Dan Barber’s Quest for Flavor

In this latest episode of Gastropod, chef and author Dan Barber takes listeners on a journey around the world in search of great flavor and the ecosystems that support it, from Spain to the deep South.

You’ll hear how a carefully tended landscape of cork trees makes for delicious ham, and about a squash so cutting edge it doesn’t yet have a name, in this deep dive into the intertwined history and science of soil, cuisine, and flavor.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time before refrigerators, before long-distance trucks and ships. Most people had to survive on food from their immediate surroundings, no matter how poor the soil or challenging the terrain. They couldn’t import apples from New Zealand and potatoes from Peru, or rely on chemical fertilizer to boost their yields.

From within these constraints, communities around the world developed a way of eating that Dan Barber calls “ecosystem cuisines.” Barber, the James Beard-award-winning chef of Blue Hill restaurant and author of the new book The Third Plate, spoke to Gastropod about his conviction that this historically-inspired style of cuisine can be reinvented, with the help of plant-breeders, his fellow chefs, and the latest in flavor science, in order to create a truly sustainable way to eat for the twenty-first century.


Inventing the Restaurant: From Bone Broth to Michelin TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Inventing the Restaurant: From Bone Broth to Michelin, first released on January 16, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


CYNTHIA GRABER: These are some of my happy sounds. This episode, we’re taking you to one of our favorite places…

NICOLA TWILLEY: The restaurant! “Come Dine with Me,” as they say on Channel 4.

GRABER: Nicky, nobody outside of the UK knows what that show is.

TWILLEY: Missing out.

GRABER: But anyway, we are indeed dining out this episode. And, you know, restaurants are just one of those things: they seem like they’ve been around forever.

TWILLEY: But then that can’t be true. I mean, our ancestors might have gone to each others’ caves for a bite to eat, but I don’t think there would have been a menu and wait staff. So who invented the restaurant?

GRABER: And how did the restaurant’s invention change society?

TWILLEY: Well, and how did restaurants change along with society?

GRABER: So many questions!

TWILLEY: And, as usual, we’ve got all the surprising stories and behind-the-scenes secrets. That’s right, you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber.



GRABER: Nicky, as you pointed out, our early ancestors were not sitting down to table covered with a pristine white tablecloth and listening to the day’s specials.

TWILLEY: But throughout history people on the road, away from home—they would have needed somewhere to eat.

PAUL FREEDMAN: And if you have an urban society, you need to have places where people who, say, are from the countryside and going to a market can have a meal. So there always have been taverns, inns, takeout places.

TWILLEY: That’s Paul Freedman. He’s a medieval historian at Yale and the author of a new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America.

GRABER: But it wasn’t just travelers who needed a place to eat. In medieval European cities, a lot of people didn’t have kitchens. And these city dwellers might have gone to food stalls to pick up a snack or a loaf of bread.

TWILLEY: Rebecca Spang wrote a book called The Invention of the Restaurant, and she says these kitchen-less medieval city dwellers, at least in Paris, they might even have gone out for a sit down meal.

REBECCA SPANG: We still see signs in France today for a traiteur who sells prepared foods, sort of like a caterer for takeout. These traiteurs or caterers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century also hosted meals on their own premises at specific times, so one o’clock in the afternoon for dinner.

TWILLEY: But Paul’s point is, none of these food stall, or inns, or traiteurs—none of them are really the same thing as a restaurant.

FREEDMAN: What a restaurant is that’s different from those kinds of age-old establishments is that it offers a wider choice. First, a choice of what you want to eat. It has a menu—you don’t just sort of settle for whatever they’re cooking. Second, there’s choice of times. It’s not a set meal served at a particular time. And third, choice of who you eat with. The tradition at inns is that you sort of eat at a common table or maybe you eat in your room. But the idea of separate tables for parties of three, four, two, whatever, is typical of a restaurant.

GRABER: You might have noticed—so far we’ve been talking about Europe. We’re going to be focusing on Europe and North America this episode. There are different dining out traditions in other parts of the world. This episode, we’re telling the story of the invention of the Western-style restaurant.

TWILLEY: And, actually, the weird thing is that the restaurant—it didn’t start out as a place to eat. Restaurant started out as the word for soup.

SPANG: The word “restaurant” is from the French verb se restaurer, meaning “to restore yourself.”

GRABER: And so a restaurant is a food you use to restore yourself—it’s a restorative.

SPANG: These restoratives are a sort of bouillon made with very little additional water. So what you’re basically doing is sweating a great deal of meat over fairly high heat so that it releases its juices. So, I don’t know, if you think about something like Bovril or Marmite or a bouillon cube in its most condensed form with just a bit of liquid added.

TWILLEY: So like today’s bone broth—that’s a restaurant. Or a mug of Bovril when you’re feeling sick, same idea.

GRABER: I don’t know what Bovril is.

TWILLEY: It’s like you haven’t lived, Cynthia. Bovril is a salty umami-ish meaty paste that you put on buttered toast, mostly. And then you can have a mug of it, dissolved in boiling water, when you’re feeling poorly. It is what makes Britain strong.

GRABER: For the moment, I think I’ll stick with Marmite—that’s the vegetarian version. But anyway, back to our original restorative, or restaurant. How does it transform from a soup to a place?

TWILLEY: Meet Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, an entrepreneur in 1760s Paris.

SPANG: Roze de Chantoiseau attempted a great many different start-up ventures. One of these was that he seems, or at least he was credited at the time, with having invented the restaurant.

GRABER: Roze de Chantoiseau seems to have intuited that there was a market for a place you could go to consume these restoratives, in public. He was right.

SPANG: Within just a few years there are several dozen of these so-called “restorers rooms” located chiefly in the most central, prosperous, commercial parts of Paris.

TWILLEY: Restorers rooms, or in the original French, salle de restaurants.

GRABER: And as people got comfortable with these new rooms, they just dropped the ‘salle de’ and called them restaurants.

TWILLEY: But don’t picture your local bistro here. At this point in time, in 1760s Paris, these first restaurants have this spa vibe. They’re all about health and delicate broths.

SPANG: When you go to a restaurant, you do so because you need to be restored, you’re in need of restoration.

GRABER: When something new like a restaurant is invented, there’s usually something going on in society that makes it the right, the ripe time for the invention. In 1760s Paris, people were obsessed with health and also with this idea of sensitivity.

TWILLEY: It’s all tied into to these new Enlightenment ideas about how we sense the world through our nerves and how our bodies respond to those nervous sensations.

SPANG: One way of demonstrating the acuity of one’s nerves is to be very sensitive to things.

GRABER: These restaurants started off serving just those restorative drinks, those meaty broths. But they soon added to their menu. Of course, all these dishes had to be very light for their very sensitive guests.

SPANG: They might be sensitive to different things. So from the beginning restaurateurs had to offer a variety of bouillons and the soft-boiled eggs, the rice pudding, the pasta with a little bit of butter and Parmesan to address the various sorts of sensitivities that their clientele might manifest.

TWILLEY: The belief at the time was that if a sensitive person—the kind of person who could see beauty and truth in the world—if that sensitive refined individual ate, god forbid, a steak or a big hunk of ham … well, I mean, it would overwhelm their system.

SPANG: That that food is going to sit in your stomach. It’s not going to be properly digested. It’s going to give off gases. These vapors will rise to your head. They may cause deluded thinking or they may cause you to burst into tears unexpectedly.

GRABER: If we haven’t made it perfectly obvious by the way we’ve been describing the types of people who might have been called ‘sensitive,’ these were elites who had time to read and think about art and philosophy. And they very much wanted to be seen as someone who might burst into tears if they ate a steak.

TWILLEY: And that’s why these restaurants caught on. They were a place to show the world that you were a sensitive person.

GRABER: There are a number of elements of these restaurants that are completely new. Like Paul said, you can eat a meal whenever you want. You can sit with only your friends and family, not at a big communal innkeeper’s table. You can order just what you want from a menu. This is pretty revolutionary, and it’s all to help those sensitive individuals be sensitive in public.

TWILLEY: And high society in 1760s and 1770s Paris—they loved these new restaurants.

GRABER: This public space, it wasn’t just for men, for a change.

SPANG: The culture of sensibility is a very feminine culture and the very first restaurateurs are advertising saying that this is a suitable place for ladies

TWILLEY: As time goes by, the restaurant keeps going strong—it’s not just a flash-in-the pan, 1760s fad. And a few things factor into that sustained growth. First, there’s the French Revolution. Lots of aristocrats and royal relations are becoming intimate with the sharp end of a guillotine, others see the way things are headed and get the hell out of Dodge.

SPANG: And while they have time to pack up their family jewels and some other cherished bits of property, they leave their servants behind. So we have a bunch of servants—chefs, sous chefs, pastry cooks—all of whom have been cooking at court and big aristocratic households for decades who are out of work. And what do they do? They open restaurants.

GRABER: And then something else happens. After the French Revolution, the economy wasn’t so awesome. But that made France a fantastic, inexpensive tourist destination.

SPANG: So after 1815, when British and to some extent North American travelers flock to France because it’s cheap at that point, and also because they’re just curious to see all the changes that have been wrought by the revolution and the Napoleonic era, one of the changes they see is restaurants which they find remarkable.

