Gary White admitted he may have overdone it. This is an understatement. When I entered his kitchen and looked around, I realized there was an enormous amount of food being prepared. Gary cooks like he is expecting 20 people to walk in the door at any moment. He enjoys a nice meal with family and friends and no one ever goes home hungry. There are always, always leftovers.
When I married into the Hocking family, I was fortunate to also be adopted into my brother-in-law Gary’s family as well. As the youngest in the family, Gary has seven older brothers. He also has 7 nephews, 1 niece and 2 daughters. Holidays at the White’s house are full of food and family and this is exactly how Gary likes it. When I think of eating at Gary’s house, two foods immediately come to mind: macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. It was these two dishes that I was there to learn to cook.
We had about an hour before my nieces, Kayla and Olivia came home for the afternoon so we got started right away on the mac and cheese. After adding oil and a lot of salt to the water, Gary cooked the elbow pasta. It absorbed the salt which made it easier to later season it. Still undercooked, Gary took it out of the water at the al dente stage because it bakes in the oven with milk. If the pasta was already fully cooked it would become too mushy and flavorless. “I’ve thrown away pasta before because it was overcooked and would ruin the mac and cheese,” Gary said. “I try and do it right. There are really only three ingredients so you don’t want them to be messed up.”
Gary’s mac and cheese and fried chicken recipes derive from versions his parents made when he was younger. They may have used different cheeses or different parts of chicken, but the methods are still the same. Growing up in Atco, NJ, Gary used to bake with his mom. He remembers his dad making pancakes and sausage every Sunday for breakfast with homemade applesauce. He learned to cook from watching his parents and then later in life through trial and error.
After he finished dicing and shredding the cheese, Gary added it to the casserole dish. He doesn’t like to skimp on the cheese and he tried to find a balance between too little and too much. You can alter the amount of cheese in the recipe to your taste. Gary followed a ratio of 25% sharp cheddar, 25% velveeta and 50% mild cheddar cheese. He stirred it up and determined that he needed more cheese. He can tell by the color of the dish. It’s a pale yellow, mostly the color of pasta and it’s hard to see all of the cheese. The top photo here is the ‘before’ shot. As you can see, the dish seems a bit light while in the bottom ‘after’ shot there is lots of visible cheese which makes for a more golden yellow appearance.
After mixing in the cheese, he added the spices and then the milk which had been warmed up in the microwave. It saves time because once it is added to the dish, the hot milk accelerates the melting of the cheese and its absorption into the pasta. The casserole dish is so full of pasta that I tell Gary I doubt there is any room left and the milk will overflow. This just goes to show you why I never made it to the advanced level of science classes in high school. Gary patiently explained that the milk fills in the cracks and crevasses between the pasta. Sure enough, when what appears to be a copious amount of milk is poured into the pan, it rises on the sides but doesn’t overflow. It’s like when a magician pours a pitcher of milk into a top hat and then the milk all disappears. I’m astounded by this trick and Gary duplicated it using pasta, cheese and milk.
Just as Gary finished pouring in the milk, the front door opened and his daughters Katie and April ran into the house revved up from their afternoon in the city with their mom, Loren and grandmom, Dale. “Aunt Amy!” the little girls yelled out and came over for hugs.
Gary met Loren 14 years ago when they both worked at Friday’s. They’ve been married for 7 years and have the cutest kids in the world. I’m not biased just because they are my nieces. They really are adorable. ‘We’re having mac n cheese for dinner!’ 3 ½ year old Olivia exclaimed as I picked her up and gave her a hug. I asked her why she likes it so much and she replied, ‘because it has cheese on it.’ Even at her young age, Olivia can identify the good food experiences in life. Cheese makes everything better. Meanwhile, 6 year old Katie tried to get my attention to show me 2 new books; hers is entitled ‘Free to Be You and Me’ and April ’s is about a boy who wouldn’t share. April heard the title, admitted she won’t share and that she planned to eat all of her mac n cheese at dinner.
