Southern fried chicken is a dish known throughout the world as one of America’s most iconic exports, as well as being, for many, the quintessential culinary representation of the culture of the Southern United States. Indeed, there are 900 KFC restaurants in the UK alone.
Most people, I imagine, would assume that Southern fried chicken is rooted firmly in the American South. After all, the clue is right there in the name. However, for those who may have an interest in the origins of this dish, a visit to any number of food-related websites will present a story of the dish coming about through a meeting of the foodways of Scotch-Irish immigrants and African slaves. So, we are presented with a romantic story of a meeting of the foodways of two underdog groups – indentured servants and slaves – which resulted in the creation of an iconic dish.
The current Wikipedia entry on fried chicken, for example, makes the following claims:
The first dish known to have been deep fried was fritters, which were popular in the Middle Ages. However, it was the Scottish who were the first Europeans to deep fry their chicken in fat (though without seasoning). Meanwhile, a number of West African peoples had traditions of seasoned fried chicken (though battering and cooking the chicken in palm oil). Scottish frying techniques and West African seasoning techniques were combined by enslaved Africans and African-Americans in the American South.
Another typical account reads:
The Scots, and later Scottish immigrants to the southern United States, had a tradition of deep frying chicken in fat as far back as the middle ages, unlike their English counterparts who baked or boiled chicken. When it was introduced to the American South, fried chicken became a common staple. Later, Africans brought over on the slave trade, became cooks in many southern households and incorporated seasonings and spices that were absent in traditional Scottish cuisine, enriching the flavor.
However, when one looks for evidence of a tradition of fried chicken in Scottish cookery, it is found to be lacking.
One example of fried chicken being mentioned in a Scottish context can be found in the travel journals of the Scotsman James Boswell. Boswell writes of a meal he enjoyed in the Hebrides in September 1773: ‘We had for supper… a large dish of fricassee of fowl, I believe a dish called fried chicken or something like it’. A prototypical fried chicken dish identified as a ‘A Fricassey of Chickens’ [sic] can be found in an English cookery book dating to 1725, but not in any Scottish sources I have been able to find, and this dish consists of chicken pan fried in butter, rather than deep fried in the supposed Scottish tradition.
Another example of fried chicken appearing in a Scottish context can be found in the 1825 Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, which has an entry for ‘fried chicken’, identifying it as being another name for a Scottish ‘broth’ called ‘friar’s chicken’. Interestingly, a correspondent writing to The Planter’s Review (a magazine for plantation owners in the antebellum South) in 1843, made the claim that ‘friar’s chicken’ is actually the original name for ‘the old Virginia dish, fried chicken’. The editors of The Planter’s Review rightly responded with incredulity: ‘We know and respect our correspondent’s love of ancient lore, which we think has mislead [sic] him a little upon the subject of Friar’s chicken. If to call a chicken which is fried, “fried chicken,” be a corruption, it is surely the most natural and excusable error of which we have ever heard’.
Two further examples of recipes for fried chicken in Scottish sources can be found in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, published in Edinburgh in 1825, and The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie – a book of recipes collected in the period 1841-1897 and published posthumously in 1909. Neither identifies fried chicken as a Scottish dish.
The Cook and Housewife’s Manual features ‘A continental method of dressing Cold Roast Fowls’:
Beat up two yolks of eggs with butter, mace, nutmeg, &c. Cut up the fowls, dip them in this, and roll the egged pieces in crumbs and fried parsley. Fry the cut pieces nicely in butter or clarified dripping, and pour over the dish any white or green vegetable ragout (that you may have left) made hot. Parmesan grated is used to heighten the gout of this dish.
The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie includes a recipe for ‘Fried Chicken Fillets’, which it names Gebackene Haendel, ‘a favourite supper dish at Vienna for the first month of spring chickens, when they are very young and plump’:
You take a plump little chicken, joint him and skin him, season the pieces delicately with cayenne, mace, salt, and pepper ; and fry him in a light batter in a saute pan, turning the pieces often as they cook, and he comes up dry outside, but juicy within. Squeeze a lemon over all if you like when dished.
The recipe is attributed to ‘John’/’JFC’. The author adds:
If for supper add a sauce in a boat made thus : Draw down the uncooked head, bones, and trimmings of the bird, with a little lemon peel to flavour; strain, and add a little mushroom to flavour, thicken the sauce with butter rolled in flour, add a liaison of 1 egg.
So, while references to fried chicken can be found in relation to Scotland, the only dishes that resemble the fried chicken we know today are attributed to continental Europe.
Friar’s chicken, on the other hand, is a soup-based dish, rather than anything like modern fried chicken, as made clear in the recipes found in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (a 1747 English cookery book that also features a seminal fried chicken recipe), Maria Eliza Rundell’s Domestic Economy, and Cookery, For Rich and Poor (an 1825 English cookery book), Lady Harriet Elizabeth St. Clair’s Dainty Dishes (an 1866 book published in Edinburgh), The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, and The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie.
