Southern fried chicken is one of the great American foods. Some food snobs may scoff at such a claim but they have probably only tasted the batter-soaked, indigestible variety sold at fast food chains and roadside cafes. I am talking about fried chicken prepared by Southern cooks whose reputations stand or fall on this one dish. Each of them is certain there is only one way to make perfectly fried, crisp, tender and juicy chicken. But no two people agree on how it should be done, and the variations are endless.

My friend Mary spits in the pan and swears this is the most reliable method to test the temperature of the oil. She also told me not to tell anyone she spits in the pan. My father dropped a chilled stick of butter into the oil exactly halfway trhough the cooking time. "Unless you do this step just right," he would say, "the chicken won't be fit to eat." Actually, any food not prepared to his particualr taste was not fit to eat. Now, my mother was equally certain that unless the chicken was floured and refrigerated at least one hour before frying it would not be crisp.

When I was a child in North Carolina, my favorite chicken was made by our cook, Berdie. She used a tablespoon of bacon grease for added flavor and cooked the chicken in a covered pan until the last five minutes, when she would tell everyone to stand back as she lifted the lid and raised the heat. I always loved the drama as the pan made great sputtering noises and the aroma of the frying chicken filled the kitchen.

My mother and my aunts carried on a running dialogue as to the merits of batter dipping versus shaking the chicken in a paper bag of seasoned flour. Aunt Nell usually complained of indigestion shortly after Sunday dinner at Aunt Essie's. She, of course, was of the paper bag school.

In my own quest for the perfect fried chicken recipe I have experimented with various cooking oils, spit in the pan, added butter, bacon grease or both, covered the chicken, fried it on a slow flame, fried it on a fast flame, dipped it in egg batter and even tried it in the oven. I have also consulted my cookbooks to see how Craign Claiborne, Edna Lewis, Time-Life, Southern Living et al do it and must admit that I don't think there is an ultimate recipe. We are all like the cooks I have written about. It just comes down to what tastes good to the taster. Here are several recipes which I think produce excellent fried chicken. They all work -- that is, as long as you fry it in a black cast iron skillet and drain the chicken on a brown paper bag. SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN 1 large frying chicken cut into serving peices Flour seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne* 4 tablespoons butter* 6 tablespoons oil

Put chicken pieces in a bag with the seasoned flour and shake to coat. Heat the butter and oil in a heavy skillet over high heat. Brown the chicken well, skin side first. Do not crowd the pieces in the skillet or you will not achieve an even color. Turn the chicken, reduce the heat and brown well on the other side. Turn again and continue cooking until the chicken is tender. You may cover the chicken after browning on both sides and let it simmer gently until tender. Transfer to absorbent paper.

*Note: Use 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne per cup of flour, depending on taste. Lard, shortening or oil may be substituted for butter. However, we found chicken will not be as tender and moist. MARINATED FRIED CHICKEN 1 frying chicken cup into serving pieces 1 egg Juice of 1 lemon Milk to cover 3/4 cup flour Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste Shortening

Wash the chicken under cold running water. Dry with paper towels. Beat the egg and add the lemon juice and milk. Soak chicken in egg mixture to cover for one half hour longer. Place flour, salt and pepper in a paper bag. Add chicken and shake so all pieces are coated evenly and well. Place shortening one inch deep in a skillet. Fry the chicken until tender, about 30 minutes. EDNA LEWIS FRIED CHICKEN 1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour 1 cup whole-wheat flour 3 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 2 (2 1/2 pound) chickens cut into eight pieces each 1/2 cup lard at room temperature 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter at room temperature 1 slice smoked ham (optional) or 1 tablespoon bacon grease

Combine the two flours and add the salt and pepper. Mix well. Wipe pieces of chicken with a damp cloth. Roll each peice of chicken in the flour mixture and place them on a wide platter or a sheet of waxed paper. Leave the pieces to rest for about an hour to allow time for the flour to adhere to the chicken.

Heat the skillet and add enough lard to cover the chicken halfway. When the lard shows signs of beginning to smoke, add chicken, butter and optional ham or bacon grease. Fry over medium-high heat, being careful not to burn. Chicken should cook 10 to 12 minutes per side, until golden. Drain on a paper towel and serve piping hot with cream gravy. CREAM GRAVY

Pour off all but 4 or 5 tablespoons of the fat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of flour, brown quickly. Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups light cream or milk and simmer until thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste. A couple of drops of hot pepper sauce may be added for extra flavor.

Note: The lard that is available in most markets taste quite differently from fresh-rendered homemade lard. It is not as sweet and its flavor may be too strong for some tastes. I prefer shortening or corn oil.