The surprising origin of fried chicken

Though authored by an English woman, Hannah Glasse, and published in Dublin, the cookbook incorporated a broad range of traditional British recipes. What’s more, in an essay on 18th-Century Scottish cuisine, Stana Nenadic, professor of social and cultural history at the University of Edinburgh, points out that in 1773, biographer James Boswell wrote a diary entry explicitly describing a fried chicken dinner that an elderly tacksman served him at Coire-chat-achan on the Isle of Skye. Mariani’s theory then, is that as hundreds of thousands of Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers emigrated to the Southern US colonies during the 1700s, they brought their tradition of frying chickens in fat with them.

A likely scenario is that, at some point between the 17th and 19th centuries, enslaved African Americans began cooking fried chicken based on the recipes provided by Scottish slaveholders. In time, African American cooks embraced it as part of their own culinary tradition. With years of honed experience, as well as an adeptness at seasoning and frying, African American cooks caused fried chicken to lose its Scottish identity and it became as quintessentially “Southern” as black-eyed peas, cornbread, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pie.

Before the US Civil War (1861-1865), fried chicken was fully immersed in Southern social life for both African Americans and whites, but preparing it was a very labor-intensive process. Someone had to kill a chicken, then pluck, clean, cut, season, flour and cook it. This made it something only eaten on special occasions – typically from spring until autumn – and it was often served at Fourth of July celebrations and Sunday dinners after a church service. Typically, young chickens, around a year old, were preferred for frying. Older chickens were for stewing because the meat was considered less tender. Other than barbecue or a fish fry, few foods were as effective as fried chicken in bringing people together and building community.

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