Adrian Miller is the author of the James Beard Award-winning book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Follow him on Twitter @soulfoodscholar.
We're deeply immersed in a fried chicken moment these days. Once a luxury item feasted upon for special occasions, fried chicken has successfully nested itself in the cradle of U.S. food culture in ways that few others foods have, thanks largely to its adaptability. Fried chicken is comfort food, convenience food, immigrant food, and a cutting-edge trendsetter all at the same time. As is the case with any food deeply embedded within the cultural fabric, it's easy to get into an argument about what fried chicken actually is, who made it first, and what's the best way to make it.
Despite these legitimate squabbles, we the people of the United States have settled in on one technique in particular—bone-in chicken parts, battered and fried once in oil—as our definitive fried-chicken style. This culinary declaration of independence has set us apart from fried-chicken lovers around the globe who love smaller, boneless pieces of meat fried naked (without any coating), or the bone-in pieces cooked that are fried quickly and then braised. Yet, the bone-in approach hasn't always ruled our roost. We've hatched the fried-chicken filet sandwich, bite-sized chicken nuggets, chicken tenders, and chicken wings too. Some purists see these fried-chicken innovations as a sign of the apocalypse, but really it is about food entrepreneurs adjusting to shifting consumer tastes.
Fried chicken began as special occasion dish for many reasons. Chickens were scarce; they had value as egg producers (which made one think twice about eating them); and making this dish was very labor-intensive. Today, thanks to the vast-improvements in the poultry-farm and fast-food industries, fried chicken is one of the easiest and tastiest things to get any day of the week.
Here's the story of how fried chicken developed into an iconic dish, and why we can't seem to get enough of it.
Phase 1: We Know Why the Caged Bird Fries (7,500-5,000 BCE)
Sometime between 7,500 to 5,000 B.C.E., humans living in Southeast Asia domesticated wild jungle fowl, or the ancestors of modern-day chickens (Gallus domesticus). At first, it was a 50/50 proposition if those jungle fowl would be eaten since many considered the fowl a divine animal. Why? Because it was believed that chickens could predict the future since they're the only animal that announces daybreak. Some experts believe that it was this sacred purpose that led the birds to be domesticated in the first place. As traders brought the sacred birds to other cultures, some bought into the bird's divinity, some saw chickens as entertainment (cock fighting), some saw chickens as food, while others held a hybrid belief that chickens were most appropriately sacrificed as a food for the gods.
Over time, people's penchant for cooking chicken overshadowed their other concerns, but it appeared initially on royal tables before climbing down the social ladder to be consumed by the masses. We see early accounts of fried chicken in China, the Middle East, and West Africa, but those dishes tended to be made with a "twice-cooked" approach, where the meat is butchered and quickly fried, and then braised in a liquid for a longer period of time. This was a very effective way to cook older chickens (hens) that were no longer of value for laying eggs. The preferred cooking method changed when fried chicken arrived in Great Britain and its American colonies.
Phase 2: The Rise of American-Style Fried Chicken (1700s-1900s)
Fried chicken history isn't well-documented, but some of the earliest references show up in surprising places. The earliest known written recipe for American-style fried chicken actually appears a in British cookbook, Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which was published in 1747. That recipe's title read "To Marinate Chickens," and called for floured pieces of chicken to be fried in hog's lard. Glasse's cookbook was wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, so it's no surprise that her recipe became a prized way to make fried chicken in many well-to-do American households. Despite its British pedigree, people living in the 18th century associated fried chicken with the American South, no doubt because some of the dish's earliest and biggest boosters were southerners. For example, one earliest accounts of fried chicken-eating in the U.S. comes from the diary that Governor William Byrd of the Virginia colony kept during the 1700s. Ultimately, southern fried chicken became the culinary standard for American fried chicken when a recipe remarkably similar to Glasse's appeared in another extremely popular cookbook that was published in 1824—The Virginia Housewife, written by Martha Randolph, a distant relative in-law of Thomas Jefferson.
