His brown leather, ankle-length boots were always clean and shined like he was going to church. I remember that vividly about this man, and his blue denim overalls and the way his odd surfboard-shaped afro looked. And how on those days when it was hot, he dipped his red bandana into cool water to mop his brow. But what I really remember was the chicken. Jonas’s chicken – the beginning to the delicious end. That’s the way it is with food folks.
Jonas would come early, usually Saturday morning, to start the fire. I was young and my family had fled the heat of Charlotte to spend a glorious week in the mountains at my Uncle Robert’s lake house on Lake Tahoma, near Marion NC. We did that once a year throughout my childhood. It was a grand house with a beautiful screened porch that overlooked the lake. And on one morning on each the weeks during our stay in the mountains, Jonas would pull up next to the house in his light blue Ford pickup to cook chicken.
In the best years, my mother’s parents, Ditty and Poppa, would come along with us. And, for me, that meant Azalea. Not the flowering shrub, but a woman whose name was pronounced “Az-uh-lee”. She was African American and essentially a member of our family. She chain-smoked Kent cigarettes and played the numbers and did a lot of cooking. When she was around I followed her like a puppy. My brother Doug would fish and Azzy loved to fish, too. When she wasn’t fishing with Doug, I was with her in the kitchen, watching her cook. That says something about me. She was irreverent and funny and hated hot weather, and didn’t put up with any bullshit from me. And on those days when Jonas came to cook, the two of them would plan the evening meal…which really meant when Jonas’s chicken would be ready to serve and Azalea would have the sides ready, too.
It was a hardwood fire. He had to have it just so, using a shovel to get it right. That’s how he spent the morning. There were three or four chickens set aside to cook and he brought a quart mason jar of sauce that consisted of melted butter, salt, pepper, red chili flakes, and apple cider vinegar. Simple. He swore up and down that any tomato in a mop sauce would burn on the skin and give the chicken a bad flavor. I’d watch him build the fire all morning and then would sit midday with him and eat lunch… a plate of leftovers that Azalea made. I remember her creamed corn accompanied by sliced tomatoes. Azalea loved black pepper and the creamed corn was deeply flavored by it. She’d even add more to hers after it was served!
There was a fat man named Mr. Queen who was the caretaker of the lake. As a 9 year-old in the South, you rarely knew grown-ups’ first name. He raised night crawlers that he sold to people to use as bait. He also had fresh mountain trout for dinner that he kept in a tank. But the best part for me was that he and his wife kept a large garden by their house on the lake. They allowed us to pick our own corn and then pay for it by the ear. Mrs. Queen sold lots of other produce, too…okra, tomatoes, squash. That was basically the only produce we ate during the week – especially the sweet corn. And whatever was going to be served with the chicken was going to come out of that garden.
Jonas only put the chicken on when the fire was just right. Not a minute before. The coals had to be strong and the temperature low. No flame. It takes practice and talent to keep ash off of the chicken – to not mess with the fire – and let the slow process unfold. I’d stand with him and talk – pretty much all day. Mostly, we’d talk about my Uncle Robert as we had that in common; Jonas worked for Uncle Robert. He did odd job/handy man tasks, and would sometimes drive him to Asheville and back. But what Uncle Robert was most proud of was Jonas’s chicken. Jonas would mop the chicken, dipping the brush into the mason jar and coating the birds carefully. I hope that I never forget that chicken.
Azalea would cook half-runner beans and corn, okra and tomatoes, potatoes and parker house rolls – sometimes cornbread. All the vegetables were served family-style in large bowls and platters. A few small bowls with pickles, and it was a feast. And that chicken…damn, it was good. Certainly the best chicken of my life. It was cut up in the kitchen and served straight on each of our plates. I always asked for dark meat.
After the meal, we’d always have dessert. Sometimes it was finished with sliced watermelon, or if we were lucky, blackberry cobbler served with vanilla ice cream. But Jonas’s chicken always stole the show. It was that good. While we were eating, he’d put out the fire, clean up and drive off in his pick up.
I’ve tried to recreate that chicken over the years, but I always fail. I don’t cook it long enough, or the fire’s too hot, or the sauce is wrong. But I’ll keep trying, and someday, I’ll get it right. I swear I’ll get it right.