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Water Cooler: Fried chicken’s surprising history

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 24, 2021

The iconic fried chicken dish came to the southern colonies from Scottish or Scotch-Irish immigrants and Africans forced into slavery.  (Pixabay)
The iconic fried chicken dish came to the southern colonies from Scottish or Scotch-Irish immigrants and Africans forced into slavery. (Pixabay)

If someone asked you to give examples of U.S. cuisine, fried chicken would probably be one of the most popular. But how did fried chicken come to be such an iconic aspect of American cuisine?

Although many Americans are familiar with the racial stereotyping in the United States that led to a derogatory association between African Americans and fried chicken, the actual history of how it became an iconic aspect of soul food and American cuisine is not as commonly known. Diving into the history of fried chicken can help us better understand its cultural and culinary significance and appreciate its deliciousness even more.

The story of America’s fried chicken involves the cuisine of cultures from around the world, primarily Scottish and West African. Many historians theorize the United State’s version of fried chicken has roots in Scottish cuisine. In the book, “The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink,” food and travel writer John F. Mariani noted the Scottish fried their chicken, compared to the English who mostly baked or boiled it. In the book he offers little proof of this theory, but Stana Nenadic, a professor of social history at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out in an essay that Scottish biographer James Boswell describes a fried chicken dinner served to him on the Isle of Skye in a 1773 diary entry.

The biggest difference between the Scottish fried chicken of the 1700s and American fried chicken today is the Scottish didn’t season their batter. That’s where the West African influence comes in.

Chickens were first domesticated in Southeast Asia about 5,400 to 8,000 years ago. Not a lot is known about chicken’s introduction to Africa, but there is evidence that chickens were bred in Egypt around 1400 B.C. Chickens were eventually introduced to West Africa and were used in a variety of religious rituals. It was common in West African cuisine to fry food in palm oil. Many chicken recipes were lightly fried and braised in a seasoned sauce, such as the Senegalese chicken recipe for yassa.

Through Scottish and Scots-Irish immigration to the southern colonies and the transatlantic slave trade, fried chicken became a quintessential aspect of Southern cooking. Chicken was especially popular among enslaved African Americans because slaveholders often allowed them to raise chickens. The religious reverence for chicken had changed from its West African roots, but it was common during communal meals after church services and was often offered to pastors when they visited people’s homes. The term “preacher’s parts” was a common phrase for the best parts of the chicken up to the 1950s.

If that history stirred up your appetite, here is a basic recipe for classic, Southern fried chicken.

Place 500 grams, just over a pound, of chicken parts on a plate or in a plastic container and sprinkle with a bit of salt, pepper and baking soda. Flip and repeat. Place in the fridge for an hour or two. In a large mixing bowl, mix 1½ cups flour, ⅓ cup corn starch, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons dried thyme, 1½ teaspoons white pepper, ½ teaspoon celery seeds and 1 teaspoon each of onion powder, garlic powder and paprika. Pour 1 cup of buttermilk over the chicken, then coat each piece in the seasoned flour. Let rest for 15 minutes to allow the flour to adhere to the chicken. Heat 750 grams or about 3½ cups of cooking oil, lard or a mixture of both in a deep pan to about 320-350 degrees . Add a few pieces of chicken at a time, flipping occasionally. Once they are golden brown, pull and drain on a paper towel. It could take about 7 minutes for deboned cuts and 15 minutes for bone-in parts to cook.

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