TWILLEY: These restaurant places—they just don’t exist in London or Philadelphia or Boston. And tourists love them—it’s like a fun thing to do when in Paris.

GRABER: By this point, restaurants have started expanding their menus, too.

SPANG: So you’re going to go out to have your bouillon and maybe in fact its effects are so miraculous that you do feel quite a bit restored. And you think that well maybe… maybe you could eat a couple of ounces of salmon or maybe some asparagus.

TWILLEY: And before you know it, you have a full menu. And suddenly restaurants are a little bit more like the places we know and love today, rather than being special broth-drinking environments for the sensitive.

GRABER: Okay, so now Paris has restaurants that we’d probably recognize as restaurants. But when did they expand beyond Paris? Paul Freedman has traced the dawn of the restaurant in the United States for his book, The Ten Restaurants That Changed America.

FREEDMAN: In America, the first real, successful restaurant that’s a restaurant, not merely a kind of place to get a meal at a set time or an inn where people can or hotel that people can stay in, is Delmonico’s in New York, and that’s in 1830.

TWILLEY: Delmonico’s was right downtown, in the heart of what is now the Financial District.

FREEDMAN: And it began as a pastry shop. Like many or most restaurants, it was opened by immigrants. In this case two brothers from the Italian part of Switzerland. Nevertheless although they were from Switzerland and although they were, you know, if you like, ethnically Italian, the restaurant was French.

GRABER: So how does a pastry shop run by two Swiss become a restaurant, and why?

FREEDMAN: I guess they decided the time was ripe to open a restaurant whose model was that of Paris. New York was rich enough, sophisticated enough, had enough people who would be willing to try this relatively new experience. And they were right in their guess.

TWILLEY: The food at Delmonico’s was an interesting mix. On the one hand, you know, given the French origin of the whole concept of a restaurant, it’s not surprising that the menu was pretty much in that same model of high-end French cuisine.

GRABER: But on the other hand, they didn’t really have much of a choice about where they got their food, because there wasn’t long-distance refrigerated shipping. So, basically, the menu was what we’d today call locavore.

FREEDMAN: They offered a menu of tremendous variety—French-inspired dishes, and then ingredients that were American, so things like lobsters, American oysters, American turtle, terrapin, which was all the rage throughout the nineteenth century,

GRABER: Paul has some dreams of what he’d like to taste from the Delmonico’s menu.

FREEDMAN: Salmon à la Rothschild, for example, which is a whole salmon stuffed with fish such as whiting and then covered with a crust and served with a champagne sauce. Canvasback duck is the one that enchants me most. Canvasback duck, like terrapin, is a Chesapeake Bay specialty. The ducks are kind of larger than normal ducks, they’re wild of course, and they would be served with some kind of celery sauce or celery accompaniment. These ducks too ate the wild celery that used to grow along the Chesapeake Bay banks. If I could sort of go back and have one dish that I’ve never had before that was a specialty of Delmonico’s, it would be the canvasback duck.

TWILLEY: So who was enjoying this canvasback duck and salmon à la Rothschild?

GRABER: Rich people. Just like at the original restaurants in Paris.

TWILLEY: No poor people could afford it, sorry. And then obviously, at this stage in American history, the crowd was mostly white. Black people, as a general rule, weren’t particularly welcome. And no kids, heaven forbid.

GRABER: And no unaccompanied women. Either alone or in groups of only women. Women were only welcome if they were accompanied by men.

TWILLEY: But the American restaurant has evolved since Delmonico’s, in ways both good and bad.

GRABER: And Paul picked nine other restaurants that symbolize some of those major changes. We can’t cover them all—for that, you should pick up a copy of the book. But we chose three that signal changes in who was welcome in restaurants. First up: Schrafft’s

FREEDMAN: What was particularly important about Schrafft’s was that it catered to those women who were not allowed into places like Delmonico’s.

TWILLEY: Schrafft’s started in New York as an ice-cream parlor. But it soon began serving sandwiches and light lunch dishes—mostly to women, on their own or in groups, taking a break from a hard day’s shopping or on an office lunch break.

GRABER: By the early 1900s, women were working in shops as cashiers or as clerks in retail or stenographers and secretaries in offices. And they wanted a nice place to eat.

TWILLEY: In other words, women were now inhabiting public life and public space more than ever before. They weren’t just domestic creatures. I mean, this is the time of the Suffragette movement. And so it makes sense for women to have a public space to eat in, too.

GRABER: There’s another interesting thing about Schrafft’s, and that’s the food. Frankly, it wasn’t thought to be particularly delicious. But up until the Civil War, there wasn’t a separation between women’s food and men’s food. Schrafft’s thought women might want to eat something different, just for them.

FREEDMAN: And that was light food, that is to say, at the time that would include things like chicken croquettes or things with cream sauces, chicken à la king or a little later cottage cheese—things that we may not think of now as light but that were certainly considered light in the early twentieth century. And then the other part of the program was ice cream. The notion is that women like to have light main courses and fancy desserts. And I’m not convinced that this is what women historically or now actually like, but I will say that my experience of Schrafft’s, which was with my grandmother, my grandmother would order cottage cheese and fruit as an entree and then top it off with an ice cream sundae or a banana split. So she definitely fit the model.

GRABER: Schrafft’s was open for many decades. So we asked people what they remember about eating there.

JAN: Well I went to Schrafft’s possibly as early as ten and sometimes as a young teenager but with my mom. I definitely remember it being a genteel place.

LISA: As far as my memories of eating at Schrafft’s, it was just more… I don’t know if I would have used the word ‘elegant’ back then, but it was, and that’s probably where I developed my great love of coffee ice cream.

TWILLEY: The thing is, ice cream and elegant tablecloths aside, Schrafft’s might have been revolutionary in the 1900s, but by the 1960s, the women’s movement had moved on.

GRABER: Paul says his mom—she had a PhD, and she worked outside of the home—she wouldn’t be caught dead in Schrafft’s.

FREEDMAN: Because it was for people like my grandmother. My grandmother didn’t work. My grandmother loved shopping. My grandmother loved playing cards and watching soap operas on TV, all things that my mother—I mean my mother loved her mother but she certainly didn’t see her as a model.

GRABER: Schrafft’s may have been undone by the women’s movement of the 60s, but there’s no doubt—it was revolutionary for women in its day. But really, when we say women, we mean mostly white women. At the start of the twentieth century, there are still a lot of people in the U.S. who don’t have a place where they are truly welcomed, a place where the food and the décor is somehow geared towards them.

TWILLEY: Schrafft’s broke ground for women, but what about African-Americans?

GRABER: And what about kids—kids could go to Schrafft’s, like Paul did and some of our listeners did. But really, it was more a thing where they were just tolerated if they were quiet and well-behaved. It wasn’t like there was a kid’s menu especially for them.

TWILLEY: So how did everyone else get their place at the table?


TWILLEY: Okay, it’s 1960 in New York City. Schrafft’s is no longer quite so cool.

GRABER: And there’s another thing happening in New York: the African-American population has exploded. This is the tail end of the Great Migration from the south. So Harlem is really booming, and Sylvia opened Sylvia’s.

FREEDMAN: It was a restaurant among a number of restaurants that served the community, the African-American community of Harlem. It was created in 1962 by Sylvia Woods who took over what had been a small luncheonette that she had worked at and she bought out the former owner.

TWILLEY: Sylvia’s customers are neighborhood folks. It was a restaurant run by a black woman and where black people felt welcomed and comfortable. And the food Sylvia served is the kind of food she grew up with, in South Carolina.

FREEDMAN: Fried chicken, smothered pork chops, chicken gizzards, chicken liver, meat loaf, roast beef—so some things that we would consider to be not so much Southern but kind of standard American food. A lot of the side dishes are very Southern, like collard greens, black-eyed peas, candied sweet potatoes.

GRABER: Until this point, African Americans hadn’t marked their food as different—they didn’t call out aspects of their dishes that made black Southern food different from white Southern food. The previous strategy was kind of assimilation. But in the 1960s, that changed. And that pride in distinctive black Southern food, that led to a new name: soul food. To Paul, this is a turning point that Sylvia’s really highlights.

FREEDMAN: Soul food is an identity marker, so it comes in the 1960s as an aspect of black cultural assertion. It’s not that integration was exactly denounced or renounced but that the identity of black people as having a culture that was separate was emphasized. And so what had previously been called Southern food or “down home” was now more identified not just with a generic South, in which case it shared a lot of attributes with white food, but became the soul of black people—the expression of their heart and of their soul through food.

TWILLEY: And Sylvia’s was a hit. It became something bigger than a restaurant—it became a symbol.

FREEDMAN: It expanded and became always a neighborhood place but also a place for local politicians, African-American entertainment and sports stars.

GRABER: Taylor Thompson grew up nearby in New Jersey. Sylvia’s is still popular today, and Taylor remembers going as a kid, a couple of decades ago.

TAYLOR THOMPSON: The difference between Sylvia’s and the restaurants in my hometown is that Silvia’s was decorated kind of like  your grandmother, your great aunt’s like, dining room. And you know I mean it was like, you know, like soul food, the food that, you know, you don’t get your neighborhood diner or Red Lobster.

