Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. I was traveling the country for work with my intrepid colleague “Splint McCullough.” A road warrior of epic magnitude, Splint was known for taking a big bite out of anything remotely edible, usually fried. We’d noshed on barbecue and pastrami in the Big Apple, had a garlic immersion in San Francisco, and dove into a simmering vat of (processed) cheese fondue at the Nutcracker Lounge in a one-horse town in California. Splint never met a menu or a pack of Rolaids that didn’t agree with him.
But, times inevitably change. Now based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Splint's been domesticated - a lovely wife, two kids, a suburban manse and a country club membership – and a mere shadow of his voracious bachelor days. The last time we ate together in New York, he announced he was dieting and ordered a breakfast parfait made with yogurt (shudder). I had mourned his passing. Splint, we hardly knew ye.
I’ve often mused about recapturing those glory days, and it appears we might have the opportunity when I make an unexpected visit to Charlotte. I consult Splint on food recommendations, and he suggests a lunchtime visit to Price’s Chicken Coop, a Charlotte institution. The website is just a menu, and the cuisine is billed as “Charlotte’s finest Southern fried chicken to take home, office or any social gathering.”
“It’s basically fried chicken in a greasy cardboard box,” Splint explains. I think I hear a hint of that old magic in his voice. Or is that his stomach growling?
I know from experience that one does not wander into a fine dining experience with Splint casually. You have to pace yourself, so I purposely go light on breakfast that morning. I ping Splint to let him know of my virtuous behavior. “I’m having the fruit platter,” I tap out.
Splint texts back moments later, “I’m having eggs. I’ll get the parents later.”
At about 1 p.m. Splint rolls up to the hotel to pick me up. His BMW is immaculate and completely kid-friendly – fully outfitted with car seats, snacks, and baby wipes. Since Price’s is a takeout joint and offers no restaurant seating, Splint’s lovely wife Blanche has already instructed that we will not be eating a spec of fried chicken in the car. My heart sinks just a little bit.
We pull up to Price’s and park by the curb. I note a smattering of chicken bones strewn at my feet – promising evidence of customer satisfaction.
The building is non-descript. It’s basically a brick storefront. It is already well passed the lunch hour, but inside the customer area is packed. Patrons are shoulder to shoulder like an OTB parlor just before the daily double. Splint and I squeeze through the glass doors and queue up to take in the ambiance. The air is thick with the smell of hot, sizzling oil.
On the other side of the counter, I spot a Mount Everest-sized mountain of massive, mahogany-lacquered chicken breasts, and a phalanx of employees loading the breasts into white cardboard boxes. They work with impressive speed and precision. The place is humming with activity, and there’s a handwritten sign on the wall that advises customers to stay alert: Attention – We will no longer refund or replace orders that are placed while you are talking on car phones or two-way radios. Thank you. Management.
A patron tells us that Price’s started out as a wholesale poultry processing company in 1962. A loyal lunch clientele developed over time, and the takeout business really took off (pun intended). Eventually the management dropped the wholesale business in favor of the lucrative lunch menu.
The chicken is billed as “Seasoned Just Right – Cooked in 100% Peanut Oil.” We each order a chicken dinner, but neglect to notice the fine print. Each dinner is served with cole slaw, tater rounds, hush puppies and roll. Unaware of the sides already included, we order additional sides of Hushpuppies and Tater Rounds, and I’m relieved to see that Splint’s appetite for fried food is on the verge of a healthy comeback.
“A trans fat orgy,” says Splint, delighted. “Double the fries, double the pleasure.”
Splint suggests we order a serving of pecan pie. “I hear it’s amazing.”
Here’s what we get.
“Essentially, this is like a pecan pie smoothie,” says Splint. “It’s like all corn syrup.”
By the way, for anyone not inclined towards finger lickin’ etiquette, paper products are available at Price’s at a nominal charge.
We hop in the car, and I balance the warm boxes on my knees, careful not to leave a grease stain on the dashboard. I don’t want to mess with Blanche.
We head for the atrium of a nearby financial institution and unload the goods.
There’s a pile of napkins includes. “Does it come with Wet Ones?” I ask.
“If you count ketchup as a Wet One, then yes,” replies Splint.
“It’s a genius business model,” he remarks. “You take anything that can be fried, fry it in a big vat and dispense it in cardboard boxes. No waiters, no waitress, no service staff. There’s almost no overhead.”
“Do you think these are heritage chickens?” I ask.
“I doubt that they’re free range, but they are tasty,” Splint acknowledges.
Okay, so it’s not health food. But, as far as Southern fried chicken goes, Price’s is a classic. The aroma, the crispy breaded skin and yes, even the fine dining experience inspires a sort of carnivorous rapture. I devour the chicken, so much so, that I narrowly avoid an Elizabeth Taylor moment.
I glance over at my colleague who is peering at a hill of bones.
Splint exhales slowly and throws in the grease-stained napkin. “My doctor is going to be very upset,” he says.
Now, here’s a dirty little secret. Despite his devil-may-care attitude, Splint does have a touch of Felix Unger in his genes. I can sense the stress.
“My hands feel so greasy,” he intones.
Fortunately, the kid-friendly BMW holds the solution, and once again all is right with the world. You go, Blanche!
Just for fun, I buy one of Price’s souvenir T-shirts. When I return home hours later, I can still smell that heady aroma of Southern fried chicken. I doubt the chickeny essence of Price's will ever wash out of that T-shirt.
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