It is worth noting that salt, pepper, mace, and parsley feature consistently in recipes for friar’s chicken (as they do in later actual fried chicken recipes), that one recipe states that ‘the meat may be nicely browned in the frying-pan, before it is put to the soup’, and that the carrot, turnip, and onion stock called for in another bears some resemblance to the marinade in the 1911 fried chicken recipe of the African-American chef Rufus Estes. However, the notion that Southern fried chicken has any direct link to Scottish cooking is clearly without merit.
So, if the Scottish side of the Southern fried chicken narrative does not stand, then what of the claim that this ‘Scottish’ dish was combined with an African fried chicken tradition and ‘West African seasoning techniques’?
In his fascinating book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, the African-American scholar Adrian Miller examines numerous sources and ultimately concludes that ‘we can’t say for certain that fried chicken existed in precolonial West Africa’ (p.52) and that ‘[w]hile it’s difficult to assert a clear African provenance for American-style fried chicken, some evidence points to Britain’ (p.53). I will look at that body of evidence below, but it is perhaps worth briefly addressing the claim that ‘West African seasoning techniques’ are evident in Southern fried chicken recipes.
Looking at numerous recipes dating from 1824 to 1922 (and many more beyond that, up to the present day) found in American cookery books, authored by both white and black cooks, the seasoning for fried chicken remains remarkably similar: salt alone (1824), and salt and pepper (1839, 1878, 1881, 1883, 1885, 1886, 1913, 1916, 1917, 1922). What we find consistently is that Southern fried chicken is seasoned using simply salt and pepper. The notion that Southern fried chicken somehow benefited from the use of ‘West African seasoning techniques’, then, is likewise without merit.
If Southern fried chicken does not, after all, find its genesis in a meeting of ‘Scottish frying techniques and West African seasoning techniques’, where, in fact, does it come from?
In 1725, the Englishman Robert Smith published Court Cookery: or, The Compleat English Cook. This collection of recipes was, as the introduction to the book states, intended for the wealthy elite (‘the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain’). It is worth noting that this book was published a century before The Virginia Housewife, the earliest major Southern cookery book.
The dishes in Smith’s book include what is arguably a prototypical fried chicken recipe:
Take Rabbets [sic] or Chickens; but if Chickens, you must skin them; cut them into small Pieces, and beat them flat, and lard them with Bacon; season it with Salt, Pepper and Mace; dredge it with Flower [sic], and fry it in sweet Butter, to a good Colour.
This dish, Smith writes, is to be served with seasoned gravy (‘season it high’), sliced lemon, force-meat balls, crisp bacon, and fried oysters.
Also included are a recipe for pickled pork (a dish which remains ‘a staple of Cajun & Creole kitchens’ in Louisiana today); a recipe for ham which is salted and then smoked (similar to the ‘country ham’ of the contemporary South); a recipe for fried apple pies (another dish found in the South today); and a recipe for potato pie, which is seasoned with mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar, and salt (and therefore has noticeable similarities with modern Southern recipes for sweet potato pie).
Eleven years later, in 1736, the Englishman Nathan Bailey published a book titled Dictionarium Domesticum: Being a New and Compleat Household Dictionary, For the Use Both of City and Country. The Dictionarium Domesticum includes the following recipe for ‘A Marinade of Chickens’:
Cut the chickens into quarters, and marinade them in the juice of lemons and verjuice, or with vinegar, salt, clove, pepper, chibols: or a bay leaf or two: Let them lie in this marinade for the space of three hours, then having made a sort of clear paste or batter with flour, white wine and the yolks of three eggs, drop the chickens into it, then fry them in lard, and serve them up in the form of a pyramid, with fry’d parsley and slices of lemon.
When prepared, this dish clearly resembles what we now know as fried chicken.
Her cookbook was on Martha Washington’s bookshelf; Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin both had copies as well, with Franklin enjoying it so much that he brought it with him to France and had some of the recipes translated so he could keep eating Glasse’s food while abroad.
Glasse’s simple language, aversion to wastefulness, and belief that anyone could make great food fit in perfectly in the US.
Amongst the numerous dishes listed in Glasse’s book, we find recipes for calf’s chitterlings (‘blanche and boil them like hog’s chitterlins’), pickled pig’s feet and ears, fried potatoes and mashed potatoes, crawfish soup, potato pudding, and pound cake. We also find a recipe titled ‘To Marinate Chickens’:
Cut two chickens into quarters, lay them in vinegar for three or four hours, with pepper, salt, a bay-leaf, and a few cloves, make a very thick batter, first with half a pint of wine and flour, then the yolks of two eggs, a little melted butter; some grated nutmeg and chopped parsley; beat all very well together, dip your fowls in the batter, and fry them in a good deal of hog’s lard, which must first boil before you put your chickens in. Let them be of a fine brown, and lay them in your dish like a pyramid, with fried parsley all round them. Garnish with lemon, and have some good gravy in boats or basons.
