When I was a kid I always looked forward to summer. Summer meant hiking in the mountains and visiting my extended family in Pennsylvania. It meant staying up late to draw at my coffee table and watch The Munsters. Most of all, summer meant fried chicken parties.
Every summer from the time I was nine onward, Levi Johnson and my dad collaborated on their famous fried chicken parties.
Our kitchen was always bustling and full. Biscuits would bake in the oven, while mashed potatoes, collard greens and gizzards cooked on the range. Outside on the patio, Levi and my dad fried the chicken. The whole neighborhood smelled delicious. My mom and I would make sun tea and let it rest on the stoop on our front porch for hours in a mason jar until it was just right.
My favorite part was when my dad, my sister and I battered the chicken. We’d make an assembly line as we battered all the pieces. First we’d rinse the chicken, then we’d let it rest in heavy cream. Then we’d drop the wings, thighs and breasts in the special batter, shake it around, and then do that same process twice before handing it off to Levi who fried it perfectly in peanut oil.
As soon as the chicken was done frying, Levi always set out to make his special gravy from the drippings. In a huge, cast iron pan, Levi would diligently and carefully make his famous gravy before he and my mom ladled it into the special, extra large boat. I would take it all in, absorbing all the delicious scents that lingered in the kitchen.
It was my favorite when Levi’s daughters came, cornbread and homemade macaroni and cheese in tow. My uncles and aunts would show up bringing beers and lemonade. Someone always brought pie or ice cream sandwiches. Levi and my Grammy always visited together, making each other laugh and giving each other hugs.
Levi, well aware of my love of fried chicken legs, would go out of his way to save me some, smiling when he saw my snaggle-toothed grin before I’d bite into a leg.
The picnic table would be lined with food, and we’d all gather around it, stuffing our faces until we couldn’t eat anymore. The chicken was incredible, and Levi always managed to fry it to perfection. The meat inside was always a creamy white and the outside would be crispy and golden. Sometimes there were leftovers, but not very often.
In the winter, Levi always came to visit. One particular day in March, my mother mentioned she missed his fried chicken. In seven inches of snow in perilous winter, Levi, craving his chicken too, went outside in his baseball cap and Hawaiian shirt, and fried us up some chicken. It was a meal for the ages.
There are a lot of reasons why Levi’s fried chicken was so legendary, it was delicious, but his company always meant more to me. He’d tell us stories about how he sang in a choir with Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye growing up, or mysterious, engaging stories about local myths he’d heard as a boy. Everyone would listen to Levi, and I was always amazed at his experiences and wisdom.
When Levi died unexpectedly of a heart attack, it left a huge void in my life. The man who helped raise me was gone. The world was a little less bright and exciting.
My dad, so hurt by the loss of his best friend, refused to make fried chicken ever again, claiming it wouldn’t be the same without Levi, and he’s right.
Knowing Levi made my life infinitely richer and taught me certain foods satisfy the mind, while others satisfy the soul. Levi made soul food. Eating his fried chicken was a spiritual experience that went deeper than just the act of shoving something down my throat. Levi taught me to savor food, to enjoy it, to slow down and take in the scent and texture. To linger over the taste. To make new memories. He taught me that, if you let it, food can change your life. That’s a lesson I hold fast to everyday.