A Brief History of Fried Chicken
Forty years ago every housewife in America knew how to cook fried chicken. Remember Florence Henderson frying up chicken with “Wesson-ality” back in the 70s and 80s? In those days, homemade fried chicken was one of the most mouth-watering and welcome dishes you could serve to your family and friends. And it was very economical. But somehow, we lost the skill or desire to cook fried chicken, turning to buckets of overly- seasoned KFC. Today, every grocery and convenience store sells fried chicken, and all the sides to go with it, but honestly, it’s not nearly as good as homemade.
These days, it seems like everyone is watching their weight, and you’ll never see fried chicken on any diet plan. But did you know that back in the 18th and 19th century, Americans needed extra fat and calories in their diets, just to survive. And fried foods came about over that very critical need. But it didn’t begin with the chicken – it began with pork. Backyard and small-scale hog production provided an inexpensive means of converting waste food into calories, in the form of rendered lard. Lard was used for almost all cooking and was a fundamental component in many common farmhouse foods, like biscuits. The economic and caloric necessity of consuming lard led to the popularity of fried foods, and in the 19th century, cast iron became widely available for use in cooking. It was only natural that the combination of flour, lard, a chicken, and a heavy pot would be the beginning of today’s fried chicken.
Fried chicken made from scratch is delicious hot, cold, or at room temperature right out of a picnic basket. And it’s really quite easy to make, although it is a little messy. Traditionally, you should cook your fried chicken in a cast iron skillet, but I use an old fashioned electric skillet, because I can control the temperature of the oil, and I plug the skillet in on my screened- in porch. That way my house doesn’t smell like fried chicken for a week.
Fried chicken is considered to be a Southern dish, but we ate a lot of fried chicken in New England where I grew up. I think the regional differences in this dish are the sides that are served with it. Here in Florida, I always serve okra and tomatoes, collard greens, biscuits, and sweet tea with fried chicken. In Maryland, fried chicken is always served with gravy. Northerners like it with mashed potatoes, corn, and baked beans. But no matter what side dishes you serve, it’s the fried chicken that is the shining star in this meal.
Be sure to plan ahead when you make your fried chicken. I like to brine the chicken pieces for several hours, and then let them soak in buttermilk overnight. That way your fried chicken will be super tender and juicy, even if you serve it cold. And remember that no matter how much fried chicken you make, it will never be enough – so you might want to make a double batch!