ACTON — When Jim Willis needs a comforting taste of his South Carolina heritage, he and his wife, Barbara, prepare a familiar dinner that begins with pickled shrimp, which he nibbles on as they fry chicken and shape buttermilk biscuits.
Barbara Willis typically makes the chicken, which, says Jim, “is pretty straightforward and easy to cook.” Theirs isn’t spicy, or soaked in buttermilk or yogurt, but, he says, “I’ve never had anyone say this isn’t a good dish.”
Like many dads of his generation, Jim Willis, 74, a father of two, left the responsibilities of the kitchen to his wife, until he had some time on his hands. Now he joins her at the stove, cooking when their family gathers: son James N. Willis III of Framingham, daughter Lauren Willis of Berkeley, Calif., her husband, Jonathan Weisglass, and grandchildren Mira and Danica. Since retiring from his job as a chemist at Waters Corp. in Milford a year and a half ago, the dad has taken over the shrimp pickling, biscuit making, and other tasks. “We both work in the kitchen, just not necessarily together,” he teases.
For the Willises, who met and married in their native Charleston, S.C., more than 50 years ago, and have lived in Acton for the past 35, the fried chicken dinner is a reminder of home that includes Hoppin’ John for New Year’s and ends with pecan pie any time of the year. “I’ve always taken fried chicken to friends who have had a loss,” Barbara says. “I usually cook a chicken for us too.”
Barbara encouraged her husband to take his turn at the stove. As Jim explains it, “She said, ‘I’ve been doing this for 45 years, so it’s time for you to have a turn.’ ” When Barbara, a textile artist, works late at a Cambridge artists’ co-op, Jim prepares recipes from many sources, ranging from Bon Appetit magazine to a cookbook the couple received in 1962 as a wedding present.
They first cooked together during their graduate school days in South Carolina, when they would join with friends to cook Julia Child recipes. “Our friends had ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ (Volume 1),” Barbara says. “We’d all get together and cook.” The Willises will meet those same friends later this summer for an annual food-focused trip to France.
Jim approaches his part of the dinner with a scientist’s pragmatism. “Being a chemist, I like playing,” he says. After testing several biscuit options, Jim landed on a recipe from the “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” that he found produced the best results — a tall biscuit with a flaky interior.
He scoops flour from a tin container called a “flour keeper,” which belonged to Barbara’s great aunt. “You need to be very careful,” he says about the process. “Minimizing how much you handle the dough is probably the biggest trick in making this. That, and blending it properly. If you don’t, you end up with butter in one part and not the other and the biscuits fall flat.”
Jim sifts the dry ingredients — flour, a homemade baking powder blend made from cream of tartar, cornstarch, and baking soda (he is, after all, a chemist), some additional baking soda, and salt — before cutting in cold butter with a pastry blender. “You want to push straight down. Typically knives are what people would use. That’s where the term ‘cutting’ comes from,” explains the biscuit maker. After blending the butter into tiny bits, he creates a well into which he pours cold buttermilk all at once and mixes. “You want to get it just blended until it’s a mess, but a cohesive mess, and a pretty uniform mixture. It’s almost wormy looking. Are you satisfied with that?” Jim asks his wife. Agreeing that he has mixed the dough just enough, Barbara says, “Biscuits are not easy. They can’t be overworked.” That makes them tough, she says.
After gently giving the dough less than a dozen presses with the heel of his hand, he rolls it out to a ½-inch thickness, stamps out biscuits with a cutter, and bakes them in a hot oven. The finished biscuits are tall, golden, and very flaky. Jim bakes them close together so the edges remain soft, a lovely contrast to the crusty tops.
Barbara makes fried chicken with the casual confidence of a cook who has been preparing the dish for decades. She starts with small, whole chickens that she cuts into eight pieces. “If you buy a cut-up chicken, the pieces are too big and are not the same size. I buy as close to a 3-pound chicken as I can get.” Her other tips for successful frying include adding a bit of oil saved from the previous batch (she prefers liquid Crisco or Wesson). “It browns better that way.” She uses two cast iron skillets at the same time and makes sure not to overcrowd the pieces.
After cutting and rinsing the pieces, Barbara places them on a paper towel, but does not dry them. She tosses the chicken, a few pieces at a time, in a brown paper bag with flour seasoned only with salt and pepper. A few shakes later, the chicken is lightly coated. She has half filled the skillets with oil and heated them. It is ready when a drop of water produces a sizzle and immediate bubble.
“She cooks by sound. When it’s ready, she hears it,” Jim says.
Barbara fries the breasts and thighs in one skillet. “They take the longest. Then I put the legs in the second skillet and a wing in each skillet. If you listen now, it’s just perking along. In a few minutes, it’s going to sound really hot and make more noise, then I’m going to turn it down.”
Right on cue, after five minutes, the sizzle becomes noticeably louder and Barbara lowers the heat and turns the pieces. About five minutes later, she says, “You can hear it slowing down again.” She removes the finished wing and leg pieces and gives the breasts and thighs one final turn. The result is golden brown, irresistible chicken. The light flour coating produces a crispy but delicate crust that doesn’t overpower the just-cooked, moist interior.
He loves her chicken.
And she pronounces his biscuits, “Your best yet.”