North Charleston soul food joint boxes up its chicken burgers
Good cooks trot out their recipes for state fair judges and church cookbook publishers; great cooks reveal nothing. Or at least that's part of the mystique.
Try the patty
What: Addielee's Kitchen
Where: 2705 Bonds Ave., North Charleston
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2-6 p.m. Sunday.
More info: 566-7833. To order patties online, visit addieleeskitchen.com.
Ann Whitlock belongs to the latter group, which means only the luckiest of her blood relatives will ever know exactly how she prepares the collard greens served at Addielee's Kitchen, a two-year-old North Charleston lunchroom that deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the city's finest soul food. But even the neighborhood's youngest residents, whose report cards Whitlock proudly tacks to the entryway walls, the way other restaurateurs display their business permits, can guess at her methods.
From a heap of vinegary collards, bulleted with stubs of rosy smoked ham hock, it's evident that Whitlock cleans and chops, boils and seasons. Whether she's making collards, red rice, smothered pork chops, speckled beans or oxtail (only on Thursdays), her preparation doesn't start with a freezer and end with a microwave. "I means, we run out, the next day, we have to replace it," says Charles Whitlock, who works alongside his wife in the kitchen he built for her.
Yet despite her mastery of craft cooking, Ann Whitlock, 64, isn't counting on homespun dishes to make Addielee's famous. She intends to "take my mother's name all over the world" by becoming a frozen chicken patty mogul. Eventually, she says, she'll also add chicken sausage and chicken meatloaf to her product line. But, for now, the focus is the quarter-inch thick convenience cutlet that Whitlock swears is just as good sliced up for breakfast as paired with a green salad for dinner.
"You can do a lot with that burger," she says.
Charles Whitlock, who eats his share of patties, nods: "This is going to go over big."
The (fried) chicken came first
Whitlock grew up in Coy, Ala., where her aunt cooked on an open stove under a shade tree. She allowed Whitlock to add seasoning to her pots, wordlessly indicating when she'd added enough. Whitlock internalized the tempo, becoming so adept in the kitchen that by age 14, she produced a peach cobbler that she can still taste.
The (fried) chicken came first
"It didn't taste like no other cobbler, because you put what you wanted to put in it," she says.
Nicknamed "Measuring Cup," Whitlock at 18 moved north to East Orange, N.J., where two of her brothers already were living. She moved in with them, trading home-cooked meals for room and board. "As long as I could fry some chicken, they was fine," she recalls.
Although her full-time job was at a pharmaceutical company, Whitlock catered events and sold dinners out of her basement as a side gig. Remembering the many celebrations she worked, she feigns frustration with her daughter, Leslie, who was supposed to help Whitlock serve the guests: "She'd be sitting down, eating the food," she exclaims.
After retiring in 1998, Whitlock began cooking for the children enrolled in Leslie's day care center. She devised a weekly menu, which the kids grasped quickly.
"They knew when we were having fried chicken," she says.
But the children weren't much for gnawing on whole pieces of poultry. They preferred to first shear the meat from the bone, giving Whitlock the idea for her patties. The very first Addielee's chicken burgers debuted at Little Stars. "Children, they love it," says Whitlock, whose granddaughter refuses to take anything else to school for lunch.
As a prank, Whitlock once put a hot dog in her lunchbox.
"She got in the car when we picked her up, and said 'Didn't I tell you I don't want no hot dog?,' " Whitlock recalls with a laugh.
The patty goes public
In 2005, Whitlock came to South Carolina to visit her stepbrother's mother-in-law; the weather persuaded her to stay. Five years later, she opened a small take-out window in Lincolnville and put her patties on the menu.
The patty goes public
She'd already approached chicken processor Perdue Farms with the product idea, but was told she needed to "go around and get sales volume up." Whitlock decided if she was going to market the patties, she might as well make them too, a scheme which required USDA approval.
"When I passed that last test, I didn't sleep for three weeks," Whitlock says.
Because the grinder Whitlock initially used didn't have a very fine setting, she and her husband learned to grind the patty meat twice. Although they've since upgraded to a more precise machine, they've kept up the routine, resulting in patties which are inordinately sleek. The government-mandated ingredient list wraps up with garlic flavor, parsley and celery seed, but the patties taste primarily of onions and salt. Although Whitlock maintains there's no significant overlap between her recipes for fried chicken and chicken burgers, from a seasoning standpoint, the meat patties are profoundly reminiscent of fried chicken skin. (In the realm of Southern cooking, that's high praise.)
The very last ingredient on the list is monosodium glutamate, but the Whitlocks are redoing the recipe without it in hopes of appealing to health-conscious eaters. Science has shown MSG isn't harmful, but the flavor enhancer remains a pantry bogeyman. Charles Whitlock says the patty's equally good without it, but it's not entirely clear whether he really thinks so.
At a few hundred calories a serving, the patty may never win over the most nutritionally minded eaters. But it impressed the manager of the Summerville Piggly-Wiggly, who placed a standing order after his sampling session, and a Charlotte restaurateur, who's planning to put Whitlock's sliders on five menus. Currently, grocery, on-site and mail-order sales add up to about 700 burgers a week.
Monday and Tuesday are patty-making days at Addielee's. The Whitlocks shut down the restaurant and pull the mint-green throws off their triumvirate of mixing, forming and trimming equipment, situated just a few yards down from a cooler stocked with homemade sweet potato pies. But they're on the cusp of delegating production to a commercial co-packer: "She's been here already," says Ann Whitlock, who wants to make certain the co-packer's output is indistinguishable from the patties she creates. "I have to close my eyes to see if she's doing it right."
Charles Whitlock estimates seven or eight Addielee's customers a day ask for a chicken burger with fries. The meal costs $6.25, and the patty's garnished with mayonnaise, mustard, onions, tomatoes, ketchup and banana peppers. It's not the restaurant's very bestseller - "I go through three boxes of turkey wings a week," Charles Whitlock says - but Ann Whitlock is confident eaters who can't make it to North Charleston for fried fish, mac-and-cheese and cornbread will snap up her product.
Earlier this year, Whitlock provided the patties for an event in Edisto, giving her a glimpse of how the future might look.
"All over the grill, all you could see was my chicken burgers," she says, beaming.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.