The downside of fried chicken becoming so identifiably southern is that it gave people license to create ugly, fried chicken-related stereotypes connected the South's largest racial minority: African Americans. Though lots of people were eating fried chicken, African Americans were negatively depicted in various media as pathological chicken stealers, pre-eminent chicken fryers, and voracious fried-chicken eaters. This was part of a concerted effort during the 19th century to de-humanize the newly-freed African Americans as unworthy of the citizenship rights recently conferred upon them. Unfortunately, that powerful stigma remains to the present day.
Phase 3: Fast-Food Fried Chicken Takes Flight (1950s-1980s)
Fried chicken transitioned from Sunday special to daily special with dramatic improvements in chicken farming. Chickens became more plentiful and cheaper to buy, which in turn made fried chicken something that could be eaten more often. That proved to be a winning combination for food entrepreneurs looking to make a fast buck on those who wanted their food prepared quickly. Along with hamburgers and pizza, fried chicken was ready for the moment, but there were still some logistics to work out. Traditional fried chicken takes time to be fully-cooked, up to 15 to 20 minutes. That's not fast food according to American standards.
Fortunately, some inventive people learned how to cook large quantities of fried chicken quickly and keep it warm and crispy for customers to eat on demand. The most well-known practitioner of this group was "Colonel" Harland Sanders, who in the 1950s began franchising his Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Sanders' sizzling success coincided with that of other regional fried-chicken restaurants like Harold's Chicken Shack in the Chicago area, and it also paved the way for successful national chains like Bojangles', Chick-fil-A, Church's, and Popeyes. Despite its regional southern connection, fried chicken finally transformed into a true national dish—although it didn't stop there either. Today, thanks largely to KFC, people around the world can grub on American-style fried chicken. It's hard to overstate KFC's international influence. Not only does it have thousands of restaurants overseas, but it has also inspired a number of knock-offs in foreign countries, like "SFC"—Super Star Fried Chicken—in Iran.
Phase 4: Fried Chicken Gets Funky and Artisanal (1990s-2000s)
Perhaps in response to years of mass-market wings and thighs, Americans have become intensely curious about regional fried-chicken culture. First, there are the artisans who make such food possible. Typically, these cooks spend years toiling at a small "mom 'n' pop" operation, but occasionally evolve into full-on legends. The late Austin Leslie and Willie Mae Seaton of New Orleans; the late Helen Stroud of Kansas City; and Charles Gabriel in New York City come to mind. Today, classically-trained chefs in white-table-cloth restaurants, like Thomas Keller at Ad Hoc, also feel inspired to show off unique spins on this classic American recipe.
The real creativity has come in pairing fried chicken with something unexpected—like dry champagne or a savory waffle—or slathering the finished product with something funky. The most famous example is the red-hot—both in spiciness and trendiness—chicken created at Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, Tennessee. Many restaurants across the country are hatching their own version of hot chicken, and KFC, unsurprisingly, has joined the bandwagon. And let's not sleep on that North Carolina specialty known as "dipped chicken," which features fried chicken drowned in a Western North Carolina-style barbecue sauce (vinegar, red pepper, and a little ketchup).
Phase 5: International Fried Chicken Comes Home to Roost (2000s to Present)
When KFC and other franchises toured their American-style fried chicken around the world, they never would have guessed that their product would end up running in circles. Once introduced to American-style fried chicken, international cooks put their own spin on it in order to suit local tastes. Some cooks were so successful at reinterpreting the dish that fried chicken ceased to be "American," instead becoming a new local specialty. Today, when fried-chicken entrepreneurs immigrate to the U.S., they bring either their old school, traditional version, or newer riff on American-style poultry.
A great example is Pollo Campero, which has pleased many a homesick Guatemalan with its adobo-seasoned fried chicken. But no immigrant fried chicken has made as big a splash as South Korean-style, thanks to the successful Bonchon chain and celebrity chef David Chang's mini Fuku empire. Korean fried chicken is twice-fried, making it extra crispy, and often covered with a spicy sauce that may sometimes also be sweet. Yet we shouldn't think of Guatemala and South Korean as the end of the story. The U.S. continues to welcome immigrants from heavy fried chicken-eating countries in the Caribbean, the Middle East, and West Africa. Fried chicken is a perfect playground for food entrepreneurs because of its versatility, which creates an open invitation for re-invention. We all should be salivating in anticipation.