TWILLEY: Sylvia’s ended up being almost exclusively for black people, at least at first.

GRABER: It wasn’t on purpose, they didn’t discriminate.

FREEDMAN: Well, white people weren’t eating at Sylvia’s. The New York magazine critic Gail Greene in the 1970s visited Sylvia’s, but the way she described it at the time was as if this was an almost ill-advised adventure. She said that her editor wondered whether they weren’t recommending to their readers doing something dangerous. That is to say that presumably white readers might be tempted to go to Harlem and wasn’t that really taking your life into your own hands? So it was off the map as far as white New Yorkers were concerned.

TWILLEY: Today, bus tours filled with white people stop off at Sylvia’s in Harlem—it’s a major tourist landmark, and a stop on any politician’s campaign trail too.

GRABER: So Schrafft’s welcomed women, Sylvia’s highlighted soul food and welcomed African Americans—and later tourists—to eat in Harlem. But there’s another group that doesn’t really have an iconic restaurant that particularly caters to them yet, and that’s children.

FREEDMAN: Well, kids are a problem, because you can cater to kids but then you’re going to have trouble retaining customers who come there without kids, because kids are perceived as creating a lot of noise and disruption.

TWILLEY: And the kid issue brings us to the distinctive orange and blue triangles…


FREEDMAN: And Howard Johnson’s was, to use a term that only later came into existence, ‘family friendly,’ and designed to be family friendly. They entertained kids. They had oversized lollipops, they had cookies and the ice cream.

GRABER: That ice cream—that’s what writer and listener Maryn McKenna remembers best from her childhood.

MARYN MCKENNA: I spent most of my childhood in England, where, at the time, food was not great. My father brought us back to the States so he could take a job in Texas, which involved driving our entire family in two cars from New York all the way to Houston. On the first night that we were on the road, we stopped at a Howard Johnson’s. And as a special treat, we were allowed to have ice cream. I ordered black raspberry, which seemed a completely impossible thing that couldn’t exist. And when it arrived it was enormous and it was delicious and it was fuchsia and I ate it all.

TWILLEY: Road-tripping and black raspberry ice-cream. That’s the other big Howard Johnson’s innovation: catering to America’s new automobile culture.

GRABER: Howard Johnson’s started in New England in the 1920s as an ice-cream stand, sort of like Schrafft’s. But, by the end of the 1950s, America began to be crisscrossed by all these new interstate highways, and Howard Johnson saw an opportunity.

FREEDMAN: The idea was that you could see it, so that going 60 miles an hour you’d have enough time, plenty of time, to make your decision to slow down and to pull into the parking lot. Another way of doing that, of course, is having billboards—particularly in the period before billboards were restricted on highways. But Howard Deering Johnson, the founder of the company, considered billboards to be tacky. And so, instead of having billboards, he had a very identifiable look to the place in terms of colors—the blue and orange look, in terms of the shape of the buildings.

TWILLEY: So you can see it from the highway, kids are welcome—but what about the food at HoJos? We know there was ice cream. But was there anything else original about the food? We asked listener Scott Huler what he remembers.

SCOTT HULER: Well, I remember doing the absolute Sixties America family vacation thing, where we would pile into a Dodge or something like that, and pound, you know, hundreds of miles over these interstate highways. And then, when it was dinner time, it was Howard Johnson’s. And I just remember learning to order this mountain of fried clams which I didn’t know at the time were clam strips. But I feel like it was my first sense of like life beyond the bologna sandwich.

GRABER: Scott is not alone. When we asked listeners and friends what they remember about HoJo’s, they almost all mentioned fried clams.

FREEDMAN: It doesn’t really occur to people unless you point it out how strange this is. Fried clams are not an American staple or they certainly weren’t something that anybody had heard of until Howard Johnson popularized them, except maybe people in Cape Cod or the Maine coast, but a tiny, tiny percentage of the population that ever had any experience with them.

TWILLEY: But really, other than fried clams and the 28 flavors of ice cream, the food at HoJo’s was not exciting or gourmet. And it wasn’t supposed to be.

FREEDMAN: Quality in the first place meant predictability. And this goes a little bit against the modern aesthetic which tends to emphasize individuality and artisanal and handmade. In the period—really most of the twentieth century—the last thing the American consumer wanted was something that was handmade or artisanal or unpredictable. They associated such things with germs or uncleanliness or, you know, gristle in the food or who knows what you’re going to get if you just stopped at some random place. You knew that at Howard Johnson’s, it would be clean, that they would have the fried clams, that they would have their signature ice cream cones shaped in a triangle. All of this was both unique—that is, nobody else had fried clams like Howard Johnson’s—and eminently predictable, coast to coast.

GRABER: Paul’s point is that Howard Johnson’s basically invented the model for what we now think of as fast food. But Howard Johnson’s had an extensive menu. It had a wait staff. Fast-food restaurants built on HoJo’s success and took it a step further.

FREEDMAN: It is oriented around predictability, brand recognizability, and franchising. So in a way it’s a parent that is superseded or killed by its offspring. The fast-food restaurant repeats this model but it simplifies it radically and it is ultimately more profitable.

TWILLEY: I’m not sure that that was progress. But never mind, here we now are today, inhabiting a landscape that is packed with restaurants of all sorts, for all kinds of customers, serving all kinds of foods. So the new question is how are supposed to decide where to go?

GRABER: Actually, that was an old question. The same guy who invented the original restaurant in France? He also wrote what was kind of the first restaurant guide. Under a different name, of course.

TWILLEY: Roze de Chantoiseau! One of his other start-up ideas was basically the first Yellow Pages for Paris. And here’s where having a fancy double-barrelled name pays off: he called himself Monsieur Roze when he was running the restaurant. And when he published his guide, which coincidentally recommended visiting this fabulous new salle de restaurant, he used the name Monsieur Chantoiseau.

GRABER: Sneaky. That was in France in the 1760s. There are lots of guides today, but one of the most famous ones is the one that’s supposed to have some science behind the rating. It’s also French, just like the first restaurant.

JOHN COLAPINTO: The Michelin Guide is a remarkable guide that originated in France that rates restaurants and does it with this meticulous, almost scientific care.

TWILLEY: That’s John Colapinto, he’s a colleague of mine at The New Yorker.

GRABER: Here at Gastropod, we promise you science along with history. So we wanted to know: Is John right? Is there actually a science to the Michelin ratings?

TWILLEY: The Michelin Guide would certainly like us to think so. So let’s find out.

GRABER: But first, you might be wondering why the most famous guide in the world has the same name as the tires you buy for your car.

TWILLEY: There is a simple explanation for that: the tires and the guide are produced by the same company. And it’s kind of logical. When Michelin the tire company got started at the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of driving for pleasure and adventure was sort of new. I mean, cars were new. So the Michelin brothers had this brainwave to promote leisure driving: why not put out a guide to great restaurants you could drive to and dine at?

GRABER: This had a dual benefit. More driving, of course, means more tires, this is great for a tire company. But it also means that the money for their guidebook comes out of the tire company’s marketing budget.

COLAPINTO: They pride themselves on their total independence which derived actually from the fact that the Michelin Guide is actually funded by the Michelin tire company which is hugely wealthy and successful. So they don’t have to rely on any kind of favors from restaurants and so on, and they can pay their inspectors pretty well. They can move them around a country in order to review lots of restaurants.

TWILLEY: OK, so that’s the history of Michelin, but we promised you the science. Is there a science to their famous star system?

GRABER: That is a little difficult to figure out, because one of the things Michelin is most famous for is their complete and total secrecy.

TWILLEY: And that’s where John comes in, because he was the first journalist to ever sit down and share a meal with a Michelin inspector.

COLAPINTO: Well, it was remarkable because one of the things that Michelin sort of established in its 100-year-plus history was that they would never allow an inspector to be interviewed. And in fact, part of the culture of Michelin is that they discourage their inspectors from even telling their families that they do this because a parent, a proud parent might be tempted to boast. “Oh my Nancy is an inspector for Michelin.” And then it gets out and somehow gets back to the restaurants.

GRABER: They let him behind the curtain because in 2009, Michelin, for the first time, was expanding to the United States. And, really, they wanted some press.

TWILLEY: So John went out to lunch with a Michelin inspector who shall remain nameless. They were dining at Jean Georges, a fancy French restaurant on Central Park.

GRABER: The first thing we wanted to know is: if you want to scientifically evaluate a restaurant, how do you decide what to order?

COLAPINTO: She told me that when she sits down at a restaurant and is trying to sort of get a grasp on what this place is capable of, she said that they’re looking for something that tests the number and the quality of ingredients. And she wants something that is a little bit complex because she wants to see what the kitchen can do. She’s looking to see how they combine ingredients. As she said to me, you know, they never order something like a salad or the soup.

TWILLEY: In fact, the Michelin inspector told John that she has to order something from every course—starters, mains, dessert, etc.—and she has to finish everything on her plate.

GRABER: She often does that twice a day. I think I’d probably die.

TWILLEY: Yeah, I’m known for my heroic ability to put food away, but that is serious eating. And this is not a relaxing experience—John said she’s concentrating very hard on each bite.

