NOTE: Find three of Susan’s treasured recipes at the end of this story!
In the South, fried chicken is everything. Debating whose mama fries a better yardbird has led to squabbles at family reunions, church picnics, even at otherwise solemn bereavement dinners, where everyone is emotional about the brevity of life. That, and of course, whether Mama Jo’s pan-fried chicken holds a candle to Aunt Edna’s electric-skillet version.
In Fort Smith, Arkansas, a clear chicken-dinner winner has emerged. Susan Hannan, a sixth-grade Social Studies teacher at Ramsey Middle School, who shares five children with her husband Jeff, is such a good cook she’s found an additional calling. Susan teaches the secrets to a perfect Southern Fried Chicken dinner. So far, sixty-five women and men have taken her one-session course, and Susan says everyone has earned a gold star.
It doesn’t hurt that Susan comes from a long line of good cooks, and that she grew up in a different time. She holds up one finger, then another, and another. “My mom was a really good cook, and my aunt, and my grandmas on both sides,” Susan says. “People didn’t go out to eat, so if you didn’t know how to cook, you didn’t eat very well. My grandparents, who lived in Spadra, Arkansas, had a big garden. I grew up on fried everything!”
When Susan was in the sixth or seventh grade, her mom joined the workforce. By then, Susan had spent hours by her mother’s side, watching her cook, helping her get dinner on the table. Now that her mother wasn’t at home after school, she relied on Susan to do more of the heavy lifting. “She’d call me and walk me through what I was supposed to do, like how she wanted the potatoes cut up, and I’d start supper.”
The first meal Susan remembers cooking on her own was hamburgers and homemade french fries. “My mom told me she could make fries as good as McDonald’s,” Susan says. “So, I learned to do it.” She touches the emerald-green pendant at her throat, and all the light in the room reaches her smile. Laughing, she says, “It took a lot of Crisco.”
Like most naturally talented people, Susan doesn’t see her cooking skills as extraordinary. But in 2018, when she learned that one of her fellow teachers—this was when she taught at Cook Elementary—couldn’t conquer fried chicken, Susan knew she could teach her. “She could get the chicken crispy on the outside, but it would be undercooked on the inside,” Susan says. “That summer, I decided I wanted to earn a little extra money for vacation, so I posted on Facebook that I would teach classes on how to fry chicken, and I mean, it just blew up. For a month, I was teaching classes three nights a week.”
Much like in her classroom at Ramsey, Susan spends a lot of time preparing to teach her chicken technique. And not only does she teach, but she also makes Granny Green Beans from a recipe by Collard Valley Cooks, mashed potatoes, and biscuits. She sets the dining room table with the dishes and linens she’s collected for years. She puts out her grandmother’s silverware. She prints out recipes for each student. She sets up at least two electric skillets. The cost? Only forty dollars.
While Susan calls her cooking classes foolproof, that doesn’t mean they’re without incident. Like this summer when the temperature rose to 100 degrees and just kept going. “I’d be watching the chicken frying, and I’d see the temperature of the pan going down instead of staying steady. I figured out pretty quick that I was blowing fuses, so I’d have to stop everything and go change a fuse. I guess the heat of the day was just too much.”
Susan can’t control the Arkansas power grid, but she can control most everything else. She’s also willing to share her secrets because there are secrets. For one thing, Susan doesn’t buy into the advice that you should season the dipping flour. Instead, she seasons each piece of poultry individually. Keeping the cooking oil between 350 and 375 degrees is crucial, and double-coating the chicken in flour and egg is another must-do. Finally, Susan always uses a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken is cooked properly.
Susan is sitting beside her fireplace, decorated with autumn flowers, gold pumpkins, burgundy candles. “I’ve had people drive from Russellville to take my class. One girl drove from Little Rock. My neighbor’s about to turn eighty-seven; he took my class. A man whose wife was my Sunday school teacher in high school attended. He said his grandkids always wanted him to make fried chicken and he tried, using recipes he pulled off the Internet. But it didn’t always turn out.” Susan fixed that.
Even better? Once her students return home, Susan says they report back that they can duplicate her results by following her directions.