The inclusion of gravy, sliced lemon, fried parsley and laying the chicken pieces in a pyramid shape shows clear continuity with the recipes of Smith and Bailey. The use of sliced lemon and parsley also shows some similarities with the fried chicken being cooked in Vienna, Austria, at the time.
Given the popularity of Glasse’s book among the elites of the US, we can say with certainty that her fried chicken recipe would have been in circulation, and Thomas Jefferson’s admiration for the work provides an interesting link to the state of Virginia, a state whose First Families were of English descent.
From one of those families came a woman named Mary Randolph, whose family had ‘roots extending back to the colony’s formative years’ and who went on to be the first person ever buried on the grounds which would become Arlington National Cemetery. In 1824, Randolph published the seminal Southern cookery book, The Virginia Housewife. The book was a great success, and Thomas Jefferson wrote to Randolph, thanking her for sending him a copy, which he said he held in ‘high respect and esteem’.
The Virginia Housewife includes a number of dishes similar to those found in modern Southern cooking, such as okra and tomatoes, catfish soup, barbecue pork, cornbread, mashed potatoes, macaroni pudding (macaroni and cheese), sweet potato pudding (sweet potato pie), and pound cake. It also features a recipe for fried chicken:
Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown.
The chicken is to be served with fried mush (leftover cornmeal), fried parsley, and a milk and parsley-based gravy. The similarities with the aforementioned English recipes for fried chicken are clear, despite Randolph’s recipe being somewhat simpler. Arguably, it is here that we see the true genesis of Southern fried chicken.
The recipe went on to be developed to include pepper as well as salt for the seasoning (as seen in Lettice Bryan’s 1839 book The Kentucky Housewife), which was really a return to the approach of Robert Smith, but little else changed for many years to come.
The continuity is clear: Sarah Rutledge’s 1847 book The Carolina Housewife calls for a cream and parsley gravy to accompany the fried chicken; Marion Cabell Tyree’s recipe in Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1878) features a butter and parsley gravy, and fried mush; Estelle Woods Wilcox’s The Dixie Cook-Book (1883) includes a milk gravy; ML Tyson’s The Queen of the Kitchen (1886) recommends a cream gravy, parsley garnish, and fried mush; Laura Thornton Knowles’ Southern Recipes Tested By Myself (1913) has a milk or cream gravy accompaniment; and Echos of Southern Kitchens (1916), published by The United Daughters of the Confederacy, California Division, swaps flour for cornmeal but keeps the cream gravy.
The recipes of African-American cooks have the same approach: Abby Fisher’s fried chicken recipe in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881) uses only salt and pepper for seasoning; Rufus Estes’ recipe in Good Things To Eat (1911) features a marinade similar to that of Nathan Bailey, and a fried parsley garnish; and Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes (1922) calls for salt and black pepper.
While it is impossible to say with absolute certainty how Southern fried chicken came to be, we can nonetheless suggest there is a strong probability that it has its origins in England. The idea that fried chicken was a Scottish dish is demonstrably false, for, aside from two 19th Century recipes for Backhendl (Viennese breaded fried chicken) found in books published in 1825 and 1909, Scottish sources are silent. There is likewise little to suggest that Southern fried chicken is actually a variant of a purported traditional African dish brought to America by slaves.
It seems highly likely that Backhendl is a ‘cousin’ of the fried chicken recipes found in English cookery books, as both use pan frying in lard, and feature parsley and lemon wedges as garnishes. Which came first, it is hard to say. However, there appears to be no direct connection between Backhendl and the development of fried chicken in the Southern United States. There were German immigrants to Virginia, but these were not drawn from aristocratic circles (Backhendl was a dish of the upper classes), and traditional Southern fried chicken does not employ the breading technique of the Viennese recipe.
We know that fried chicken was seen in the antebellum South as an ‘old Virginia dish’. We also know that fried chicken was already featuring in English cookery books a significant amount of time before the publication of The Virginia Housewife. Furthermore, we know that the Virginia elite (for whom fried chicken was prepared) were very strongly linked to England and made use of English recipes. So, when the sources are studied and the options considered, arguably the most convincing explanation for the emergence of Southern fried chicken is that the dish is an outgrowth of the cookery of upper class England.
The rise of intensive farming techniques and the emergence of fast food restaurants has resulted in Southern fried chicken becoming, today, a global phenomenon available to rich and poor alike. In 2017, UK customers spent an estimated £2.2bn in chicken restaurants. Little did most of them know that the ‘American’ food they were buying in all likelihood actually originated here.