“In a way that somebody else converts to Judaism or becomes a Hare Krishna, I belong to the church of fried chicken.” When Top Chef co-host and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi uttered those words, she spoke a divine truth: people all around the world are “getting religion” with fried chicken, and the devoted flock grows every day.
In China, chickens were considered sacred and able to predict the future because they announced daybreak
In Japan, millions of families celebrate Christmas each year by ordering American-style fried chicken in what has become a national tradition. In China, where chickens were once considered sacred and able to predict the future because they announced daybreak, the most popular fast food chain by far is now KFC. In the US, African Americans often refer to fried chicken as a “Gospel bird” because of its connection to Sunday church culture, and three of the five fastest-growing restaurant chains in recent years were chicken joints. In fact, Americans have even given fried chicken its own “national day” on 6 July, and in a lighthearted recent survey by a San Francisco PR firm, 16% of respondents said that they would marry fried chicken if they could.
Until World War Two, fried chicken in the US was considered a food for special occasions. It later transitioned to something that people ate for breakfast or dinner a couple of times a week, and these days, it’s become so widely available that people eat it whenever the mood strikes. In fact, according to the US’ National Chicken Council, the average American ate 28lb of chicken in 1960. Now, Americans down 99lb of chicken each year – far more than beef (57lb) or pork (53lb).
I, too, am a holy altar acolyte of the bird. In my book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, I wrote about the history of traditional African American cuisine rooted in the Southern US and dedicated an entire chapter to fried chicken. For the sake of in-depth “research” on the subject, I ate at 150 restaurants located in 35 cities and 15 states across the country. And to put Southern fried chicken in the proper culinary and cultural context, I studied cookbooks from cuisines around the world, looking at all the different ways that it’s made. What I found was quite surprising.
Americans down 99lb of chicken each year – far more than beef (57lb) or pork (53lb)
Perhaps the world loves fried chicken because there are so many different ways to marinate, season, coat and fry it. Your standard Southern US version is either coated in flour or batter and then fried to a crisp in oil. If you marinate the chicken first in citrus juices and spices, you’ve got Guatemalan fried chicken. Bathe it in soy sauce, ginger and garlic; dredge it in potato starch and pack it in a bento box and you’ve got Japanese Tatsuta-age. Leave the bones in, fry it twice and then coat it in a thick, sweetened gochujang (chilli paste) for Korean fried chicken. Change the gochujang to an intensely spicy cayenne pepper paste, and you’ve got Nashville hot chicken. The list goes on and on.
Despite the fact that many cultures around the world make distinct varieties of fried chicken, the US South’s version is unquestionably the most iconic. But why? What gives people in the Southern US the gumption to claim fried chicken as their birthright, or their “state religion” as Damon Lee Fowler wrote in his 1998 book, Fried Chicken: The World’s Best Recipes from Memphis to Milan, from Buffalo to Bangkok. The simple answer is that fried chicken’s early history is something of a mystery and US Southerners were its loudest and best cheerleaders, helping to spread it across the US, and later, the world.
The Scottish may have brought the method with them when they settled the [American] South
From the 17th to 19th Centuries, conventional wisdom designated the American South as fried chicken’s native habitat. Southerners made it a centrepiece of their regional cuisine and boasted that only African Americans, mostly enslaved, could make “authentic” fried chicken. Some culinary experts linked such expertise to West Africa where, for several centuries prior to European contact, local populations ate chicken and deep fried their food. However, West Africans didn’t make fried chicken the same way many Southerners traditionally did. It was more like a fricassee, where chicken was lightly fried and then braised for a much longer time in a seasoned sauce – similar to Senegalese chicken yassa. Since West African culinary traditions remain a mystery to so many, some saw the building blocks for fried chicken and leapt to the wrong conclusion.
The US’ first widely accepted printed recipe for fried chicken appeared in 1824 in the first regional American cookbook, The Virginia House-Wife, authored by Mary Randolph, a white woman from a slaveholding family and a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson.
“Cut them up as for the fricassée, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard and fry them a light brown,” she wrote. Of course, the dish’s history starts much earlier, but this recipe set the fried chicken standard for generations of Southern cooks.
For centuries, fried chicken’s pure Southern heritage remained unchallenged until food writer John F Mariani wrote the following in The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, first published in 1983: “Almost every country has its own version [of fried chicken], from Vietnam’s Ga Xao to Italy’s pollo fritto and Austria’s Weiner Backhendl.” But, he continued, “the Scottish, who enjoyed frying their chickens rather than boiling or baking them as the English did, may have brought the method with them when they settled the [American] South.”
Wait a minute. A quintessential ‘American’ food might actually be Scottish?
Wait a minute. A quintessential “American” food might actually be Scottish? Mariani raised an intriguing possibility, but unfortunately, he didn’t offer any proof for his musings. Still, there are some clues to support a Scottish origin theory.
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Though Randolph’s recipe helped popularise fried chicken for Southern white cooks, an even older recipe appearing in a 1747 British cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, may have pioneered it – only it’s not actually called “fried chicken”. Simply titled “to marinate chickens”, the technique is all too familiar to today’s Southern US cooks.
“Cut two chickens into quarters, lay them in vinegar, for three or four hours, with pepper, salt, a bay leaf, and a few cloves, make a very thick batter, first with half a pint of wine and flour, then the yolks of two eggs, a little melted butter, some grated nutmeg and chopped parsley; beat very well together, dip your fowls in the batter, and fry them in a good deal of hog’s lard, which must first boil before you put your chickens in.”