Gary set the girls up at the kitchen counter with their books and some crayons. While Katie read quietly to herself, Gary sprayed the aluminum foil with cooking spray which prevented the cheese on top of the dish from sticking to the foil. I think this is ingenious. I’ve been trying to cook for a few years now and I’ve never thought to spray the foil. Nope, once it’s done cooking, I usually use my fingernails to scrape the crusty bits off the top of the foil and then when that doesn’t work, I wind up licking it. Now that I’ve learned about this spray technique, I’ll be able to keep more of my ingredients actually inside the dish. I realize that some of you reading this can’t believe I didn’t know about this rudimentary technique, but trust me, with my limited kitchen knowledge, this trick is ground breaking.
Gary started on the mac and cheese first because it takes longer to make. Once it was in the oven, he turned his attention to the fried chicken. While Gary went to the refrigerator in the garage to get the chicken for frying, I stayed in the kitchen with the girls. They decided to sing a song I taught them called ‘razzle dazzle.’ Katie sang first, then April: “Razzle Dazzle, uh huh, uh huh. Razzle Dazzle, uh huh.” Their high pitched voices bounced off of the kitchen tiles.
The chicken is washed before Gary seasons it liberally on both sides. The water helps wash away extra chicken juice and the spices stick better to a wet piece of meat. He used a lot of onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper and adobo because it doesn’t all stick to the chicken. Gary is meticulous and has an order to adding the spices. He applies them all on one side of the meat and then flips the chicken over with tongs. On the second side, he reverses the order of the seasonings. For example, if he used adobo last, it’s the first thing he uses after the chicken is flipped. This gives each spice a better chance of winding up on the final product.
Gary’s philosophy of food is the opposite of how he seasons chicken. While he uses ample amounts of spices, his personal philosophy is ‘everything in moderation.’ “I feel that way about a lot of things,” he said. “Too much alcohol, partying, fried foods, rich foods—too much of anything is bad for you. Food is meant to be enjoyed. My father used to say, ‘when Carl Miller comes to get me, I want to have a full stomach.” Upon seeing my bewildered look, Gary explained that Carl Miller is a mortician who is popular with black families in South Jersey. This is funny to me because there was a skinny, white boy named Carl Miller in my suburban PA middle school. We learned computer programming together and he wrote me a poem in code. I tell this story to Gary who assures me that the Carl from the funeral home is definitely a different person. Anyway, Gary said what his dad meant is to enjoy your food. You can’t have fried chicken, mac and cheese and collard greens every day but it’s okay to indulge in it once in a while. Enjoy it and savor it. What I think it means is you should enjoy your food because tomorrow is not promised to us.
As Gary prepared the fried chicken, I heard a faint ‘boom chica boom’ in the background. It’s April singing another song I taught them. She’s really happy because she knows there will be delicious fried chicken and macaroni and cheese for dinner. When I went back to transcribe the interview audio into notes, April’s voice is present throughout the entire time it took to add spices to the chicken. “I hear a boom chica boom. I hear a boom chica boom. I hear a boom chica locka, chica locka, chica boom.”
The well-seasoned chicken gets thoroughly floured before it goes into the fryer. Gary loads up the fry basket with pieces roughly the same size so they’ll all be finished cooking around the same time. The fryer is filled with canola oil because it’s healthier and the family is watching their cholesterol level. This is the first fried chicken they’ve eaten in months. Gary starts frying 6-8 pieces at once and cooked the chicken in a few batches. Once it’s been fried, they go into a small roasting pan which is put into the oven or an extra large toaster oven on a low temperature to stay warm.