When the cooking part of class is over, participants sit at a long table. There are cloth napkins, candles glowing, a shine coming off the sparkling glassware. And then it’s time to eat. She brings out the fresh-from-the-oven biscuits, the Granny Green Beans, the platters of Susan’s Fried Chicken. There is something comforting about sitting together. There is something gratifying about sharing food you’ve cooked yourself. Talk turns to stories of childhood, tales of cooking misadventures, of children and grandchildren.
From the table, you can see the gallery wall showcasing Susan’s big family. Two toddler boys, each dressed in short pants and the stiff white baby shoes from a certain era, smile cheerfully. A photo of an adorable little girl dressed in a pink dress and black patent Mary Janes hangs nearby. Surrounded by these photos are snapshots and studio portraits that show gap-toothed smiles, weddings, and parents and grandparents who are no longer residents of this mortal plane. It’s like seeing Susan’s heart on display.
Already, Susan is preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, which will bring dozens of people to her house. There will be a ton of food, and her daughter, Rachel Dahl, will likely bring homemade cinnamon rolls. Rachel sells the rolls during the holidays. She also has a food blog, Life as a Dahl, and even tried out for the reality TV show Master Chef. The apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Once the holidays are over, Susan will be working on a cookbook for her family, and she’s considering starting her own YouTube channel. That way, she can share her cooking secrets with a broader audience. Looking at her now, it’s easy to see her appeal in front of a camera. She sweeps her impeccable blond hair behind her ear. Her nails are painted dark pink. Her shoes have sparkles on them. And that smile is made for the camera. When she speaks, she sounds like Arkansas: the soft drawl of this particular part of the South. A voice that sounds like an invitation. Like a call to supper.
She says cooking is about love, but it’s also about joy. On each of their kids’ birthdays, she cooks them whatever meal they want. When she makes a special meal for herself, it’s Chicken Eden Isle, a dish that has chicken, bacon, dried beef, a little sour cream, and cream cheese. Years ago, Susan had the dish at the Red Apple Inn in Heber Springs and fell head over heels. Who doesn’t love the way Southerners love food?
Still, the way Susan feels about cooking doesn’t hold a candle to how she feels about her family. The Hannans’ five children all cook. Her husband, Jeff, is the grill master, and in the spirit of teamwork, he also cleans up after Susan’s classes. One day, the torch, or in this case the electric skillet, will be passed down to the next generation, and because of Susan they’ll be ready. It’s true that a platter of Southern Fried Chicken can’t fix everything wrong with the whole wide world, but it’s an awfully good start. Just ask the Chicken Dinner Chick. She’s watched the miracle of Southern Fried Chicken happen time and time again, right in her kitchen, the heart of her happy, happy home.
If you’re interested in taking a cooking class from Susan, contact her through her Facebook page, Chicken Dinner Chick, to check on schedules and availability. The cost is $40.
SUSAN SHARES THREE OF HER RECIPES!
CHICKEN EDEN ISLE, GRANNY GREEN BEANS AND BISCUITS
CHICKEN EDEN ISLE
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
6 slices of lean bacon
1 4-ounce package Hormel dried beef
2 10-ounce cans of cream of chicken soup
1 ½ cups sour cream
1 8-ounce package softened cream cheese
Preheat oven to 325°F. Pepper, but do not salt, chicken breasts. Wrap a slice of bacon around each breast. Place a layer of dried beef on the bottom of a greased baking dish. Place wrapped chicken breasts on top.
In a food processor, combine soups, sour cream, and cream cheese; pulse to blend well. Pour over chicken. Cover tightly with foil; bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until chicken is tender. Remove foil and place under broiler to golden brown. Serve over rice with sauce.
GRANNY GREEN BEANS
3 cans of green beans (undrained)
⅛ cup of vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon of sugar
Mix together the green beans, oil and sugar. Cook on high until all the fluid is absorbed. It will make a sizzling sound. When the fluid is all evaporated, continue to cook it for about three more minutes. These green beans taste just like they came out of the garden.
(taste like homemade…but they´re not)
Take any brand of frozen biscuits (I use Great Value) and dip them in flour before you put them on a baking sheet. Make sure that they touch each other and cook as directed on the package. Only you will know they aren’t homemade!