Southern Origins: Fried Chicken
Illustrations by Jing Li
It’s hard to find bad fried chicken. Good fried chicken is everywhere: being handed out a window at a fast-food drive-thru, tucked in a box at your supermarket deli, waiting patiently under a heat lamp at the gas station around the corner. But great fried chicken? That’s a bird of another feather.
So what constitutes great fried chicken? Ask 10 different people and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. In my opinion, these are the essential ingredients for excellence:
- Crispy crust. Great fried chicken should be enrobed in an exterior that shatters as thin glass would when first pierced by teeth. And yet, you want it to hold on. When broken, the crust should not instantly fall off in its entirety.
- Full flavor. It can be as simple as the right amount of salt. Or the right salt and the bite of basic black pepper. Maybe some more complex heat from a sprinkle of cayenne or a few spoonfuls of hot sauce. I’m not real picky when it comes to specifics here, but great fried chicken must be well seasoned.
- Moist meat. The chicken itself should be tender and never dry. This can be difficult to achieve, but if it were easy, everyone would be known for their great fried chicken.
These all apply to fried chicken you get from somewhere else as well as to the fried chicken you make at home. But when cooking your own, there is an additional factor, an absence that’s essential, or you’ll never get to great: There must be no fear.
I rarely fry chicken because I’m afraid of closely working with the super-hot oil that’s a necessary part of the process. This is because I’m what some call a klutz. (I prefer the term unfortunately accident prone.) Either way, I have good reason to be filled with fear here: there’s at least a 65 percent chance I’m going to get burned. (I’ve done the math.) And that’s why I’m so fond of restaurant fried chicken and practically in love with the product being turned out by chef Todd Richards at his chicken joint in Atlanta, Richards’ Southern Fried. His claim to fame is “hot” fried chicken, but his mild version is just as great.
Richards’ fried chicken hits all my “excellence” markers, and enjoying it does not require me to get within 10 feet of culinary napalm, so it’s a win-win. And I’m by no means Richards’ Southern Fried’s only fan. Through the restaurant’s sales volume and popularity, Richards has proven himself a fried chicken expert, and he’s always happy to share some background on the “Southern fried” dish that’s a longstanding Southern favorite.
Where did fried chicken originate?
There are always great debates about the origins of fried chicken. Though the debate seems to always gravitate to the South, all cultures throughout the world have a version of fried chicken. What the South contributed to this dish’s story with its fried chicken is the way spices were applied. Spices had several purposes besides taste. Spices were used to keep pests away and were also a part of the preservation of the chicken. Fried chicken was essentially a preservation method.
How and why has fried chicken come to be such an important and popular “Southern" food?
Fried chicken is tied to the South because it is rooted in traditional Southern values and experiences. In the past, fried chicken was not eaten every day and was served only on special occasions. Processing meat was very time consuming as well as expensive to do. Also, most people assume fat for cooking chickens was available all the time, which is not true in most instances. Unless you slaughtered your pig or traded for bear fat, having fresh oil for frying was not common. Essentially, having fried chicken was as special as having Thanksgiving dinner.
Why has “Southern fried” chicken become so popular around the country and the world?
As migration and exploration of the United States took place, fried chicken was a preservation method, so it was a simple way to carry food for travel. Also, while fried chicken is delicious hot, some may think it’s even more delicious served cold (think picnic basket). What makes fried chicken such a worldly food really speaks to the texture. The outside crunch and tender inside gives the mouth great balance. It’s the same reason people like hot bread out of the oven; crispy outside, soft texture inside.
What inspired you to open Richards’ Southern Fried?
I won a fried chicken competition two years in a row with the same winning recipe. I also wanted to pay homage to my family upbringing. My family always ate spicy food, and eating spicy fried chicken was no exception. Also, hot chicken speaks to me culturally as a backdrop for celebrating African-American cooking excellence.
How did you learn to make fried chicken?
I learned how to cook fried chicken from my next door neighbor Mrs. Arnold. When I would come home from school, going next door to grab a chicken wing sitting atop her stove was almost a daily routine. Naturally, when school was out, going next door was still part of my ritual. Learning how to cook fried chicken with her was one of the greatest parts of my growing up.
There are multiple fried chicken recipes and techniques out there, but what are some essential aspects?
One of the most important essentials to making delicious fried chicken is to buy good quality chicken. The chicken should be firm to the touch and the skin clear. Never use chicken that is sticky when it comes out of the package. Second, ensure you brine the chicken. Brining ensures the chicken is juicy and tastes delicious. Some chicken arrives in five percent saline solution, which means that the chicken has been brined. Besides ensuring the chicken is well-seasoned, allow the chicken to be at room temperature prior to frying.