Fried Chicken: From Humble Origins to Haute Cuisine
I’m always intrigued when one of my columns resonates with readers. That’s what happened last edition with my musings about fried chicken for breakfast. People, it seems, can’t get enough of the bird. They’re eating fried chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, bone-in and boneless, fresh and frozen, hot and cold and in between.
This outpouring of affection for fried chicken has inspired me to continue thinking and writing about this American food classic.
Immigrants, most notably the Scottish who settled in the southern and mid-Atlantic colonies, brought the tradition of frying chicken to the New World. According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, women in 17th Century America were already frying chicken in oil and butter and then stewing it in a sauce made from mushrooms and pickles. They called it chicken fricassee. The first official printed fried chicken recipe appeared in the 1824 Virginia House Wife, a popular book by Mary Randolph that’s still available in print today.
Fried chicken by then was already very popular in Virginia. Some historians say the humble dish played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War. In 1781, the Virginia legislature and Governor Thomas Jefferson adjourned from Richmond to Charlottesville. Unbeknownst to them, British troops under the command of Colonel Banastre Tarleton were in pursuit. Tarleton and his men stopped at the plantation home of Dr. Joseph Walker, just east of Charlottesville, to commandeer food and provisions for their mission. A messenger managed to slip off the plantation and travel to Monticello, Jefferson’s home, to warn of Tarleton’s approach.
The Walker family cook insisted on killing, cleaning, and frying chickens to serve to the British. It was a slow process and Tarleton was furious over the hold-up, but not enough to forego the tasty meal. Hmm… A colonel and his fried chicken… Premeditated or not, the delay gave Jefferson enough time to plan his escape from Monticello.
Fried chicken over time became a part of Southern slave culture too. Chickens were about the only live animal slaves were allowed to keep and raise. Black cooks began experimenting with their own favorite seasonings, and in time, fried chicken became a popular dish for Sunday meals after church and for other special family gatherings.
In Gordonsville, Virginia, enterprising African-American women greeted trains with platters of homemade fried chicken balanced on their heads. Serving hungry passengers through open windows, they became known as “chicken vendors.” The chicken was so good and so popular that the town in the last quarter of the 19th Century became known as “the fried chicken capital of the world.”
It was in Virginia, and in particular at the College Inn in Charlottesville, where I honed my taste for fried chicken. Three pieces and two sides. It was—and still is—a great hangover remedy.
It was another Southern state, however, that would capture the fried chicken limelight. Yes, I’m talking about Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Colonel Harland Sanders of Corbin, Kentucky, ran a little café attached to a gas station where he perfected his secret eleven-herbs-and spices recipe for fried chicken. He never made much money but people sure loved his chicken. In 1952 at the age of 65, he began franchising his special recipe and tweaked-up pressure cooker, which reduced the time it took to pressure fry chicken. When Sanders introduced the now iconic red and white bucket of fried chicken in 1957, the company took off. Take out chicken. Served fast and finger licking good. The rest is history.
KFC now serves more than 12 million customers each day in 109 nations and territories around the world. The company ranks second only behind McDonald’s in revenue earned by a fast food company.
But history, as we know, does not stand still. As the presidential election of 2012 showed us, the American demographic is changing. What will this mean for fried chicken?
Already we’re seeing Korean fried chicken in chic little Manhattan restaurants and in hipster hangouts in Brooklyn. Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan chain, opened its first restaurant in 2002 in Los Angeles. Now there are over fifty locations around the country serving fried chicken with a distinctly Latin flavor and sides that include tortillas, salsa, rice, beans, and yucca fries.
As a Southerner of Scottish decent, I’m naturally drawn to the new ethnic-inspired fried chicken in all its varieties. But I’m sensing something more is going on. A few days ago, the New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov waxed poetically about the beautiful pairing of dry, fizzy wine and salty, peppery, fried chicken. Celebrity chefs today all seem to do a fried chicken dish. And I heard that Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Tennessee, is slated to receive a James Beard Foundation award.
I might be going out on a limb here, but it seems to me these are all signs of something big. Humor me here… Are we seeing perhaps the beginnings of a new “golden age of American fried chicken.” Or is my blood pressure just high and making me dizzy from all the chicken I’ve been eating lately?
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town. Contact Rich Barnett