
A not-so-secret local secret is that you do not have to choose between the traditional buttermilk or Nashville hot style of chicken; they will happily make your order half-and-half, as in the image that opens this blog entry. For me, this is definitely the way to go. Your taste may vary.
Nashville Hot is a relatively new style of fried chicken. There is nothing new about spicy chicken. It has been around in various forms in various cultures for decades, perhaps centuries. (Jamaican Jerk Chicken, anyone?) What is now called Nashville Hot seems to have originated in the 1930s with the Prince family (Prince’s Hot Chicken is still considered by many to the the truest and finest expression of Nashville Hot.) The story goes (true or not) that Thornton Prince III was quite a womanizer back in the 1930s. He was out way too late for his girlfriend’s liking one night. When he got home, she cooked him a fried chicken breakfast loaded with extra cayenne pepper. Instead of feeling punished, he loved it. By the mid-1930s he and his brothers opened the BBQ Chicken Shack Café with the hot chicken recipe they developed. The Prince family has been in the chicken business ever since. The current recipe, which involves applying paste made of lard and Cayenne pepper to the buttermilk-marinated and fried chicken, was developed in the 1970s. Some recipes call for other flavoring agents such as garlic, brown sugar, or even other hot sauces.
For my taste, recipes that include only copious amount of Cayenne pepper are not interesting. While I understand some people are always looking for newer, hotter chilies and spicy sauces and foods, heat alone does not impress me. You have to bring the flavor with the heat. The recipe Chef Matthew Millar has developed for The Southerner does just that. I can’t say what all is in the seasoning, but there is definitely some sugar, probably some garlic and maybe some herbs. Whatever it is, it is very flavorful. It packs a good amount of heat for most people, but that heat plays nicely with all the other flavors.
Chef Millar’s family story has some similarities to mine. It is his Mom’s family that is from the south, specifically East Tennessee, and he grew up in western Michigan (I was on the east side) eating southern recipes his mother and grandmother prepared for him. Most of the items on the menu reflect this heritage.
For me, the next big star (after the chicken) was the biscuit. Not quite as good as my Grandmother’s, but darn close. Large, light and flakey, served with a local honey butter, these things are dangerously delicious.
Another very traditional southern dish is braised greens, to which Chef Millar applies his own twists, which we’ll get to in a minute. First, let’s talk about hearty greens braised southern style. Tough greens that need long cooking to tenderize, like collard greens, turnip greens and mustard greens, are traditional, but modern recipes often use quicker cooking greens like kale or Chard. Most recipes call for a pork product, usually smoked, like bacon, fat back, or ham hocks or some combination of them. For those who don’t eat pork, smoked turkey legs and/or wings are a perfect substitute. Onions, garlic, some hot pepper flakes, chicken stock and lots of greens go into a big pot and can be cooked for an hour or even hours until refreshed with a splash of vinegar and served. Many southerners find the braising liquid, called “pot liquor,” to be as good or even better than the greens. These greens are also a well-known soul food from the black community. Here’s a video that shows a typical preparation, bearing in mind that each home cook has her own variation on ingredients and techniques.
Chef Millar uses miso, a common ingredient in Asian soups and stocks, in his braising liquid along with some tomatoes and barley. The pot liquor is as rich as the more traditional recipes produce, but with a little different flavor profile that was delicious.
Cole Slaw made with a boiled dressing is another traditional Southern recipe, often associated with the Carolinas where it is used to top a pulled pork BBQ sandwich (yum!). I have also seen the technique attributed to the Amish. Cole Slaw is, at it’s simplest, just finely shredded cabbage, red, green or a mixture of the two. Other vegetables, also shredded or chopped fine, can be added as secondary ingredients. These can include carrots, onions, red and/or green peppers, and pretty much anything else the cook wants to add in the way of crisp veggies.
The boiled dressing is made with vinegar, sugar, salt, and vegetable oil as the main ingredients. Depending on the region and the whim of the cook, additional flavorings such as dry mustard, celery seeds, Cayenne pepper, hot sauce or butter can be added. The ingredients are brought to a boil, simmered until thickened and can be poured over the Cole Slaw hot or allowed to cool and then used to dress the veggies. The great thing about this recipe, as opposed to creamy Cole Slaw with a mayonnaise-based dressing, is that the boiled, vinegar-based sauce is heat and summertime sun proof. Bugs don’t grow in the acidic sauce, but more than one summer picnicker has had his/her day ruined by some mayonnaise that stayed too long in the warm sun.
Here is a pretty typical recipe and preparation method for a Carolina-style slaw. There are many variations, so don’t be afraid to vary the ingredients and their proportion to suit your own taste.
Finally, we tried the Caraway Sauerkraut. This was the only veggie that is not made in house, but rather comes from The Brinery in nearby Ann Arbor Michigan (home of the University of Michigan). The Brinery specializes in fermented cabbage products, such as sauerkraut and, based on this sample, they are making some great products.
But enough about all that. Let’s get back to the chicken. It was amazing. The “plain” buttermilk version was anything but plain. The crust was crunchy and did not fall off the chicken with the first bite. It was seasoned perfectly, very juicy, and not at all greasy.
The Nashville Hot version, as I have already discussed, is the best version of Nashville Hot I have ever had. Obviously that is very much a matter of personal taste. I’ve tried a number of versions in Nashville (including Prince’s) and elsewhere, and this one hit just the right combination of hot, a bit of sweet, and a variety of other flavors on crunchy, juicy fried chicken. I have to believe that the other meat items on the menu are equally well prepared, but I suspect I would have to go back many times before I ordered anything other than the chicken.
