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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.