In the summer of 1977, I was finally old enough to get my first job. My first real job, that is.
I mean the kind of job where you get a paycheck, instead of a wadded up fistful of $1 bills, like Mrs. Bone always handed me after I mowed her yard. (A yard that seemed endless and was filled with magnolia trees and plants I didn’t recognize.)
The kind of job where your pay came after withholdings, which awakened me to things such as social security, Medicare and Medicaid. Things that until then had been just words I heard instead of dollars deducted.
It was the kind of job where I learned to make fried chicken.
As my sophomore year of high school concluded, I wanted a car. But cars cost money, and money only comes from one of two places. Trust funds or jobs.
There was no trust fund, so a job it was.
Before the owner of County Seat Fried Chicken, a friend of my parents, offered me a kitchen assistant position at $1.75 an hour, any work I had was whatever I hustled up on my own.
I mowed many other yards besides Mrs. Bone’s. I also raked leaves, washed cars, and split and stacked wood.
So, to have a job inside where there was air conditioning and heating was a step in the right direction as far as I was concerned.
On my first day, I tied the apron the restaurant gave me around my then-130 pound frame, put on a paper hat, and waited for instructions.
“Don’t just stand there,” said Ms. Bobbie. “Start sweeping up this floor. This flour ain’t gonna sweep itself.”
Flour seemed to be everywhere, as it tends to be in a chicken restaurant. Making chicken quickly causes flour to fly. That was acceptable to Ms. Bobbie. But flour couldn’t stay long on the countertops or floor. She did not accept that.
No, Ms. Bobbie demanded a clean kitchen. Always.
Ms. Bobbie worked there as the head cook, but she was obviously in charge. There was a manager, but even he listened to Ms. Bobbie.
We all listened to her. She knew how to run a kitchen.
It was as if she had psychic abilities.
“Where is the coleslaw?” she would say. “There can’t be no more than a scoop or two left on the line.”
I’d walk around the corner, and sure enough, a server would be dishing up the last two scoops.
It seemed that Ms. Bobbie could see through walls. She also could see into a closed cooler.
On more than one occasion, she would instruct me to get more thighs, breasts, legs or wings, batter them, and get them into one of the three fryers.
She also knew when we were low on mashed potatoes, which tasted absolutely amazing.
When she saw me watching her make them, she said, “Here, you need to learn how to make my mashed potatoes. Go get a sack of them taters and bring ‘em to the sink. You peel all of ‘em and then fill this pot with water and add a handful of salt, then boil ‘em up.”
“How long?” I asked.
“Till they’re done,” she replied.
She then showed me the correct amounts of butter, heavy cream, pepper, and chives to add as I mixed them all together.
Oh, my gosh, they were amazing. Everything tasted amazing.
Each menu item at County Seat Fried Chicken was made from scratch.
You can’t go wrong with Southern food made from scratch.
Ms. Bobbie didn’t have anything written down. It was all in her head. And her head must’ve been full. She could cook anything to perfection.
Even green beans. I didn’t even like green beans when I went to work there, but I liked hers.
If there was a universally loved item on the menu, it was the peach cobbler. How anyone could take fresh peaches, flour, sugar, butter, and milk and turn it into that level of peach cobbler perfection still eludes me.
Ms. Bobbie taught me to make her chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw, but I never mastered her peach cobbler.
If I have one culinary regret, it would be that I didn’t try to get that cobbler recipe perfected.
I worked there for about a year before more hours at the Piggly Wiggly wooed me away from the restaurant.
Grocery stores are monotonous. You unload a truck, stamp prices on cans and other items, and then put them on shelves. You carry out groceries. Then you do it all again.
Working in a restaurant was one of the best jobs I ever had. The brevity of the experience seems like just a wisp of time in my career, but what I learned has been parlayed into other cooking processes.
Preparing food is systematic. It is discipline. And if you know what you’re doing, the results make you quite popular.
County Seat Fried Chicken closed shortly after I left for college. It became a bank, and later a gift shop that hosted one of book signings a few years ago.
I lost track of Ms. Bobbie. I wish I’d kept up with her. I’d like to tell her that what she taught me, I still have. And I’m parlaying that into learning more about cooking.
My copy of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” arrived this week. It’s a little more complex than mash potatoes and peach cobbler.
But I don’t think I would have even attempted anything in this cookbook if it hadn’t been for one lady who took the time to teach a skinny 15-year-old kid.
Thank you, Ms. Bobbie. And bon appétit.