COLAPINTO: I sort of plonkingly asked what she liked about this particular thing she was eating and she said, it’s not really a question of liking it or not liking it. And she said, it’s an analysis. She said, you’re eating it you’re looking for the quality of the products, their freshness, and so on. And she said, you know, they have to be top quality, like the best damn carrot you’ve ever seen. She says you’re looking at whether or not every single element was prepared, as she put it, perfectly and technically correct. And then she’s looking at the creativity. Did it work? as she put it. Was the balance of ingredients working? Was there a good and interesting texture, did everything come together in a way that was that was pleasing? Did one ingredient overpower another one?

GRABER: So then, after she’s eaten everything and thought hard—and, by the way, she isn’t taking any notes because she’s undercover!—she goes home and she writes it all up.

COLAPINTO: I think she said it could take her four hours to fill in the chart for a place like Jean Georges.

TWILLEY: These charts have all the inspector’s assessments of the quality of the ingredients, the technical perfection of the cooking, the creativity, the balance of flavors—everything to do with assessing the food. And that goes into a restaurant’s star rating. Restaurants that make it into the guide can get either a no star mention, all the way up to three stars for the food.

GRABER: Michelin recognizes that eating out isn’t just about the food. There’s a whole experience going on. So they have their inspectors evaluate the wait staff, and the ambiance, and the furnishings—overall, how great do you feel eating there? That goes into this knife and fork symbol—they call it couvert.

TWILLEY: And obviously that’s more subjective. But here’s the thing, although Michelin says the food is evaluated by stars and the ambiance by couvert ratings, and these are entirely separate things… well, sometimes that seems like, sure, that’s the theory, but actually the ambiance has an effect on the star rating, too.

GRABER: Dan Barber is the chef-owner of a restaurant in New York called Blue Hill. He also own another one outside the city called Blue Hill at Stone Barns. But the one in New York—that restaurant received one Michelin star.

TWILLEY: And actually Dan thinks that to get a second Michelin star, the things he’d have to change are to do with the ambiance, more so than the food. We’ve talked to Dan before—

GRABER: You should definitely check out that episode—it’s called Dan Barber’s Quest for Flavor.

TWILLEY: So we gave Dan a quick call. We caught him on his cellphone just as he was prepping for service, so the sound is pretty rough, sorry.

DAN BARBER: I’m not against going for second Michelin star or third star, you know. It’s not like I’m above it, you know. I would love to have more stars but I don’t know that that’s the goal of Blue Hill New York. Because, in order to get there, I think, you know, you have to do a lot of things in the ecosystem of dining that would, you know, that would take away from the experience of Blue Hill New York. I mean, including probably taking paper off the table and including probably spreading out the tables more and including, you know, different wine glasses and all the things that, you know, go into the experience of high-end dining.

GRABER: Dan thinks—and this seems to be pretty common for chefs at his level—everyone thinks that to get a second or third star, they have to have the top elements of expensive fine dining: white tablecloths, fine crystal glass, hovering waitstaff. Even though that’s not what the Michelin website says.

TWILLEY: To be fair, Michelin comes out of the French tradition—and I mean, really, let’s remember, the French did invent the restaurant. And so Dan’s point is, it makes sense that the Michelin guide tends to favor that ideal of French fine dining. That’s just its DNA, based on a hundred years of history.

GRABER: Dan doesn’t want to make dramatic changes to Blue Hill in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about Michelin a lot.

TWILLEY: Chefs get pretty obsessed about these stars.

GRABER: It’s stressful not to have a star, it’s stressful to get one and then worry about keeping it.

TWILLEY: And then there’s the matter of getting more stars. Richard Coraine is Danny Meyer’s right-hand-man for his world-famous restaurants—several of them have Michelin stars.

RICHARD CORAINE: For us, it’s not keeping them, it’s how do we get another one? And so our work is sort of directed at, okay, now how do we take the bar up even another notch.

GRABER: Chefs do believe that there is a way to hack the Michelin system. Like Dan said—he thinks he’d have to put cloth tablecloths on instead of paper and change up the wine glasses and have fewer tables to get another star. John agrees that chefs tie themselves in knots trying to second-guess Michelin.

COLAPINTO: And it’s obsessive what these poor guys go through to get the three stars.

GRABER: So Nicky, what do you think? Is there a science to the Michelin stars?

TWILLEY: I think, in as far as there’s a really rigorous process and template for evaluating the food, the way John described, sure. But how much can judging food ever be scientific, you know? And the ambiance stuff is personal, for sure.

GRABER: My feeling is, the way it’s rated, that does seem to mean that it’s mostly super-expensive French-style restaurants that get the most stars.

TWILLEY: And from the way chefs try to game the system by upgrading their stemware and their table cloths and all of that—it does seem like the line separating ambiance and stars is a fuzzy one.

GRABER: So then, what’s the point of Michelin? We asked that to everyone we spoke to this episode: Dan Barber, the chef; John Colapinto, the journalist who had lunch with an inspector; Paul Freedman, the historian. And they all had slightly different takes.

COLAPINTO: You know I don’t want to sound like an old crank but I’m an old crank. Just the levels of expertise that that person brings to an understanding of what restaurants are doing makes a Michelin inspector’s evaluation of a restaurant, to my mind, you know, exponentially better than Joe Blow who, “Yeah, I like to go to a lot of restaurants, I know what a good restaurant is, I know what I like.” You know, I’m sorry, I really think they bring something to the table.

TWILLEY: Crank or no, John’s a full-on fan. He trusts the Michelin formula. Dan… well, Dan’s a full-on fan too, but he does see an issue with Michelin’s bias towards haute cuisine.

BARBER: So I have problems with the democracy of the Michelin thing. But, like, I also see the point of like something that has backbone. But how do you rank a three-star restaurant with, you know, Bangkok street food.

GRABER: That’s kind of Paul’s point. The world of restaurant guides has changed because the world of restaurants has changed.

FREEDMAN: I think that the Michelin Guide doesn’t actually work in countries that have such a diversity of restaurants. The Michelin Guide was designed for France at a time when you knew what you were rating. But I don’t think that the system works very well for places like New York or Tokyo or San Francisco, because how do you compare a modest Ethiopian restaurant to a high-end, farm-to-table place to a traditional French restaurant? All of this care of objectivity, anonymity system, which is a very French kind of way of ordering the universe, applies better to the European Guides. I think that the Michelin Guide for New York is, you know, maybe a source of suggestions but as an actual ranking, frankly, in my opinion, it’s borderline useless.

TWILLEY: The restaurant—and the restaurant guide—they may have started out as a French invention. But this is way bigger than France now.

FREEDMAN: Well, the decline of French cuisine as dominating the entire world definition of elegant and high-end cuisine is the big story of the last thirty years. And it’s not that France has ceased to produce wonderful cuisine. It’s just that it doesn’t define it anymore.

GRABER: And, actually, I think that’s pretty great. France has delightful food, but so do a lot of countries and culinary traditions.

TWILLEY: Restaurants have made a lot of progress in terms of catering for a much broader range of the population, too. And that’s really, really important. But not everything in the world of restaurants has improved in the past century and a half. I mean, just think back to the Delmonico’s menu, with its fabulous range of local, wild food.

FREEDMAN: Well, I think we’re accustomed to thinking that we live in the best possible or best historically real world of American cuisine. Never have there been so many restaurants. Never has there been so much attention to ingredients, never have there been so many chefs who are creative and celebrated. But if there was one purpose I had in mind in doing this project, because I’m a historian, it was to call attention to the fact that the past has many enviable qualities. You know, that when the planet had only five hundred million people instead of eight billion, the environment was richer and easier to exploit and offered things that we can only dream about.

GRABER: I’m now drooling imagining Delmonico’s wild duck and wild celery. So, at the time they were locavore because they had to be. Now locavore is making a come-back—because it’s what diners actually want. We’re circling back to the origins of our restaurants.

TWILLEY: According to Rebecca, that’s not the only way restaurants are coming full circle.

SPANG: How many restaurant menus indicate which dishes are vegetarian? Which ones are low carb? Which ones are gluten free? There are so many different sensitivities, sensibilities, that restaurant patrons today feel and considered to be legitimate medical conditions and they probably are. So I do think that people’s attentiveness to their individual medicalized sensibilities is something that has much in common with the culture in which restaurants were invented in the first place.

TWILLEY: Since it was invented, two hundred and fifty years ago, the restaurant has made great strides. You have restaurants for all sorts of people, run by all sorts of people, and catering to all levels of income and all kinds of different tastes.

GRABER: Which is awesome. But of course this isn’t restaurant utopia here. There are still all sorts of problems at restaurants, too: the pay, the whole system of tipping, the divide between the kitchen staff and the wait staff, the working conditions. These are all issues that, trust us, we’re going to come back to these in future episodes.

TWILLEY: And that’s really why restaurants matter. Because the restaurant as a public space—it ends up reflecting a lot of where we’re at as a society.



GRABER: Thanks to Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, and Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to John Colapinto at The New Yorker, to chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Richard Coraine of Union Square Hospitality Group.

GRABER: Thanks to our friends and listeners for sharing their restaurant remembrances with us. We’ll be back in two weeks with episode all about chocolate. I can hardly wait!

