Fried chicken has long been a popular staple among African-Americans. As soul food, its international history and prominence has made the dish a popular connection for members of the African diaspora, especially those in the US.
Battered or floured, everyone has felt the wrath of the popping hot oil. Loving echoes of scolds about turning the pan handle inward as to avoid third degree lessons, have long filled Black kitchens across the continental US. Crunchy, soggy, or fried hard, the Sunday dinner legend has always had a seat at the table. Routinely, pockets of salt, paprika, pepper, onion and garlic powders join the arguments of whose big mama had the better recipe, in the air.
Although people may ravish a good piece of fried chicken for dinner, it’s imperative to understand the significance of the delicacy and how it came to be one a mainstay in Black soul food.
Before its methods traveled to the Western hemisphere, frying chicken was an important commodity in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Europe. In West African culture, chicken was a divine creature that represented power and wealth. Although there is no evidence that traditional methods of frying chicken were existent in precolonial West Africa, the materials and subsequent dishes were indeed present.
The Gospel bird
One might ask: if the origin of American-style fried chicken had non-Black influences, then how did fried chicken become synonymous with African American culture? There are two reasons: 1. because of its demand in Southern society during chattel enslavement, Blacks, particularly Black women, were forced to prepare the beloved food for their plantation owners and 2. making fried chicken was cheap. In terms of its extensive, sordid past, food in the US was used by the status quo– racist white southerners– to belittle Blacks.
In her book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, British author Hannah Glasse showcases one of the earliest written recipes for traditional American-style fried chicken. As 18th century white American housewives followed the recipes in the popular book, enslaved Blacks inhabited and restructured these cooking guidelines, adding their own unique style and flavoring.
At the time, most domestic work was seen as beneath whites with social capital in the US. Thus, most cooks in the South were enslaved Blacks who spent a great deal of time informally mastering culinary arts. Often given the less desirable parts of the animal, Black women incorporated the meals into their own homes. Frying chicken on special occasions, the dish created a sense of community and comfort among Blacks. For the group, the seeming similarities in the kitchen represented proximity to the apex of an acceptable being: whiteness.
Church and state
For southern Blacks, eating fried chicken was also an activity integrated with the institutionalization of the church. Coined “The Gospel Bird” since the 1930’s, the foul was held to a divine status like in West Africa, and was prepared on Sundays for the arrival of the pastor. Besides the arrival of the pastor, what made this occasion special was the fact that it brought people closer together.
Author and Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches, Adrian Miller, examines the deep roots of the US’s southern region where fried chicken was commonplace in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. “Making fried chicken on Sunday evoked memories of the church supper that began as small gatherings during slavery but grew into major social events after Emancipation,” says Miller in his chapter titled “Fried Chicken and the Integration of the Church Plate”.
Originally from Colorado, the 49-year-old award-winning soul food scholar studies the overused racist troupe of Black people loving fried chicken and watermelon. In his book, Miller says in 1882 The New York Times ran an article comparing the negro to the foul.
“The fact of the existence of this close affinity between colored men and chickens is so plain as to be impossible of denial, but its secret elusive,” said The Times. “It is true that the negro and the chicken have many tastes in common.”
Unfortunately, stereotypes are still majorly accepted representations of Black culture. Although this dish is used in symbolism, Miller notes that today many white chefs are spotlighted and get credit for bringing the dish to life, while many Black chefs are ignored.
Papa’s got a brand new bag
Despite these negative aspects, fried chicken has created a bond in the language of African American heritage. According to Miller, what makes fried chicken so unique is its ability to gather individuals and make them spend time with one another.
“In terms of its deeper, cultural value, fried chicken has long been a special occasion dish. For African Americans, it’s regularly feature[s] a community gathering, church suppers, family reunions and Sunday dinners. Whether it’s family, friends, or even strangers who are involved, fried chicken creates community.”
As Black communities gained independence after enslavement, they began to sell chicken via vendors and restaurants to survive. This autonomy led to the evolution of unique food industry within Black spaces, such as the classic “chicken shacks”, that began to appear in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Throughout history, Black populations have lacked the financial independence to establish and maintain sit-down restaurants, which still prove to be a challenge today.
Say it loud
Despite challenges, there have been successful Black-owned businesses who thrive off selling comfort, soul food, to the community.
One example is The Soul Food Factory, located in East Orange, New Jersey which has been serving southern delicacies for 17 years. One of the most popular dishes on their menu, besides oxtail stew, is fried chicken. The owner, 52-year-old John Longchamp, acknowledges the same West African values of love, patience, and hard work while cooking to serve others and weave a communal fabric in his restaurant.
“You can’t have good soul food without patience and love,” says Longchamp. “That’s what soul food is really all about. All these ingredients coming together, to make something fantastic, something amazing. So, once you figure out what those ingredients are, you put them together, and the result is what soul food is. It’s really cooking from the heart. Everyone that is here, is family. Cooking has cemented the bonds of love, our family bonds.”
Fried chicken, along with other Black soul food dishes, continues to be passed down from generation to generation. Whether fried chicken is best tasting at home or in a restaurant is up to each person’s unique taste buds. However, one thing’s for sure: whether it’s packed in a box at the chicken shack or prepared by grandma at Thanksgiving, fried chicken is here to stay. As soul food scholar Adrian Miller points out, “Fried chicken is one of the most delicious things on this planet,” says Miller. “It’s versatile–it can have different flavors and textures, and it can be eaten hot, lukewarm or cold…fried chicken belongs to all [Black] people.”