Though authored by an English woman, Hannah Glasse, and published in Dublin, the cookbook incorporated a broad range of traditional British recipes. What’s more, in an essay on 18th-Century Scottish cuisine, Stana Nenadic, professor of social and cultural history at the University of Edinburgh, points out that in 1773, biographer James Boswell wrote a diary entry explicitly describing a fried chicken dinner that an elderly tacksman served him at Coire-chat-achan on the Isle of Skye. Mariani’s theory then, is that as hundreds of thousands of Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers emigrated to the Southern US colonies during the 1700s, they brought their tradition of frying chickens in fat with them.
A likely scenario is that, at some point between the 17th and 19th centuries, enslaved African Americans began cooking fried chicken based on the recipes provided by Scottish slaveholders. In time, African American cooks embraced it as part of their own culinary tradition. With years of honed experience, as well as an adeptness at seasoning and frying, African American cooks caused fried chicken to lose its Scottish identity and it became as quintessentially “Southern” as black-eyed peas, cornbread, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pie.
Before the US Civil War (1861-1865), fried chicken was fully immersed in Southern social life for both African Americans and whites, but preparing it was a very labour-intensive process. Someone had to kill a chicken, then pluck, clean, cut, season, flour and cook it. This made it something only eaten on special occasions – typically from spring until autumn – and it was often served at Fourth of July celebrations and Sunday dinners after a church service. Typically, young chickens, around a year old, were preferred for frying. Older chickens were for stewing because the meat was considered less tender. Other than barbecue or a fish fry, few foods were as effective as fried chicken in bringing people together and building community.
Enslaved African Americans also valued chickens in the Southern plantation economy. Many slaveholders allowed enslaved people to raise chickens and sell or barter eggs. Chickens acquired divine significance in West Africa where the animals were used in a number of religious rituals, and enslaved Africans transplanted those spiritual practices to the Americas.
In the Southern US, American Americans made fried chicken their go-to dish for a communal meal after church, or when the church pastor went to a congregant’s home for dinner. As the honoured guest, the pastor was served first and got the best pieces of the bird (usually the breast), which were also called “preacher’s parts” until the 1950s. With fried chicken so imbued with religious connotation, it’s no surprise that its “Gospel Bird” or “Sunday Cluck” nicknames endure in African American culture.
During the 19th Century, the dish became a route to economic empowerment for many African Americans. In her groundbreaking work, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food & Power, University of Maryland associate professor Dr Psyche Williams-Forson reveals how the 900-person town of Gordonsville, Virginia, became known as the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World” in the second half of the 1800s.
Gordonsville was a major stop on two Civil War-era railroad lines, but back then, the trains didn’t have dining cars. “When weary train passengers arrived [in Gordonsville], these black women rushed to offer a combination of foods that included fried chicken,” writes Williams-Forson. Because fried chicken travelled well before refrigeration, white passengers would frequently buy the food from African American cooks through open train windows.
Fried chicken singlehandedly helped many African Americans build their own homes
Entrepreneurial vendors proliferated in the South and in other parts of the country, and fried chicken singlehandedly helped many African Americans move out of the region and build their own homes – hence, the title of Williams-Forson’s book.
Predictably, however, it was a white entrepreneur who caused fried chicken to really take flight in the US. In the 1950s, “Colonel” Harland Sanders adopted traditional techniques perfected by African Americans in the US South and began franchising his Antebellum-themed Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant after figuring out how to mass produce fried chicken by greatly shortening its cooking time. As a legitimate fast food, Southern-style fried chicken began spreading its wings globally in the 1970s, and KFC’s influence was huge. Wherever the franchise landed, it often gave people in other countries their first taste of Southern-style fried chicken.
But interestingly, just as Scottish immigrants may have introduced their fat-fried tradition to the US centuries ago, different methods to fry the birds from around the world have flapped back to the US in recent decades, as new generations of entrepreneurial immigrants have arrived. Two of the best examples are Pollo Campero’s adobo-spiced Central American fried chicken, headquartered in Dallas, Texas; and South Korean franchise Bonchon’s twice-fried, garlic-soy or hot pepper-seasoned birds – whose founder, Jinduk Seh, now lives in New York. More recently, a proliferation of high-end US restaurants serving everything from bite-sized Japanese karaage fried chicken thighs to Palestinian fried fowl seasoned with za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend featuring sesame seeds, a variety of dried herbs and salt) have popped up across the US.
Every food tells a story, and as people around the world continue to look for that perfect bite of fried chicken, chefs, food writers, and restauranteurs have a tremendous opportunity to inform them about its origin. Yet, being a cheerleader for Scottish fried chicken is harder these days because Harland Sanders’ influence looms so large.
“In terms of modern Scottish food, fried chicken is KFC to us,” said Rachel McCormack, a Scottish panellist for BBC 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet. “It’s not something any good restaurant would do here, as it would baffle people.”
But all is not lost. According to Nicola Miller, an award-winning food writer based in England, nodding to deep-fried Mars bar and other local delicacies, “the Scots need little encouragement to crumb, batter and fry, and they are therefore uniquely placed for a reclamation.”
Perhaps with more Scottish cheerleaders, and fewer Kentucky Colonels, fried chicken can finally come home to roost.
Adrian Miller is a James Beard-winning author who lives in Denver, Colorado.
Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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