Inventing the Restaurant: From Bone Broth to Michelin

Early humans may have visited each others' caves for a shared meal, but they wouldn't have expected to be served at their own table, or to choose when and what to eat. But today, restaurants are ubiquitous: there are millions of them worldwide, and the average American eats roughly 200 meals a year in one. So who invented the first restaurant, and when and where did it appear? How did it change society—and change along with society? And, in today's saturated market, is there a scientific way to choose the best?


Poultry Power: The Fried Chicken Chronicles TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Poultry Power: The Fried Chicken Chronicles, first released on July 12, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

JOHN T. EDGE: I think fried chicken nuggets are are an abomination. I think they’re a food product, not a food. I think to call something fried chicken in my book, there needs to be a bone and a human hand should have been involved in the preparation of said bird and nuggets don’t qualify on either of those measures.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Those are fighting words! You might have thought that fried chicken is just chicken that has been fried, but it’s way more complicated than that. In fact, fried chicken can be a surprisingly contentious dish.

NICOLA TWILLEY: And not just on the topic of whether nuggets are an abomination or not. So grab a drumstick and join us on this crispy, crunchy, deep fried adventure. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And in this episode of Gastropod, we’re going to look at fried chicken controversies through the lens of science and history.

TWILLEY: Is fried chicken really a Southern dish? How do you get a truly crispy crust on it? And what is going on with racist stereotypes about African Americans and fried chicken?


HILLARY DIXLER: What put it on onto my radar as something to watch was actually fried chicken sandwiches.

TWILLEY: That’s Hillary Dixler. She’s a senior editor at Eater, and she recently called 2016 the year of the fried chicken. Fried chicken is super hot right now.

GRABER: Hot and delicious, yes. But like we said, it’s also really complicated. The first question is where the tradition of breading and frying birds in hot oil actually comes from. John T. Edge directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. And he looked into that question for his book Fried Chicken: An American Story.

EDGE: I think that so many people want to find like the ur fried chicken cook. And I think that’s an exercise in folly. I think that there are a number of things we can surmise about the roots of fried chicken and they are that it is a rural dish. It is a dish of farm cooks who had ready access to birds clucking around the backyard. It is a working class dish. And as the institution of slavery spread across the United States it became a dish of black expertise.

TWILLEY: But how? Did enslaved Africans bring this chicken frying technique with them? Or did the dish come from Europe originally? Or did different traditions come together to create something new—Southern-style fried chicken?

PSYCHE WILLIAMS-FORSON: There are some who say it was of European origin, there are others who say it’s of African origin. And you know it’s always tricky because in the Americas in particular where you had the admixture of of European colonists, African slave peoples, native peoples to this country, how this particular food came to be is somewhat a vexed question quite frankly. And so I tend to stay away from origins because none of us were actually there. What we do know is that enslaved people, enslaved Africans in particular, did cook food prior to coming to the Americas in ways of frying, in one pot using some sort of palm oil or oil based substance.

GRABER: Psyche Williams-Forson is chair of the American Studies department at the University of Maryland. And she’s the author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. Psyche says that whatever the dish’s origins, it was enslaved African women who became the experts at frying it.

TWILLEY: And if you’re picturing a KFC-style bucket of wings right now, Psyche and John have news for you. This early fried chicken, cooked by African American slaves throughout the South, it wasn’t like that. Although, like Psyche says, none of us were there, so it’s hard to know for sure. And certainly there isn’t much in the way of recipes to guide us.

EDGE: Fried chicken was in many cases like cornbread, like other kind of elemental dishes. It was not as thoroughly documented as something that would have been perceived as more complex, something that would have required a recipe. Fried chicken was something that a cook knew how to prepare when they stepped in the kitchen. That said, you know, the early recipes reveal a very simple bird, lightly flavored and fried in lard and oftentimes served with gravy. This kind of super crunchy, 14 herbs and spices, KFC-inspired bird is something relatively new.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: And we’re not talking chicken as we know it but more yardbird sort of roaming around, a wild kind of hen and bird that folks may have had access to.

GRABER: So that early American fried chicken, the bird might have been a little darker and tougher, a little more free range. And those drumsticks wouldn’t have been quite as crunchy and crispy as we’re used to seeing it today.

TWILLEY: Still sounds mighty tasty to me. But you know, most often, the women who had become experts at preparing fried chicken—they weren’t the ones eating it. Because, of course, in this truly hideous system, African slaves didn’t get to enjoy the choice foods they spent hours preparing—that fried chicken was pretty much for their white owners.

GRABER: But there is one way that some of the last generation of enslaved African women who spent years cooked fried chicken for other people again and again and again ended up being able to make good use of their very hard-won expertise. Because after Emancipation, some used their chicken frying skills to start their own businesses.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: The group of women that I found—in particular I hone in on Orange County, Virginia, or Gordonsville, the town of Gordonsville. But you might find these women at various whistle stops and junctions trying to peddle their wares.

TWILLEY: So this is just after the Civil War, just after Emancipation, in the 1860s and 1870s. Rail travel is pretty new, and booming. And African Americans are trying to scrape a living amidst a lot of ongoing prejudice and discrimination. They didn’t have a lot of other opportunities. And so Psyche helped us imagine what it would have been like as the train pulled into Gordonsville.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: It would have been I think a very interesting scene because it first of all would have been hot, perhaps dusty, very chaotic and out of nowhere perhaps, because by all accounts you didn’t quite really see them coming, these women emerge. You know all trying to if you can just think in terms of a cacophony of voices all at one time you know hawking their foods and hot pie, hot coffee, you know, fried chicken, maybe eggs, other kinds of goodies, berries, things of that nature. And so all of this is going on at one time. You know and they’re vending—almost similar to what we would see at a modern day ball game except it’s a lot more hurried and rushed and it’s certainly more chaotic. And the transactions are made right there. I believe the fried chicken breasts were sold for 25 cents. Other parts of the chicken may have been sold for a nickel or dime.

GRABER: These women called themselves waiter carriers. In one of the only photos we have documenting their work, you can see them holding their baskets above their heads, right there on the tracks next to the train. They were selling fried chicken to passengers directly through the windows.

TWILLEY: These newly emancipated waiter carriers were free to work for themselves. And so they were able to use their chicken frying skills to get ahead.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: So in this instance these women, in Gordonsville in particular, were able to use the proceeds of that money to build houses, to put their children through school, to help fund churches.

GRABER: This didn’t just happen in Gordonsville, Virginia. Psyche says that scenes like this one were likely happening all over the South, as formerly enslaved women became fried chicken entrepreneurs. But Gordonsville might have been special.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: There are some folklore stories about Gordonsville that said some folks just deliberately planned their trip so that they would stop through Gordonsville. And at least one author named or dubbed the area the fried chicken capital of the world.

TWILLEY: Of course that was before a certain Kentucky Colonel got his hands on the crispy bird. It took a few decades, but white folks eventually ended up appropriating some of fried chicken’s entrepreneurial possibilities for themselves.

EDGE: Yes, so Harland Sanders who opened his first store in Corbin, Kentucky, which was you know if you think about the deep racial history of this, Corbin, Kentucky, at one point was a sundown town, in other words a town where blacks were welcome during the day but not at night. Colonel Harland Sanders, who earned that title, it’s an honorific from the governor of Kentucky, who wore a white plantation suit with a bolo tie, who affected the kind of neo-confederate Colonel in his mien, who bleached his goatee so it too would be white. He was a creation of the modern era. He created a very modern dish, pressure fried chicken, and created a very modern icon, himself. And he used the old south to sell the new.

GRABER: Evoking a sort of plantation history—and playing off the racism of the day—“Colonel” Sanders opens the very first KFC in 1930. Then he starts franchising the stores in 1952. But the most important year is 1969—that’s when he took the company public. And in the first year alone, John T. says he made $12 million for his investors.

TWILLEY: And you don’t make $12 million off of fried chicken in a single year without people taking notice.

EDGE: The kind of late 1960s boom of Kentucky Fried Chicken inspired entrepreneurs across the country. In that moment, some Nashville businessmen concocted some analogues to Colonel Sanders, one of whom was Minnie Pearl.


EDGE: And Minnie Pearl, her actual name was Sarah Cannon. She was a child of privilege and wealth from Nashville who played the part of Minnie Pearl, the woman whom you always see in the Grand Ole Opry pictures who had the hat with flowers on it and $1.95 price tag hanging off and who would say “Howdy!”  That was Minnie Pearl. She was herself another persona and that persona of Minnie Pearl as the folksy every woman was used to sell Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken franchises which began to spread across the South out from Nashville not long after the Colonel, after KFC went public. At the same time, those Nashville businessmen who developed Minnie Pearl’s also began to invest in Mahalia Jackson’s Fried Chicken, a black analogue to Minnie Pearl’s. And instead of using, instead of keying off Minnie Pearl’s hat they keyed off of Mahalia Jackson who was at that time the most popular gospel singer in America. They keyed off her life and her career. So the buckets showed kind of a stylized church window on, a church stained glass window on it.


