As your surrogate eater, Dear Readers, I leave no platter unturned in my pursuit of the latest trendy tastes, all so that I can bear tales of them back to you.
Education about the latest plate fillers is one reason that I attend Association of Food Journalists conferences. It was during a conference that I first tasted a savory item turned into foam and plopped atop an entree. I was unimpressed with the oozing fluff but didn't say so at the time because I wanted to avoid looking like a country goober. Since then, thankfully, foams have washed out to the Sea of Dumb Dining Trends.
At another conference, the heat from soup served in not-quite-dried-enough sea urchin shells caused their spines to twitch as if they were still alive. That led to a new personal rule: Eat soup from bowls, unless it's Halloween.
This year's conference in Charleston, S.C., pursued Southern food in many forms, and it's a great eating town.
My most anticipated meal was the one at Husk. When the restaurant opened in November 2010, chef Sean Brock vowed to use only ingredients found in the South. That means plenty of bacon fat. The staff also cans local fruits and vegetables during the summer for use in the winter.
At first he thought he'd have to ban olive oil from the kitchen and try to make vinaigrettes using animal fats. Then he found olive oil produced in Texas.
Brock is also working with Georgia Olive Farms to bring olive growing and oil production back to the South. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Brock says, olives were grown widely in an "olive belt" stretching from the South Carolina coast to western Mississippi.
Brock bends his rules to allow coffee, wine and liquor, so that beverages aren't restricted to chicory, scuppernong and white lightning. Fortunately, there is a tea plantation in South Carolina. No sweet tea would've led to riots, I'm sure.
Ahead of the crowd
As my group awaited lunch, the first plate of appetizers arrived.
I looked at it and could not stop laughing. My colleagues stared at me as I howled.
It was a platter of fried chicken skins.
No, not chicken. Just the skins. In pieces the size of potato chips.
I was laughing because I'd eaten them before, many times.
My mother had to cut up her own bird to make fried chicken - no packaged parts in the store when I was a kid. Usually pieces of skin were left over, and she would toss them in the frying pan, too. My father and I would sneak up and snatch them as soon as they were out of the pan, then run off to eat our crispy booty in laughing complicity.
We didn't dip our chicken skins in a sauce, like the one that came with the skins at Husk and tasted like honey mixed with Texas Pete. Instead, we crunched them, hot and slick, straight from the paper towel-covered plate.
I imagined my mother in the Great Beyond, turning her attention from telling Steve Jobs that she didn't understand what the big deal was with his computers to seeing her daughter eating, essentially, kitchen scraps. In a popular restaurant. And paying for them. If a hurricane had struck Charleston at that precise moment, I would not have been surprised.
How is it playing?
But why not fried chicken skins? They combine hot oil, chicken flavor and a crispy snap - everything a great bar snack needs. They're like kosher pork rinds, allowing our Jewish friends to indulge in nutritionally suspect, meat-based snacks.
The appetizer is popular, although it is not always on Husk's menu, according to publicist Adi Noe. Husk gets the skins from Joyce Foods when the Winston-Salem food company happens to have them available. (No, Brock doesn't go around stripping hens.) Joyce Foods markets heritage poultry under the names Ashley Farms and Tanglewood Farms.
If a truly special dish is one that takes you somewhere else when you taste it, then that platter of crunchy chicken chips was a great one. I was transported right back to the grease-spattered, avocado-green stove in my parents' tiny, gray-tiled kitchen faster than you could fry a thigh.
So, Dear Readers, prepare to see fried chicken skins showing up in sports bars around you. They're much better than madeleines for snacking while watching football.