In my enthusiasm for the chicken, I did not forget about something to drink with it. It turns out that someone at The Southerner has put as much thought into the cocktail and spirits list as has gone into the menu. (The wine list is, shall we say, minimal.)
I could not resist trying a cocktail called “Old Death,” while Valeria opted for a kicked up Mimosa.
Old Death was definitely not deadly. The rye whiskey backbone was apparent. Sorghum is a cereal grain with many species found around the world. It has many uses depending on the species grown and the local culture, but the most common uses are to make grain for humans and feed for livestock. One particular strain has a particularly high sugar content and is used in the south to make sorghum syrup, sometimes called sorghum molasses. Sorghum syrup is another childhood memory for me. I had it many times poured over my grandmother’s biscuits. It is less viscous than honey and has a more complex, less sweet, flavor that is a bit like caramel with a hint of bitterness. Hard to describe exactly, but give some a try on biscuits or pancakes.
It added all of these flavors to the cocktail, and was nicely complimented by the walnut liqueur and walnut bitters that tasted like—walnuts. As the bay leaf soaked in the drink, it added a very slight herbal notes. A very nice cocktail.
Mimosas are ubiquitous at Sunday Brunch in most every restaurant that serves alcohol. Usually made with a cheap prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) or cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and even cheaper orange juice, they are not the ultimate expression of this classic cocktail. The Southern put an interesting twist on it, using a Michigan sparkling wine from L. Mawby Vineyards and fresh, pure Blood Orange juice from Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company in Florida.
I actually have a history with L. (Larry) Mawby that goes back to the mid-80s, though we have never met. These were caveman times for the internet and what would become the World Wide Web we know today. The most popular online site was called CompuServe, and communication was done almost entirely by text over 300 (and, eventually, 1200) baud dialup modems. You could send pictures, but a 100KB image was considered HUGE and took forever to download. CompuServe hosted a variety of special interest fora (sort of like a Facebook page today without graphics, newsfeeds, ads, and crazy political rants). Each was controlled by a moderator called a SYSOP (System Operator—a term from mainframe computer days) who allowed people in (or booted them out) and made sure comments stayed on topic or were moved to an appropriate forum. I was a member of the Wine Forum (no surprise to anyone who knows me) which was watched over by a fellow named Jim Kronman from the LA area. Wine and food lovers from all over the country (there may have been international members, but I don’t remember anyone outside the US and Canada) exchanged notes on what they were drinking and eating. Like Instagram, but with no pictures. It was, apparently, a simpler time when no one felt compelled to inject politics and social issues into every discussion. There were differing views on what wines, foods, and restaurants were bad, good, or great, but it was good natured and people disagreed without being disagreeable.
Somewhere around 1986, Larry Mawby joined the forum as the only winemaker in the group. The forum was immediately christened The Kingdom of Bacchanalia, and Larry, by unanimous proclamation and over his protests, became King. All of the regulars on the forum assumed or were given various titles: Prime Minister, Minster of Vice, Royal Lexicographer, etc. I became the Royal Sorcerer. It was all good fun for a year or two but the Web continued to develop and CompuServe faded into history. (I like to think that Bacchanalia is still out there, maybe appearing occasionally like a vinous Brigadoon.)
In any event, while I had an active online correspondence with King Larry of the Purple Foot (I think that was his full title) and drank some of his wines, I never met him as I was living in Tennessee at the time. The Royal Vineyards were (and still are) located on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula near Traverse City, where I often vacationed as a child (long before the vineyards were planted). There is a very complete and well-written history of Larry’s life and career that you can read here. The Reader’s Digest version is that he planted his first vineyards in 1973 not long after graduating from Michigan State University (I got my Doctorate there in 1978, so I was already following in his footsteps). The winery was incorporated in 1978 and the first wines were released in 1979.
Larry’s goal was to produce Burgundy-style wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—something that had not been tried in Michigan. He enjoyed considerable success with Chardonnay and a white French Hybrid grape called Vignoles (French Hybrids are grape varieties produces by crossing a native North American Grape with a European grape variety). As he continued to study his vineyards and the climate around them, he realized that the area was much more like the Champagne region in France than the Burgundy region. Experiments with sparkling wines began in the 1980s and by 2003 production had shifted entirely to bubbly wines. Close to 20 different sparkling wines are part of the current lineup, ranging from dry to sweet, white to Rosé, 100% Chardonnay to various blends.
One thing that did not change was Larry’s use of playful names for his wines. The wine used in Valeria’s Mimosa (it was a long trip around back to the cocktail, wasn’t it?) is called “Sex.” Here is the description from the winery’s website:
All in all, The Southerner truly exceeded my expectations. I was hoping for some good fried chicken, but more than ready to be disappointed simply because I have been disappointed at so many fried chicken places. Whether you like Nashville Hot or classic Buttermilk Fried Chicken, you will almost certainly love The Southerner.
Address: 880 Holland Street. Saugatuck, Michigan 49453
Phone: (269) 857-3555
Dress Code: Casual
Price Range: <$30
Hours: Every day
Breakfast & Lunch: 9:00 am to 3:00 pm
Dinner: 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Credit Cards: AMEX, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
The author is a member of the Amazon Affiliate program but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses or products described in this article.
All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6500 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F/4 ZA OSS lens or Sony 35mm (52mm full frame equivalent) F/1.8 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google and Skylum® Luminar® plugins.