GRABER: There’s even more, and I absolutely love this. Aretha Franklin opened a fried chicken restaurant named after herself. And Mickey Mantle opened one, too. His slogan was, 100 percent serious here, quote: “to get a better piece of bird, you’d have to be a rooster.” Even James Brown got into the act.

EDGE: James Brown proposed a golden platter chain of restaurants. It was about black wealth creation, it was about black job training. It was based in Macon which is not far from where Brown grew up. And like the Mahalia Jackson effort it was an attempt to say this is a black dish, and I as a black entrepreneur, in this case James Brown, believe that black should profit from this dish. So it was a political statement as well as a cultural gambit.

TWILLEY: So on the one hand you have Harland Sanders profiting off the racist history of Southern-style fried chicken. And on the other hand, African Americans had managed to transform fried chicken from its beginnings in slavery into something that was really a tool for black empowerment. But, like everything to do with fried chicken, things are a little bit more complicated even than that.

GRABER: The waiter carriers and Mahalia Jackson and James Brown—they were all selling freshly cooked, piping hot fried chicken. But the other part of this story is about cold fried chicken. And that’s where things get uglier.

TWILLEY: In between the waiter carriers in the 1860s and 70s and the fried chicken boom of the 1960s comes the Jim Crow period in American history. This is a time when racist laws, particularly in the South, basically enforced segregation.

EDGE: African-American families who during Jim Crow did not have easy access to good food on the road or any food on the road or any accommodations or welcoming accommodations, would pack their own lunch.  And the reality that that’s the way they traveled led many people refer to trains, especially the trains that that took African American Southerners north from Arkansas and Mississippi and Alabama, Louisiana, took them north to cities like Chicago and Detroit. Those trains, you know, populated by African-American people who were moving out of the South for opportunity in the north and fleeing segregation, fleeing Jim Crow, were often referred to as Chicken Bone Express. And the way you provisioned yourself as you fled north was by way of fried chicken in a shoe box.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: And so when you think about that part of the story you have to think about how was this food able to sustain during high temperatures and so and hot climates? And so chicken is one of those foods that will sort of preserve itself for a while. And so those who were traveling would be packed a shoebox lunch quite frankly, whether it’s an actual shoebox or a paper bag or what have you with chicken, some type of sweet, that is cake or cookies or what have you. Also maybe a piece of fruit and some kind of a drink. So this would be the Chicken Bone Express and the story goes that you know you could tell the paths that African-American people were taking because you would follow the trail of chicken bones, whether that was on Greyhound or on the train or by car, if you just followed the chicken bones that’s when you would know what direction that these African American travelers had gone.

TWILLEY: Cold fried chicken wasn’t just travel food for African Americans, though. It was church food, too.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: My mom would get up really early and start frying chicken before we went to church, you know, because I’m a preacher’s kid so we were always in church on Sunday. And you know my dad had to preach and so we would get up, she would get up early and start frying chicken or cooking the Sunday meal, making biscuits or what have you.

GRABER:Psyche said church was an all day affair for a lot of folks in the South. Services started early in the morning and lasted well into the evening.

FORSON-WIILLIAMS: Not having time to travel all the way back home and then come back again for evening service, a lot of folks just brought their food with them early in the morning and would make a picnic basket or eat in the church sanctuary or eat in the church basement or on the church grounds or in their car or what have you.

TWILLEY: And more often than not that food would have been fried chicken. But if you didn’t have the money for that, Psyche said that tomato sandwiches were pretty common too. Because as the 1900s wore on and America became a fully industrialized nation after the Second World War, people tended not to have a bird running around the yard anymore. Chicken became something you had to buy at the store, and so it became a bit of a treat.

EDGE: There was a time not too long ago when chicken was an expensive animal. Chicken was an expensive food until the commercial broiler industry begins in, along the Delmarva Peninsula, up around Delaware, Virginia, and the top right hand corner of the South. And so you know if you were going, if you were a, you know, a farm family and you wanted to invite the preacher over for dinner the kind of most illustrious food you could serve the preacher was not a country ham that you might have put up and cured. It was fried chicken. That was the ultimate show of respect and in that way that show of respect came to be called the Gospel Bird.

GRABER: Okay, so now I understand a little bit of this complicated story of fried chicken in America—it played a crucial role in African-American history, in part because of the tragedy at the heart of it. And now I also understand why it became associated with church. But so today, why do we see fried chicken joints all over the country, run by all sorts of people?

EDGE: So while I wrote a book called Fried Chicken and I’m a Southerner and all those things would probably lead you believe that I wrote a book about Southern fried chicken, I didn’t. And that was what I attempted to do was to look at fried chicken as American food and that’s what I found traveling around, that it’s an American food not a Southern food.

TWILLEY: Because that same entrepreneurial drive that inspired the waiter carriers of Gordonsville and Minnie Pearl—that’s a very American characteristic. And so, today, fried chicken has come to symbolize opportunity, not just for African Americans

EDGE: You know one of the ones that fascinated me the most was in Barberton, Ohio. The thing that is interesting me about Barberton, Ohio, is the degree to which you know a group of families, Serb families, immigrants to America kind of grasped hold of this dish, fried chicken and saw it as their path to belonging in this new country—saw it as their path to assimilation, and also saw it as a path to economic independence. And their tales are not singular. You know, all across the country I met, you know, I met a cook of Indian extraction in Chicago who saw his kind of lemon inflected Italian style chicken as his ticket to the American dream. I met, you know, Korean fried chicken cooks in Atlanta and in Seattle who saw their style of fried chicken as their kind of purchase of the American dream. It’s a common tale, it was told all across the country, not just in the South.

GRABER: These different communities all put their own spin on it. Korean fried chicken has a thinner, crispier crust. The Latin American version is often a little more garlicky with citrus notes.

TWILLEY: And the 2016 version of the entrepreneurial fried chicken American dream is a fast casual sandwich.

DIXLER: Last year, Shake Shack, which is the pioneering fast casual chain run by Union Square Hospitality Group’s Danny Meyer, they launched something called the Chicken Shack, which is a fried chicken sandwich. And right around the same time David Chang of the Momofuku restaurant group in New York City announced and opened his very first quick service restaurant which was dedicated to fried chicken sandwiches.  So that’s what sort of led me down the down the path of investigating what is going on. And I would say today I would still point to Fuku and to Shake Shack as important pieces in the puzzle of why fried chicken now.

GRABER: Hillary Dixler wrote an article called “Why It’s Finally Time for a Fast Casual Chicken Explosion.”

TWILLEY: Explosion in the business boom sense, not in the wings flying through the air sense. Sadly.

GRABER: Hillary’s point was that until recently, you had cheaper fast food joints—KFC, Popeye’s—and then you had chefs at more expensive restaurants frying up chicken. There wasn’t really anything in the middle, price-wise.

TWILLEY: And then chicken got cheap. Or at least, cheaper than beef. Over the past decade, chicken has come down from its pricy perch as the gospel bird—at least relative to beef.

DIXLER: So chicken pricing has remained really stable and beef has gotten more expensive. So if you’re a numbers driven operator, and you know that restaurants run on incredibly slim margins that’s, you know, that’s meaningful data.

GRABER: So now a lot of chefs are opening kind of mid-range fried chicken sandwich joints. It’s a pretty big trend right now, and Hillary doesn’t think it’s going to slow down any time soon.

TWILLEY: I cannot lie, I love the Shack Shack fried chicken sandwich.

GRABER:I have some bad news for you, Nicky. John T. agrees that it’s tasty. But he doesn’t think it’s fried chicken.

EDGE:  I love Shake Shack, I love Momofuku, I love what David Chang is doing, I love what Danny Meyer is doing. That’s not fried chicken, that’s chicken that has been fried. It’s different.

TWILLEY: How so?

EDGE: There is no bone. To me, to be fried chicken, you know for a dish to be called fried chicken, culturally, historically, and for me in terms of sheer pleasure requires a bone. Fried chicken sandwiches are chicken that has been fried, placed between two pieces of bread, and I love them too, but they’re not the same thing.

TWILLEY: I can roll with that. As long as no one is taking my fried chicken sandwich away, you can call it what you like.

GRABER:I wouldn’t even dare come between you and your fried chicken sandwich. But you can’t have one right now, because, Nicky, we’ve only answered one of our questions. We have more to go!

TWILLEY: Well I know we’ve talked about whether fried chicken is really a Southern dish. And the answer is no: it’s definitely got strong ties to that region, but today I’m with John T. Fried chicken is as all American as food gets.

GRABER: But we have two more to go. What about that kitchen wisdom that the hotter the oil, the less fat your fried chicken absorbs? Can that be true?

TWILLEY: And we’ve told the story of how fried chicken became a vehicle for African American entrepreneurship. But how did it become a racist stereotype?


TWILLEY: So we told you there’s a boom in mid-range fast casual fried chicken—a little more cheffy than the fast food franchises started by Harland Sanders. But really, those chains—KFC, Popeye’s—they’re still the ones selling most of America’s fried chicken. And for a lot of people, it’s kind of a guilty pleasure.

EDGE: We love Popeye’s. And yeah, yeah, yeah I know. Like the birds aren’t from good sources and you can make a whole bunch of different arguments against Popeye’s. The chicken’s damn good.

