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More Southern Food
April 29, 2011
An excerpt from An Irresistible History of Southern Food by Rick McDaniel.
Any Southerner will tell you that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was the only churchsupper in history that didn’t include fried chicken.
For those of us who grew up in the post–World War II South, chicken was a pretty regularpart of our diet. But prior to the end of the war, chicken was a rare treat for most Southerners.
The reason for this was economic: unlike hogs, which had to be killed to use them for food,
chickens produced eggs, a renewable food source.
Like hogs, chickens were essentially self-supporting and free range. They were able to feed
themselves on bugs, grubs and animal droppings. Chickens are good mothers, and unless a
predator got in the henhouse, chicks usually reached adulthood.
Eggs were not only food but could also be bartered for goods or sold for cold, hard cash. This
meant that chickens were generally left alone until after they had stopped producing eggs, at
which time they were ushered to the chopping block.
These mature hens needed to be cooked for long periods of time in moist heat to make them
tender. Dishes such as chicken and dumplings, stewed chicken and chicken country captain
evolved to make use of these older birds.
The dry heat and short cooking times used for frying requires a young, tender chicken, one
capable of egg production. For Southerners of modest means, sacrificing one or more laying
hens so their guests could have fried chicken was the ultimate expression of hospitality, one
reserved for Sunday dinner with company or when the preacher came calling.
After the Second World War, commercial poultry production finally made the Republican
campaign slogan of 1932 a reality: a chicken in every pot.
Fried Chic ken
The first mention of “Southern fried chicken” in print was in 1925. An earlier mention of
“Fried Chicken—Southern Style” is found in Kate Brew Vaughn’s Culinary Echoes from Dixie,
published in 1917. The dish itself goes back to at least the early 1800s. The earliest published
recipe for what Southerners would consider fried chicken was in the third edition of Mary
Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife, published in 1828.
Although it may come as a shock to some below the Mason-Dixon line, Southerners didn’t
invent fried chicken. Nearly every culture on earth has some dish involving a chicken and a
skillet or pot of hot fat, from pollo fritto in Italy to ga xao in Vietnam. As to how fried chicken
came to the South, the most popular theory credits African slaves. The Scots also fried several
different foods, including chicken, so the jury is still out.
There are almost as many ways to prepare a chicken for a date with a pan full of hot grease
as there are people who want to snatch a drumstick when it’s done. Sarah Rutledge had one
of the simplest formulas for fried chicken in The Carolina Housewife (1847): “Having cut up a
pair of young chickens, lay them in a pan of cold water to extract the blood. Wipe them dry,
season them with pepper and salt, dredge them in flour and fry them in lard.” She goes on
to give directions for making gravy, which is good information to have if the preacher is on
his way for dinner.
Other variations on the theme involve replacing the water bath with buttermilk, sweet milk
or no bath at all; dipping the pieces in an egg and milk mixture before or during breading; and
replacing the flour with cornmeal, cracker crumbs or some combination thereof.
Traditionally, rice was the most common side dish served with fried chicken, along with
cream gravy made from the drippings from the frying pan and hot biscuits. Some Southerners,
particularly in Maryland, serve the gravy poured over the chicken, but the gravy is most
commonly served on the rice instead.
Basic Fried Chicken
Yield: 4 servings
2 cups cold water
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 chicken, cut into serving pieces
fat for frying (vegetable oil, lard, shortening
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
In a shallow baking dish, combine water and salt. Place
chicken pieces in dish and refrigerate for at least 30
In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, place enough fat (vegetable oil, shortening or lard) to come to a depth of about two inches. Heat the fat until it shimmers but does not smoke, about 350 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer.
Whisk remaining ingredients together in a shallow baking
dish. Remove chicken pieces one at a time from water, drain them and dip into the flour mixture,
then carefully place them into the hot fat. Cook for five minutes, then gently lift with tongs to see
if chicken is cooking evenly; rearrange pieces if necessary. Continue cooking until chicken is evenly
browned, about five more minutes. Turn chicken with tongs and continue cooking until brown all
over, about 10 to 12 minutes longer.