Fried Chicken

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You and your friend mac’ and cheese, Candy yams, collard greens, but you knocking me to my knees,” Nas once rapped on his song entitled “Fried Chicken,” signifying just a few of the food staples you might spot on a Black family’s Thanksgiving table or any given Sunday.  Lest we forget the collard greens, okra, and chitterlings.

But the star of the meal, fried chicken, we can’t forget—especially in the South. Fried chicken remains a popular dish, so much so it is the main staple sold at fast food giants like Popeyes and KFC. Fried chicken restaurants have even been identified as the fastest growing eateries among small chains in the U.S. in 2014, and, yet, many fried chicken enthusiasts don’t know the food’s origins.

Though the common racist stereotype places Black people at the center of the fried chicken craze, we didn’t invent it. Enslaved Africans popularized the dish following Scottish immigrants. The Scots who came to America in the 1700s had a tradition of deep-frying chicken in fat as far back as the middle ages, and it wasn’t introduced to enslaved Africans until the 1800s.

According to Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta, the Scots were known for sinfully frying their foods without seasoning and often called their fried foods “fritters.” The rest of the European immigrants weren’t hooked on the crunchy goodness and were still preparing their chicken the healthier way by baking or boiling the bird. Imagine that. 

Some of those Scottish immigrants, and others from across Europe, migrated to the South prior to the height of the Transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. In the 1700s, the Scots traveled across the Atlantic because of the Highland Clearance, a fancy term for mass eviction, and settled in the 13 colonies. Some arrived as indentured servants. The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups estimates some 400,000 Irish people lived in the South at that time and most settled in South Carolina and Virginia.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and it was the descendants of those Scottish immigrants who’d eventually buy plantations, own slaves and introduce the frying of chicken. However, variations around the world existed around this time that had nothing to do with the European transplants.

Though the common racist stereotype places Black people at the center of the fried chicken craze, we didn’t invent it.

“Southerners were not the first people in the world to fry chickens, of course. Almost every country has its own version, from Vietnam’s Ga Xao to Italy’s pollo fritto and Austria’s Weiner Backhendl, and numerous fricassees fill the cookbooks of Europe,” noted John F. Mariani, one of the author’s of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. “The Scottish may have brought the method with them when they settled the South. And fried chicken did not become particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century.”

Fried chicken, as many Americans have to come to know it, became the goodness it is because enslaved Africans weren’t allowed to keep any other livestock except for chickens because they were small and didn’t take up much space on the master’s property. Black people were resourceful with the scraps they had access to, like fat backs, chitterlings, collard greens, pigs’ feet and kale (before it was gentrified).

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So they spiced it up by plucking the chicken’s feathers, breading the pieces and seasoning it with paprika and other spices brought over from West Africa. After seasoning, they dropped the meat in hot palm oil. Despite being enslaved, fried chicken jump-started entrepreneurship among Black women who began selling the dish in the 1730s. But with the ingredients being so expensive, and with the West African tradition of chicken only being eaten on special occasions, it was rare that African-Americans actually ate poultry.

The business of selling fried chicken is nothing new, and neither is the onslaught of countless recipes.

Though the common racist stereotype places Black people at the center of the fried chicken craze, we didn’t invent it.

While most people use the “a pinch of this and a pinch of that” method, according to First We Feast, the first American-style fried chicken recipe appeared in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which was published in 1747. The recipe was titled “To Marinate Chickens,” and only called for flour-covered pieces of chicken to be fried in pig lard. It also included a recipe lavishly titled “Brown Fricasey,” a dish where chunks of chicken are coated with egg, followed by spiced breadcrumbs, before it is fried in butter. The South was an obvious influence in the recipe, but the term ‘southern fried’ didn’t show up in print until 1925.

In many ways fried chicken is like America with its complicated past. It’s entrenched in the struggle, hardships, and entrepreneurial zeal of several oppressed groups that somehow birthed something sublime.

Today, many of these culinary traditions are common in Black households and eateries, but decades before Harland David Sanders, known by his popular moniker Colonel Sanders, came along in his eerie plantation-style garb and became the billionaire behind Kentucky Fried Chicken. Along the way he was also allegedly a booster for presidential candidate and noted segregationist George C. Wallace who’s infamous for saying “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The irony of it all.

In many ways fried chicken is like America with its complicated past. It’s entrenched in the struggle, hardships, and entrepreneurial zeal of several oppressed groups that somehow birthed something sublime.