GRABER: If the sourcing of those birds matters to you, we are going to give you some tips about how to cook up the perfect fried chicken at home. But before we get to that—the way the birds are farmed isn’t the only problem.

TWILLEY: Right. Like in London, there are more fried chicken shops than basically anything else, and they’re clustered in the poorest boroughs—boroughs where one in six kids is obese by the time they leave primary school.

MAN: PFC for me means Perfect Fried Chicken—there’s quite a few of them in the area. They’re part of the scenery, they’re part of the culture.

WOMAN: I think PFCs are really popular because a they’re cheap they’re quick everybody loves chicken. Chicken’s like the new craze, it’s just easy, simple, tasty.

WOMAN: It’s a new generation, parents work 24/7, and that’s their only meal through the day.

TWILLEY: Perfect Fried Chicken or PFCs is a mini-chain of chicken shops in London. They’re so ubiquitous that they’ve become slang for any fried chicken shop. And that clip is from a movie that a youth group in Mile End in London made for a community project exploring what fried chicken means to their mostly immigrant and minority, mostly poor neighborhood.

WOMAN: It’s more than just chicken because it’s like some people’s second home.

MAN 1: We was brought up with it.

MAN 2: It’s like a social gathering.

MAN 1: The venue would be like an English man’s pub.

MAN 2: PFCs a very warm place where you can hang out with your mates especially in the winter time when it gets dark very early and it starts to rain and it gets very cold.

MAN 3: Everyone knows that it’s bad for you, that it impacts you, but just for the whole social thing, for your peers, you just end up going. And I’ve been an example of that as well.

TWILLEY: You know we said fried chicken was controversial, and this is one of the ways: everyone knows these fast food birds are not raised humanely, everyone knows that a two piece box as an afterschool snack is not helping Britain’s obesity crisis. But fried chicken plays this incredibly important role in the community too. It’s a point of pride for these kids to have all these chicken shops in their hood.

GRABER: Fried chicken shops are popular in poorer neighborhoods in the U.S. as well. But there’s an even darker side of the story here in America.

DAVE CHAPPELLE: I was in Mississippi doing a show and I go to a restaurant to order some food and I say to the guy, I say “I would like to have…” and before I even finished my sentence he says “the chicken!” I said “What the fuck?” I could not believe it, could not believe that shit. This man was absolutely right. I said how did he know that I was gonna get some chicken? I asked him I said, how did you know that? How’d you know I was gonna get some chicken? He looked at me like I was crazy, “Come on, come on buddy, everybody knew soon as you walked through the goddamn door you were gonna get some chicken. It is no secret down here that blacks and chickens are quite fond of one another.”

GRABER: If you don’t immediately recognize that voice, that’s Dave Chappelle in one of his comedy routines. But, really, that’s not a joke. Here are the two hosts of the popular podcast Another Round, Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu.

TRACY CLAYTON: Listen, fried chicken for black people is a battleground, O.K.? Fried chicken is a battlefield because I mean it’s not just like a super delicious food and I really want to drive home that it is so good, fried chicken is so good, but it’s a very racialized food.


CLAYTON: Unfortunately because you know, white folks for some reason were like oooh let’s taunt black people with a really delicious food

NIGATU: Even though *everyone* likes fried chicken

CLAYTON: Who, nobody dislikes fried chicken, nobody does, and so it’s so tied into respectability politics because I feel like we all have that moment or maybe not all of us, I had a moment or two.


CLAYTON: Being the only black person in any sort of room where fried chicken is like on the lunch menu, you’re like out ordering lunch with your white coworkers and you’re like yo, if I get this fried chicken they gonna, am I gonna seem like a stereotype if I do it?

NIGATU: Yo it sounds silly but I’ve definitely thought about that too.

CLAYTON: Exactly, exactly.

TWILLEY: Dave Chappelle and even Heben and Tracy—they’re laughing—but this is a real racist stereotype with real historical roots. Psyche dug into the origins of how fried chicken became negatively associated with black people in America.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: African-American people very early on, I’d say sometime in the 17th, 18th century began to be heavily associated with chicken.

GRABER: And then there was this 1915 crazy racist but at the time, wildly popular movie about the founding of the KKK called The Birth of a Nation. In it, there’s a bunch of African American legislators and they’re depicted as lazy and crude—they have their feet on their desks and they’re drinking and one is tearing into a piece of fried chicken. So this kind of image became ingrained in American culture, and it recurs again and again. Psyche’s built up a horrifying collection of racist cartoons and captioned photographs on the subject.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: And then one of my actual favorite images that is extremely problematic is the picture of the African-American man in an idyllic setting where he has a watermelon under each arm and then there’s a bird waiting to, on the ground there in front of him and the caption says you know something like “Just this nigga’s dang fool luck, does he put down the watermelon and pick up the chicken? Or does he let the chicken go and keep the watermelon?” And so it’s presented as the quintessential quandary right. And so yeah, that’s how these stereotypes emerge and they continue right to this day. I mean when the President Obama entered the White House you saw images circulating of watermelons on the South Lawn.

GRABER:That first photograph she mentioned was from the early 1900s, but Psyche’s own research shows that this racist stereotype is still shaping behavior today.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: I did some focus groups with students many of whom said absolutely not, I would not eat chicken in public. There was an African-American woman who worked for the government and she said you know, I just think eating chicken at your desk is ghetto when you’re working in a professional setting.

TWILLEY: That kind of internalised stereotype, depriving a government worker of a delicious lunch just because of the color of her skin—that’s exactly what Heben and Tracy are fighting against.

CLAYTON : You know what I’m saying? It’s ridiculous and not eating fried chicken in public isn’t gonna make people respect you any more, you’re just denying yourself fried chicken and that’s not being kind to yourself, that’s not good self care [Heben laughing] I know so many people who refuse who actively refuse to eat fried chicken in public. It’s just so ridiculous that we would limit ourselves the pleasure and enjoyment of biting into a hot piece of juicy, crispy fried chicken.

NIGATU: Speak on it Tracy, speak on it

CLAYTON: Because of white people, don’t let that happen.

TWILLEY: Psyche’s on board. She’ll happily eat fried chicken in mixed company.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: I have a friend who one time said no I’m going to a cookout and I’m going to absolutely buy into every stereotype. I’m going to eat the watermelon and the chicken. So I’m with them actually. And with many other people who quite frankly aren’t really concerned.

TWILLEY: Although, that said, Psyche’s not about to eat any old fried chicken.

FORSON-WILLIAMS: I was at a cookout not long ago and they had fried chicken wingettes and I said to my mom, I said, “Who cooked this?” And she said, you know, told me who made it and I was like “Ugh, O.K., I don’t like the looks of it.” Because to me it wasn’t cooked hard enough, because it wasn’t dark enough. It was just way too, still a little bit too fleshy and I don’t like fleshy, jiggly, moving chicken, so…

GRABER: Like many people who grew up in the south, Psyche learned to make fried chicken standing by her mom at the stove. There was no recipe to share.

EDGE: I think fried chicken is less about the recipe than it is about the muscle memory of the cook. And so you know there’s a lot of focus on you know what’s this person’s secret recipe. And I think you know what we really—what we ought to really focus on is the accumulated knowledge of the cook who you know for a generation or two generations stands facing the stove, stands facing a skillet, bubbling with oil, knows when to turn the chicken, know you know when to change the oil. Knows how to salt the chicken, knows all these different steps and that accumulated knowledge is what’s important, not so much the recipe.

TWILLEY: But do not despair. Even if generations of chicken frying have not imprinted themselves on your muscle memory, science can help. Because there’s science to good fried chicken, as well as all of this controversial history.

GRABER: So we called up one of our science and cooking experts. You might remember Kenji Lopez-Alt from our episode last summer where we interviewed him about his great book, The Food Lab. Or you might already know his work from Serious Eats. He devotes an entire chapter to frying, and in particular to how to create the absolutely most wonderful fried chicken. But first, Nicky and I had one major question: why bother frying chicken at home?

TWILLEY: I mean, this seems like a job for the experts. It involves a lot of hot oil, for starters. It’s always felt like a combination of too dangerous and too much of a hassle for me.

KENJI LOPEZ-ALT: But there are good reasons to fry at home.  I mean I guess the main one is that it’s delicious.  Actually to be honest I can’t really think of many other reasons. But for food I think that should be reason enough.

TWILLEY: Now Kenji does admit that frying chicken at home is not a walk in the park. There are all sorts of places where things can go horribly wrong.

LOPEZ-ALT: So getting the chicken to cook through while the coating crisps up properly is one tricky point. You know, making sure that the coating doesn’t burn before the chicken, while the chicken is still raw in the center. And so that has to do with oil temperature. It also has to do with the size of the chicken pieces and it also has to do with the exact make-up of the coating because you know there are certain things you can add like sugar or paprika or other you know other ingredients that will make the coating brown much faster. So you have to sort of— it’s sort of a balancing act between all those things to get make sure that the coating is golden brown by the time the chicken is cooked through.

GRABER: Then there’s making sure that the coating sticks to the skin.

LOPEZ-ALT: The last thing you want is for the coating to just kind of slough off as you’re eating it and have sort of pale skin underneath.

