A game of cluck and chance: the origin story of fried chicken
A stereotype, a staple or a statement?
Fried chicken is one of those foods that has taken on a cultural significance far bigger than the sum of its parts.
This classic comfort food was first hatched in the British isles, then honoured in the Deep South, and soon franchised around the world.
So how did the holy meal for plantation slaves in the United States go on to spawn a university dedicated to the arts of poultry in South Korea?
Which Came First...
The practice of cooking chicken in oil has been around since the first humans domesticated the junglefowl in South Asia millennia ago.
But if we’re talking ‘fried chicken’, like the crispy golden battered pieces we’ve all come to love, the closest early relative dates back to 18th century Scotland.
Stereotypes about British cooking were painfully true back then, as boiling was the go-to method of cooking meat at the time. But pioneering chefs had realised if they dunked their poultry in flour and cooked it in animal fat, they could transform a bland dry meal into a crispy succulent one.
But that being said - this was still far from the modern dish we now know, with its bold use of spices and flavourful meat.
Unbeknownst to the Scottish chefs who laid claim to the dish, it was the African chefs who were forcibly taken from their homelands who would give fried chicken its exalted status.
The Gospel Bird
While European imports like Frankfurters and Hamburgers are often regarded as the typical ‘American’ dishes, African American slaves were influencing the cuisine of the United States for a far longer period of time.
Talented African chefs were sold into slavery in the American South, and many of them soon started working in the kitchens of their masters, ordered to make dishes that were entirely foreign to them.
Over time, they began to incorporate more of their African flavours into the dishes, and fried chicken was no exception. What was once a very plain piece of coated chicken, soon took on new life with the introduction of spices and seasonings.
While the white plantation owners could afford to eat this new meal whenever they liked, the same could not be said of the African American slaves.
Chicken was a luxury reserved for special occasions and Sundays - and as historian Jessica Harris states, it was for this reason that chicken became known as ‘the gospel bird’.
Once slavery was abolished and African American’s started entering the work force of the South, a series of racist laws and propaganda campaigns were enacted, smearing black as lazy and unintelligent - and unfortunately fried chicken became a racialised symbol in the midst of it all.
The very food that white landowners ordered their slaves to make them, became a tool to mock the black population.