There is some serious Southern cooking in my Harlem neighborhood, like Crab Man Mike, who sells boiled Maryland crabs and other shellfish from his stand on 125th Street, and my new favorite, Charles Gabriel of Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken. His fried chicken is seriously good, done the way his mother taught him, “only in an iron frying pan”, which he says is the key to an enduringly crisp skin, moist flesh and completely different level of satisfaction than deep-fried, fry-o-lator chicken.
Charles, now 72, has been frying chicken since he was a boy in North Carolina. He spent twenty-two years as a cook at Harlem’s legendary Copeland’s restaurant before setting up a stand on the street outside of his house. With the help of a patron, he upgraded to a food truck, then to a storefront on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Although he won’t divulge the special seasonings he uses, Charles happily shares the secrets to frying chicken in this video. Following them, you are guaranteed great, real fried chicken.
For Charles, pan-frying is akin to a kind of mindfulness practice:
Frying chicken you really have to concentrate because you got to keep turning chicken in the pan so therefore you can’t take your mind off it because if you do, you’ll burn it. You really got to pay a lot of attention to it if you’re going to cook it in a frying pan.
As for possible seasonings, no matter that Charles won’t share his; you can devise your own. Bottom line are liberal amounts of salt and pepper. (For estimating, Southern food writers Matt and Ted Lee use 2 teaspoons salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper per 3 pounds of chicken). Researching the seasonings of great Southern cooks, you’ll find they are as diverse as the cooks themselves and include garlic powder, cayenne, bay leaf, sage, rosemary, chili powder, thyme, poultry seasoning, paprika…
Charles is a man who lives his calling. In their 2010 article Pan-Fry Legend Charles Gabriel in Edible Manhattan, the Lee brothers asked Gabriel how he’s still thriving with so many soul food restaurants in Harlem disappearing:
I been doing this all my life, whether I’m making money or not. A lot of people are in it for the profit, but I’m not in it for that. As long as I can pay my bills, I work seven days a week, 18 hours a day, and it don’t bother me.
For more about Charles, check out the New Yorker’s evocative 2014 article, The Fried-Chicken King of Harlem.
Top photo by Ryan Dorsett.