TWILLEY: And you have to get the crunch right.

LOPEZ-ALT: Just really maximizing the surface area and getting a sort of nice balance between crispy and crunchy. To me, crispy and crunchy are two different things, like crispy is like a potato chip, whereas crunchy is sort of like a much heartier thing like a bread crust. And you don’t want a fried chicken to be too crunchy, you don’t want it to be tough.

GRABER: That seems like a pretty long list of ways that frying chicken at home can go wrong. This is another reason I’m still inclined to leave it to the experts! But let’s give Kenji a chance. He’s come up with the science of how to make it work. Of course, it took an insane amount of tasting and testing.

LOPEZ-ALT: It started like with any recipe with—by doing research which meant just going out and eating a lot of fried chicken. But, you know, but then once you get down to the actual recipe testing portion, well, a lot of it, you know, it’s examining existing recipes and seeing what similarities they have, what differences they have, and trying to pinpoint exactly why recipes are different from each other. You know, why did why does this one recommend you rest the chicken and why does this one not, you know, why does this one say to pan—to shallow fry in a cast iron pan while this one says it’s better to deep fry. So it did involve frying lots and lots and lots of chicken. And you know fried chicken is actually my wife’s favorite food. It’s what we get for her birthday every year. And so like a good husband I waited until she was gone before I did all this testing because otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to help herself I think.

TWILLEY: And amazingly Kenji and his wife are as of right now still married. Whereas if my husband was deliberately making my favorite food only when I was out of town. Well. I would have some things to say about that.

GRABER: Good thing Geoff doesn’t know how to fry a chicken.

TWILLEY: But after listening to this episode he will. Geoff, consider yourself warned.

GRABER: But let’s let Kenji talk us through a few of his best tips for scientifically proven fried chicken. For this episode, we’re going to focus on the oil. Honestly, that’s the part of it that scares me the most.

LOPEZ-ALT: The number one rule I think is to not be afraid of the oil. Because you know I think hot fat can sense fear and if you’re  very timid about it and you’re say you’re holding your hand a few inches above the oil and you don’t want to lower your hand down and you’re kind of dropping food in that’s when you’re going to splash yourself. A much better way to deep fry is to is to pick up the food with your hands. Pick up the food and then lower it into the oil and release it just before your hands reach the level of the oil. And that way it will sort of slide in you know like an Olympic diver. You want it to really slide in without making any splash at all.

TWILLEY: If it helps calm your nerves, Kenji pointed out that the oil is not really boiling.

LOPEZ-ALT: Well deep frying is dehydration really. So I’m sure you’ve heard this term, boiling oil. People will say, oh, I dropped it in the boiling oil. But the fact is that oil itself does not actually boil. It never does because it will catch on fire way before it comes to its actual boiling point. So when you’re putting fried foods into oil, it’s not the oil that’s boiling, it’s actually the water content of the food that is boiling and bubbling out of that oil in the form of water vapor. And so you know, so that’s what leads to dehydration. At the same time you’re doing a few other things. One of the things you’re doing is leavening, so much in the same way that when you put a loaf of bread or piece of dough in the oven when you’re baking bread, a lot of those internal gas pockets will start to expand so you’ll get pockets of water vapor, you’ll get pockets of carbon dioxide that are all expanding and that’s what causes bread to puff up or like, the you know the crust of a pizza to puff up.

GRABER: And that is what makes the chicken crust get light and crispy. So that’s the science of what’s happening while your chicken is bubbling away. But that leads us to some more practical questions. Like what oil should you use? And what type of pot?

LOPEZ-ALT: Typically you want to use a relatively large volume of oil because if you don’t use enough oil when you add food to it, it will cool down to the point where you’re not really deep frying any more and you’re kind of sort of poaching in fat, which you don’t really want to do. You want there to be a really relatively vigorous bubbling the entire time. So you want to use a large volume of oil that it doesn’t really drop significantly in temperature when you add in your food. For home cooks usually a couple of quarts is enough like two quarts of peanut oil, something like that, or canola oil will work.

TWILLEY: Kenji actually recommends using a wok, because the sloped sides give you plenty of room to move the chicken around while its cooking. And the fat question—that’s  an interesting one—Kenji tried a bunch of different oils.

LOPEZ-ALT: The general rule with frying foods is that the the higher percentage of saturated fat in the oil you’re using, the crisper the food’s going to come out. So something with very low saturated fat, say like a light olive oil, is going to come out, you’re going to get food that has a very thin crispness and will turn soggy relatively quickly whereas a highly saturated fat, say like you know if you go to want to go to an extreme like something like beef tallow, you’ll get something that’s very very crunchy and crispy. There is a downside to using highly saturated, over overly saturated fats though which is that as they cool they solidify, so eating—and I’ve tried this—eating fried chicken that’s fried a hundred percent in beef tallow it tastes great for like the first five seconds out of the fryer. And then as it starts to cool down you get this sort of candle wax texture to it where the fat just kind of coats your tongue because it’s so, so thick and so it really does taste like you’re getting a crunchy candle, crunchy beef and chicken flavored candle, which you don’t want.

TWILLEY: A crunchy beef and chicken flavored candle does not sound at all appetizing. Kenji ends up recommending peanut oil because, for a vegetable oil, it’s pretty highly saturated. And it’s got a neutral flavor.

GRABER: Kenji also recommends paper towels for draining off excess oil instead of a wire rack, because the paper towel will wick away excess oil. And Kenji says there’s a popular myth that the hotter your cooking oil, the less fat your chicken will absorb. In fact, the opposite is true, it actually absorbs more oil. But it’s crispier so it doesn’t feel as greasy on your tongue.

TWILLEY: Fried chicken is just not a health food. There’s no way to work that particular miracle. But it’s still delicious.

GRABER: There’s a lot more science to the perfect fried chicken. There’s brining, there’s the batter, there’s whether it should rest before you fry it.

TWILLEY: There’s even when to salt it. Not to mention what to do with all that oil after you’ve fried  your chicken! But if you are a stronger woman than me and you’re determined to make fried chicken at home, let Kenji be your guide.

GRABER: We let Kenji guide us somewhere else. He said that in general he’s not a fan of what he calls cheffy fried chicken, but there is one…

LOPEZ-ALT: O.K., yes, I take back my take back my no chef, there’s no cheffy fried chicken I like. I do like the fried chicken at Kirkland.

GRABER: And as it happens, Kirkland Tap and Trotter is right down the street from me in Somerville. They serve fried chicken every Sunday night. Nicky was in town recently, and we headed over there to try it out. They pretty much use the same method as Kenji does on their birds.

BRANDON WEST: We break them down in house. They are marinated overnight. Well, first they’re brined in salt and some chicken spice that we use on the chicken. And then we marinate them overnight in a buttermilk and egg mixture with more chicken spice involved. We fry them the night before at a low temp to slowly cook the chicken through and then we throw in the oven for five to ten minutes, then finish them in hot oil to crisp them up.

GRABER: How hot is the oil?

WEST: 350. A little bit of fine sea salt.

TWILLEY: OK, one thing you have understand is that I was really, really hungry because my train was delayed and I hadn’t eaten lunch. So I was already even more excited about eating fried chicken than usual.

TWILLEY: It smells so good—it doesn’t smell greasy, just entirely crispy. It’s like if crispiness could have a smell, this is it.

GRABER: It smells like perfect fried chicken. But now the real test.

TWILLEY: Which part, which piece are you going to start with?

GRABER: I feel maybe a drumstick because it’s kind of the perfect thing to bite into.



TWILLEY: Mmmm. Oh my god, the chicken is moist and delicious, and the breading doesn’t come off separately which I like, but it’s so crispy. It’s like, unreal. It’s unnatural.

GRABER: Exactly, it’s super super crispy, and the chicken is super super moist. It’s amazing. If I could have audio of your face right now!

GRABER: If you couldn’t tell by the sound of our voices, we were pretty much in heaven. And Nicky polished off the entire half of a chicken.

TWILLEY: And to my kind of amazement you actually didn’t, Cynthia. Which meant that we got to try the wonders of cold fried chicken, the next day. And if you want to know more about cold fried chicken as an American phenomenon … well, I will direct you to our special supporters-only outtakes email. Full details on how to get yourself on that list at the end.

GRABER: But for now, back to fried chicken. At the beginning of the show, John T.—remember, he wrote a book called Fried Chicken: An American Story—he said that fried chicken is an iconic American dish. It’s not just because we’ve been eating it here for hundreds of years.

TWILLEY: It’s not even just because it’s delicious. Though of course it is.

EDGE: This isn’t about pleasure, this is about narrative embedded in food. And fried chicken I would argue is one of those foods that is embedded with multiple narratives, multiple meaningful narratives. They’re not narratives about pleasure, they’re narratives about sacrifice or narratives about entrepreneurial zeal, they’re narratives about ethnicity and assimilation, they’re narratives about racism and its impacts on America. That’s why fried chicken resonates. That’s why fried chicken is iconic. It’s the narratives embedded in the food, it’s not the savory tasty qualities of fried chicken. That’s the bonus.  The reason we’re all attracted to fried chicken whether we know it or not is because we are attracted to and sometimes repulsed by the narratives embedded in it.