As American as Fried Chicken

The dish, like the nation that popularized it, has a complicated, often contradictory history.

Al Behrman / AP

Juicy, crispy, crunchy … fried chicken is undoubtedly delicious. But it's also complicated, in ways that go far deeper than the science behind that perfect crust. From slavery to entrepreneurship and from yard fowl to Gospel bird, the story of fried chicken is filled with challenging contradictions. Grab a drumstick and listen in.

2016 is, according to Eater, the year of the fried chicken. America is in the middle of a "fast casual fried chicken explosion," while Britain's transatlantic love for Southern-style fried chicken is being blamed for the decline of traditional roast beef. Meanwhile, Korean, Japanese, and many other global variations on the battered bird are finding new fans in the West, too.

Inspired, Gastropod decided to take a closer look at the science and history behind this iconic dish. It turns out the origins of fried chicken are largely unknown, according to John T. Edge, author of Fried Chicken: An American Story. Psyche Williams-Forson, author of Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, says that, while we can no longer be sure whether it was African slaves or Southerners of European descent who first decided to bread and fry these stringy yardbirds, we do know that West Africans have a tradition of frying food in hot oil, and that fried chicken as we know it today originated in the South.

Former slaves, particularly women, eventually used their hard-won chicken-frying expertise to become successful entrepreneurs, Williams-Forson tells Gastropod. And then, decades later, a certain Harland Sanders bleached his beard white and dressed up in a white suit with a bolo tie in order to sell his own fried chicken, capitalizing on racist nostalgia for the old plantation-era South. Today, fried chicken offers a key to the American dream for immigrants from around the world, all of whom put their own spin on the bird.

From racist stereotypes to the sustenance and hope embodied in “Chicken Bone Express,” this episode of Gastropod follows the complicated, often contradictory stories of fried chicken in America. Sacrifice, entrepreneurial zeal, ethnicity, assimilation, racism and its impacts on America—these are the powerful narratives embedded in fried chicken, according to John T. Edge, and they are the reason the dish has become iconic. Its savory gastronomic pleasures are, he says, just a bonus.

From the collection of Psyche Williams-Forson. The caption reads: "Jes' dis Niggah's fool luck!—bofe arms full an' dat rooster a beggin' to be took along.” (Nicola Twilley)

Nonetheless, there's some science to reliably achieving poultry perfection and avoiding the disappointment of soggy, under-cooked, or dry drumsticks. We invite Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab, back on the show to share his surprising technique for perfectly crispy, juicy fried chicken. Everything else about the dish may be complicated, but biting into that hot drumstick is pleasure, pure and simple.

This article appears courtesy of Gastropod, a podcast co-hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that looks at food through the lens of science and history.