In a sunlit corner office overlooking Ellis Square, the fate of Savannah’s gastronomical world hangs in the balance.
Gathered around a conference table are several members of a secret society, a benificent organizing body that aims to influence and agitate complacent foodie culture.
Infiltrating this furtive group has come with the promise of confidentiality, lest identities be revealed.
Why so incognito? These are the skittish gourmands behind Chickenov, a multi–tiered, rigorously–scored battle that, at its greasy and glorious end, will crown Savannah’s finest fried chicken.
The members of the Committee on Chicken prefer to remain anonymous, lest any point of the competition become tainted with subjectivity.
To this crew, fried chicken is as serious as a heart attack.
Agreeing on the best version of this staple of Southern cuisine is a query that’s likely taken many a Southerner long into the night, but none have resulted in the methodological madness of Chickenov. What began as a disagreement between friends threatened to escalate into a full–fledged feud until someone suggested an amicable alternative: A series of double–blind taste tests to find an unimpeachable winner.
“Passion preceded by reason and shaped by scientific inquiry—it’s what civilizes nations,” espouses one of Chickenov’s founding fathers who goes by the name Drumstick Dan. “Our guiding principle is that this is a noble endeavor.”
Abiding by a populist philosophy of “chicken for the people,” only restaurants and institutions open to the public can qualify—no private clubs or homes. Though tickets are limited to the amount of chicken that can be procured at one time, Chickenov events are open to all. The name, although defaulted upon because the web domain “Chickenoff.com” was unavailable, smacks of appropriate revolutionary flavor.
The first Chickenov tournament in 2009 consisted of four qualifying rounds, each advancing a top scorer to a final event that took place during the Savannah Jazz Festival in Forsyth Park. Up against fried chicken titans like Mrs. Wilkes and Publix, out of the fray arose the Masada Café at the United House of Prayer of All People in Garden City. Heralding its win as “The Best Fried Chicken in Savannah,” a plaque bearing the Chickenov beak-and-bones logo reportedly still hangs in the café next to a framed photo of church founder Sweet Daddy Grace.
In the years hence, Masada Café has reduced its hours and other finalists have fallen prey to the fox of economic unrest. Early this spring, the Committee decided it was time to install a new champion.
“The desire for chicken remains constant; however, establishments go out of business and new ones open,” shrugs another committee member, referred to as Mr. White Meat.
“Also, we needed three years for our cholesterol levels to come back down,” adds someone called Legman.
The first round of Chickenov II: Game of Bones took place in May, when Sisters of the New South emerged as the favorite among 75 tasters. The Skidaway restaurant will face off with two more qualifiers plus a wild card at the finals, to be held once again during Jazzfest.
Here around the conference table around a lunch of—what else?—fried chicken, the Committee has been pounding out the details of Round #2, to be held this Friday, Aug. 10 at Grayson Stadium’s Landshark Landing. The chicken is ordered in 8–piece bundles called “heads,” and the Committee plans to order enough heads to supply 96 tickets sold.
Here’s how it works: Ticketholders get four pieces of chicken, each from a tray marked A, B, C or D. (Most rounds are $10; Friday’s is $20 and includes admission to the baseball game.) Folks rank the parts from their most favorite to their least. Leftovers are donated to Union Mission. Proceeds benefit Deep Kids, an afterschool creative writing program that serves every middle school in the city.
The rub of the double–blind system? Not even the Committee knows where the competitors come from until after the votes are tallied. Only someone known as the “Chicken Rover” holds the names of all four locations, which are doled out separately on the day of the event. Committee drivers must bear the onus of getting their assigned chicken to the table before it gets soggy.
It’s this meticulous secrecy and attention to minutia that keeps the contest objective and honest as well as a trustworthy source for future diners.
Chimes in a member known as Wingnut: “We see this as a public service. People don’t have time to try every chicken joint in town. Dining guides and ‘best of’ polls are fine, but this is a scientific inquiry. We use calculus.”
Indeed, votes are computed with a complex algorithm developed by the Committee’s resident mathematical engineer, aka The Banker.
So what makes the perfect piece of of batter–dipped, oil–crisped chicken parts, according to these fanatics?
Over the tinfoil tray containing an array of glistening wings and legs from a previous Chickenov contender, Mr. White Meat proclaims that this batch passes his scrutiny for crunchy–on–the–outside, moist–on the–inside. Legman and another founding father, Feather Britches, argue over whether it’s too crispy or not crispy enough.
Wingnut admits to a simple palate: “I just know I like it if I want another piece. And I do.”
Drumstick Dan, deemed the “Simon Cowell of Fried Chicken,” is more critical. “The taste is rather plain, and they used too much salt to overcome the lack of marinade.
“Still, I ate two pieces.”
Which goes to show that fried chicken follows the adage usually reserved for fishing and sex: Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.
When: Friday, Aug. 10, 6 p.m.
Where: Grayson Stadium, 1401 Victory Dr.
Cost: $20 (includes admission to Sand Gnats game)