Photograph by Josh Meister
Fried chicken belongs to the world.
Wherever fowl wander the yard or roost in coops, and in any culture in which cooks ply hot fat, the dish surely exists. The twentieth-century globalization of U.S. fast-food chains ensured that nearly every country on
the planet knows the baseline pleasure of battered and deep-fried poultry. You’d recognize it anywhere, even with subtle variations: Potato starch or cornstarch lends a smoother crunch to Asian recipes; garlic powder and dried herbs often appear in the seasoning mix used by Hispanics.
Still, no place revels in the mastery of fried
chicken like the American South. I don’t mean to perpetuate stereotypes about hillbillies with their black skillets and greasy hands. But I’ve knocked around the country and come back again, and no one cherishes a finger-scorching piece of fried chicken—the crunch of the shining crust and the salty juice that dribbles down the chin—like Southerners. You’ll find it made with care across the region, where gumbos simmer, country hams slow-cure in back rooms, and corncobs peek from Lowcountry boils. We’ll paint the town red with barbecue, but we’ll always come home to fried chicken.
Mary Randolph published her take on the
golden-brown bird in The Virginia Housewife in 1828, though Southern fried chicken’s murky
origins stretch back much further. Certainly, we owe a debt to enslaved kitchen workers who perfected the dish—a fusion of cooking techniques from West Africans and perhaps Scottish settlers, who preferred frying their proteins rather than baking or boiling them as the English did. Its popularity through the centuries among Southerners of all races (and among those whose families long ago migrated to other parts of the country)
is a testament to its ecumenical appeal.
And fried chicken changes as our culture evolves. Like many of our culinary hallmarks, fried chicken is moving away from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ stoves toward restaurant menus in every stratum of the dining community. The deceptive simplicity of fried chicken—which does involve timing and practice for sublime results—leaves it open to tinkering. Marinate it in buttermilk; brine it in sweet tea (as one Southern chef, John Fleer, does brilliantly); rev up the batter with Old Bay seasoning; fry it in lard, peanut oil, butter, or a mixture of all of them: As long as the results are scrumptious, I’m fine with fiddling.
What I can’t abide, though, is boneless bird. I’m more lenient with globally inspired versions, but don’t hand me a fork and knife to eat Southern fried chicken. Poultry without a bone is a cutlet, a schnitzel, a nugget. It ain’t what fried chicken was meant to be. Several chefs have told me over the years that they debone their idea of fried chicken as a courtesy to the guest. Spare me your gallantry; I want the tactile immediacy.
I worry, too, that upcoming generations won’t know the subtler joys of skillet-fried chicken. It is a different animal: The skin forms a more intimate bond with the coating, and the textures vary fetchingly, depending on where the piece rested in the pan. Deep-frying renders a much more consistent and uniform result, so it’s no wonder—and no crime, when done with finesse—that most restaurants embrace that method. I’m grateful, however, that places like Watershed (for its Wednesday fried chicken nights) and Star Provisions have taken up stewardship of the pan-frying tradition.
The ubiquity of fried chicken—with so many variants, particularly in a state where poultry is an $18.4 billion industry—makes it an object of fierce opinions. I surely have my preferences. I’ll always reach for thighs and drumsticks first. I can appreciate all styles, but give me a choice and I’ll take
a sheerer, more crackly crust over an armor of batter. And if I left some of Atlanta’s sacred providers of fried chicken off the top-ten list, it isn’t because
I ignored them. Mary Mac’s serves some of the blandest, stringiest bird in the city, in my estimation, and though it is admirably pan-fried, the chicken at Buckhead’s Horseradish Grill always tastes scorched. Disagree? I like arguing about fried chicken almost as much as eating it. Let’s cluck it out over lunch at Busy Bee.
This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue.