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.
HEBEN NIGATU: Yeah
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: Yeah, OK.
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.