Southerners weren't the first people in the world to fry their chickens. Almost every country has a version of fried chicken, or fricassee, from Vietnam's Gà Xaò to Italy's pollo fritto. It is thought that the Scottish people who settled the early South introduced the method here in the United States. They preferred to fry their chickens, rather than baking or boiling them as the English did. It wasn't until the early 1900s that recipes for fried chicken began appearing in popular "northern" cookbooks. Fannie Farmer's 1896 cookbook only refers to "Fried Chicken" as a fricassee served with "Brown Sauce" or as oven-baked "Maryland Chicken".
Mary Randolph, in the third printing of "Virginia House-Wife" (1828), told how to make fried chicken. Very simply, the chickens are cut up, dredged in flour, sprinkled with a little salt, put in a skillet with hot fat, and fried until golden brown. Through the years there have been hundreds of attempts to improve upon her recipe, and plenty of tricks and special touches, but they are all simply minor variations on the original. Mary Randolph mentions making a gravy with the "leavings", but the cream sauce so often served with fried chicken seems to have originated with the dish "Maryland fried chicken". In the cookbook, "Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen" (Baltimore, 1873), the only fried chicken recipe calls for a sauce made of butter, cream, parsley, salt and pepper.
There are hundreds of recipes for southern fried chicken, and it is the center of more controversies than perhaps any other food item. From the seasoning and coating to the fat and cooking time, discussions of "real" southern fried chicken can start some lively debates throughout the South. Some people will tell you to remove the skin before battering, while others swear by double-dipping the chicken. Some fry in oil, some in butter, others in lard or bacon grease.
The recipe in "The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery" recommends browning before covering, then frying slowly and turning frequently. Camille Glenn, in "The Heritage of Southern Cooking" states that chicken is not dipped in milk, crumbs, or batter, simply flour, while the recipe in "Bill Neal's Southern Cooking" requires a soaking in buttermilk. James Villas, in "American Taste," soaks his chicken pieces overnight in milk and lemon juice, and cooks them in vegetable shortening with the addition of 4 tablespoons of bacon grease. The few things everyone seems to agree on are that the skillet has to be a well-seasoned black iron one (preferably deep and with a cover), the chicken must be young and lean, and that fried chicken should be eaten with the fingers.
On the Side
Biscuits, coleslaw, and corn on the cob are popular, and in some regions rice is served. Mashed potatoes with gravy is probably the overall favorite, but potato salad would be just as delicious.
Get your seasoned skillet out and try some of the recipes.
Fried Chicken: An American Story
by John T. Edge