TANEYTOWN — The peanut oil roiling around the chicken in "Sponnie" Smith's cast iron kettle is holding steady at 335 degrees.
He knows because he sticks his finger in it.
Even though Smith can check the temperature of hot fat without losing skin, he doesn't advise anyone to try the method at home.
"I never use a thermometer," he says as he casually wipes the oil off his finger with a towel. He lets out a chuckle that betrays his pride.
Charles E. "Sponnie" Smith has been sticking his finger in hot kettles for most of his 74 years, since when he watched his dad do the same while rendering lard on the family farm in Pennsylvania.
But Smith doesn't use lard to make the fried chicken he's famous for at various fund-raising events in Carroll County. A heart attack survivorhimself, he prefers peanut oil.
The chicken he uses is whatever he gets the best price on in a given week, whether at a grocery store or wholesale food supplier. Sometimes it's Perdue, sometimes Holly Farms, Pennfield or Rockingham.
"You take that peanut oil, gives them all the same taste," he said. "The peanut oil does cost more, but it's worth it."
Even his cardiologist in Gettysburg asks him to fryup a batch for the office now and then. Neighbors and friends give him chicken to fry for them.
But mostly, he lends his talents to help raise money for the Taneytown Senior Center, the Taneytown Volunteer Fire Department and the United Methodist Church. He started the work 30 years ago, even before he retired from driving trucks in 1979 -- the year he had the heart attack.
During Friday's Senior Days at the Carroll County Farm Museum, he fried 271 pounds, with his fellow senior center members selling the platters for $4 for a quarter of a chicken, and $5 for a half. The dinner included Smith's ham-flavored green beans, pepper slaw, roll and iced tea. Proceeds will go toward bus trips for the center's members.
For most of his events, Smith tabulates what he spends and asks the organization to give him a small donation over the cost of the food. He won't ask for a specific amount.
"I leave it up to them," he said.
Smith first got the idea to raise money frying chicken from a Union Bridge volunteer fireman who did it.
Until six years ago, he got help from his wife, Naomi, and brother, Thomas. They died within a few months of each other in 1985, but Smith carried on the tradition of volunteerism that he shared with them.
Despite the line of seniors that started eating his chicken at 9:45 a.m. and went on through early afternoon, Smith remained cheerful and calm at his kettles. He had started setting up at 7:30 that morning.
He backed up his 1972 yellow-and-white Ford truck to the barn, and set up two of his specially rigged fryers: He uses old-fashioned cast-iron butchering kettles set into large steel drums. Each kettle will fry about 20 pounds of chicken at a time. In thebottom of the drums, he has built gas burners. A rubber hose delivers propane from a tank to the burners.
While Smith tended to the fryers, a crew of helpers trimmed and floured the chicken pieces. Others sold and served the dinners.
"At one time, you couldn't keep enough thighs and legs together," he said. "Now, everybody hears 'Eat white meat, eat white meat.' I have trouble getting rid of dark meat. Somehow or other, I like wings."
The seasoning and frying methods took him two years to perfect, he said. The flour mix has a simple butsublime mixture of salt, pepper, Accent and Old Bay seasoning.
"Idon't have 22 ingredients like those other people," he said.
He knows the chicken is done to perfection when he hears the oil stop bubbling and calm down. No timer has to sound to let him know the 20 to 30 minutes has elapsed.
"I never turn out any raw chicken," he said, adding he's never had any complaints about salmonella poisoning, arisk with under-cooked chicken.
The calmness of the oil is a useful tip for anyone willing to bother frying chicken at home, unlike his finger-in-the-kettle method for testing the oil.
It's hard to swallow Smith's explanation for why he still has fingers to stick into the hot oil.
"If it's hot enough, it won't burn you," he said. "Ifit isn't hot enough, it'll cling to your finger."
His reasoning seems contradictory, but so do a lot of other things about Sponnie Smith, until you find out more. His nickname, which rhymes with "funny,"bears no resemblance to his first name, but it comes from his mother's maiden name, Sponceller.
A few other people in the county know him as the "chicken man."
And even the fact that Smith is still walking is a minor miracle. He survived the heart attack in 1979, majorsurgery to remove cancer from his esophagus, spleen, stomach and ribs in 1980, and a nasty gall bladder infection in 1983.
Although doctors originally told him he would never survive the cancer, he proved them wrong, and without any chemotherapy or radiation treatment. When the surgeon told him he removed it all, Smith took him at his wordand set to getting stronger.