The audio in the kitchen got noisier. Katie told me she had a song about Christmas. I’m in the middle of asking Gary deep questions about his life so I try to stall or distract her. I ask if she can wait until Kevin gets there so he can hear it too. Perhaps she should practice it? She thought about it, said okay and then went into the other room and began singing to herself. 30 seconds later, she’s back to tell me she can sing it twice, once for me and once for Uncle Kevin. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law Dale sat on a kitchen stool, on the phone with my father-in-law, George, telling him to come over for an impromptu dinner. Gary yelled so George can hear him, ‘come on over, Dad. Come on over!’ I look at Gary, he’s got chicken tongs in one hand, a bottle of ground pepper in the other hand and he looks really happy. He’s in his element here, in the kitchen and surrounded by family.
The girls ate first while we waited for George to arrive. I asked Katie to describe the chicken without using the word ‘delicious.’ She said it was fantastic. Kevin took a few bites, pronounced it scrumptious, and then proceeded to eat most of April’s chicken leg when she wasn’t looking. The golden skin on the chicken was perfectly crispy and light without feeling greasy. The garlic and pepper blended in the chicken skin complimented the mac and cheese which was hearty and warming. Baked in milk, the pasta had plumped up and was full of oozy cheese in each bite. The top of the dish had hardened into a dark brown crust which provided a nice textural counterpoint to the softer pasta underneath. Dinner was served with sweet potatoes, fried corn and green beans. I think April really best described the meal: “boom chica locka, chica locka, chica boom.”
-Don’t ask someone to ‘smile’ and have their photo taken when they are in the middle of saying something. The photo can wait. Several times I interrupted Gary when he was in the middle of a sentence.
-Spray the bottom and sides of the casserole dish before cooking. I can’t believe I never thought of this before. I always coat the pan when baking brownies, but for some reason, this thought never transferred to savory ingredients.
-Spray the underside of the aluminum foil for similar reasons. This is genius! Although, I am going to miss licking the sticky bits on the foil.
-I am really struggling to learn how to use my flash. I got a speedlight, but instead of making things better, it seems to be making them worse. If you look closely at most of my photos, you’ll notice that the bottom half of the image is darker. This is because the flash-body is blocking the overhead light which creates a shadow on the food. I tried different angles to no avail. Very frustrating.
-I can’t figure out how to embed audio into my blog posts. When did learning new technology become so difficult? Anyway, here is April and Katie singing Razzle Dazzle. So cute! Click here to listen: Razzle Dazzle
Macaroni and Cheese:
1 ½ lbs of elbow macaroni
1 tsp Pepper
½ tsp Onion powder
1 tsp Garlic salt
2 tsp Garlic powder
1 cup Sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups Mild cheddar cheese
1 cup Velveeta cheese
2-3 quarts of milk
-Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit
-Cook 1 ½ lbs of elbow macaroni.
-Drain the pasta while it is slightly undercooked.
-Spray a casserole dish then add the pasta
-Add in the seasonings and the cheeses then mix it up.
-Warm the milk in the microwave (do not boil it)
-Add the milk to the pasta until it fills up the sides of the casserole dish
-Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 1 ½ hours
-Remove foil for last 15 minutes of baking
-After it comes out of the oven, put the foil back on top of the dish unless you are going to serve it right away. The pasta dries out quickly and the foil keeps it moist.
-(note: Gary uses a convection oven so your cook time and temperature may vary slightly. Normally he cooks it between 350-400 degrees but when I observed him, he cooked it at 400 degrees Farenheit because it was a little late getting it in the oven).
10 chicken legs
8 chicken wings
7 chicken thighs
Flour (enough to coat the chicken)
Canola oil (enough for frying)
-Wash the chicken, pat it dry and lay it on a tray.
-Liberally douse it with the onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper and adobo seasoning.
-Toss the chicken in the flour until it is well coated.
-Heat the oil (Gary uses a deep fryer that tells him when the oil is ready. Usually he fries at 340 degrees Fahrenheit.)
-Fry the chicken until the meat begins to pull away from the bone (approximately 20-30 minutes depending on the amount and size of the chicken).