New Orleans, LA – It's been said that the four seasons in Louisiana aren't really winter, spring, summer and fall. Rather, for seafood lovers, the phases of the year are ordered as oyster, crawfish, crab and shrimp.
But in New Orleans we also seem have a fifth food season, though it's one set by social custom and celebratory abandon rather than nature's timing. In fact, we're in the thick of it right now. This fifth season belongs to fried chicken -- in particular, a type of fried chicken I call party chicken.
Now, New Orleans has some acclaimed fried chicken. The late Creole soul food legend Austin Leslie may well have set the local standard with his fried bird topped with pickles, parsley and garlic. Willie Mae's Scotch House, Dooky Chase Restaurant, Dunbar's Creole Cooking, Lil' Dizzy's Cafe - all of these places have devotees who swear by their chicken.
But that's not what I'm talking about. That's restaurant chicken. That's sit-down chicken. It's fine stuff. Party chicken is not.
Party chicken is big batch chicken, a commodity food. You get it from supermarket delis and convenience store fry counters, from storefront chicken joints in cinderblock strip malls and from chain fryers, like Popeye's, that national company with deep local roots. It's plentiful, it's easy to find and it's cheap, with prices usually following a simple multiplication scale for the number of pieces per order.
And it has a better chance of someday being outlawed by the nutrition police than of ever earning a dietary merit badge. But even in this age of greater concern for our food's origins and impacts, party chicken proves reliably irresistible to the New Orleans palate, most especially during Carnival time.
Whether you're standing on the neutral ground of a parade route or perusing the potluck options at a house party, there's an excellent chance this type of chicken will be nearby, lying at the ready in wilted cardboard boxes or piled into aluminum catering pans. It's really no wonder. The stuff is easy to transport and easy to share around big groups. No utensils are needed, though napkins or some makeshift substitute are essential. Most of all though, it's a bit indulgent, it's a guilty pleasure for some, a helping of hedonism even, and one that seems to fit right in with the Carnival spirit that interrupts our normal habits, throws our resolutions into disarray and rules these weeks before Fat Tuesday.
There is a varying sweet spot in that seasonal seafood calendar I mentioned earlier, a time when oysters will still be just about perfect and crawfish will begin hitting their stride. What a glorious coincidence that is. Right now, however, New Orleans stands on the verge of a more fleeting and far, far more rare coincidence in its seasonal cravings for party chicken. The Carnival parades have already begun, and chicken is everywhere in evidence along the routes. But the same qualities that lend chicken to the parade scene make it just as popular a choice for big football viewing parties. These gatherings are the indoor versions of tailgating, and they are surely being planned right now in countless local households for the first-ever Saints Super Bowl. This Sunday will mark a huge, citywide party in New Orleans, and you can bet the party chicken will be in that number.