A History of Fried Chicken
Fried chicken is still enjoyed as it always has been in the southern states of America – at its best in Mom and Pop style restaurants, preferably fried in the traditional lodge skillet. But until recently the rest of the world saw fried chicken just as an alternative to McDonalds. In the search for new flavours and old traditions fried chicken is enjoying an unprecedented popularity, as chefs are reviving traditional country cooking, discovering the pleasures of the southern table, and reinventing it for modern appetites.
In this fervour for fried chicken people inevitably want to know more about the history of this favourite dish. You just have to look at all the literature on the history of the hamburger and the origins of pizza to understand this. From food encyclopaedias to blogs, theories are put forward and circulated, when often the facts haven’t been double checked.
Currently, there is a theory that fried chicken was brought to the southern states by Scottish immigrants. This notion was most likely started by The Encyclopaedia of American Food & Drink, who suggested that ‘The Scottish, who enjoyed frying their chicken rather than boiling or baking them, as the English did, might have brought the method with them when they settled in the South.’ This theory is very intriguing but it has been taken as gospel, when there is in fact no evidence at all to prove this.
The basis for this theory most likely comes from James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (written over the course of his Scottish tour in 1773 with Samuel Johnson). In his journal he noted one of the dishes they ate at dinner was ‘fricassee of fowl, I believe a dish called fried chicken or something like it’. What Boswell really heard was the Scottish dish Friars chicken, not fried chicken. Friars chicken is the Scottish name given to a chicken fricassee. At this time chicken fricassee was made by browning a young chicken, pouring over stock, and thickening the sauce with egg yolks and cream.
The foundations of Scottish cookery are the soup pot and the girdle; there is no record of chicken bring fried. Even if Boswell and Johnson had eaten fried chicken, that gives no reason to assume Scottish immigrants took the idea with them to America. Other traditional dishes in the Scottish repertoire, such as cock-a-leekie or howtowdie, usually make use of an older bird to make rich soups.
The very true origins of fried chicken, we will probably never know; but the earliest known recipe for fried chicken in the English language is hidden away in one of the most famous cookery books of the 18th century. It is Hannah Glasse’ The Art of Cookery made plain and easy, and she was an English woman. Her recipe for fried chicken comes under the obscure title ‘To Marinate Chickens’ and was included in the very first edition published in 1747. The Art of Cookery was an incredibly popular book and went through dozens of editions. More importantly, it was also popular in the American colonies, so popular in fact that an American appendix was included in later editions, and finally an official American edition was published in 1805.
Hannah Glasse’ excellent recipe for fried chicken:
‘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.’
Interestingly, her recipe for fried chicken was included in the 1758 and 1774 British editions but not in the 1805 American edition. The first American writer to publish a recipe for fried chicken was Mary Randolph, in her extremely successful book The Virginia House-Wife, in 1824. Here it is important to note that Mary Randolph relied heavily on Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery for recipes, and was highly influenced by Hannah Glasse’ style of cookery.
By coincidence, Mary Randolph was a relative of Thomas Jefferson, who also owned a copy of The Art of Cookery. At the least, this simply tells us that this book was used by the middle and upper classes in America at that time. The Art of Cookery was obviously highly valued as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin each owned a copy. Still we cannot claim Glasse to be the inventor of fried chicken or that her recipe is the source for fried chicken in America. It is, however, pretty obvious fried chicken was not invented by the Scots. It is a shame as the idea is so romantic. Below is Mary Randolph’s recipe for fried chicken, a simplified version of Glasse’ recipe.
Mary Randolph’s Recipe for Fried Chickens:
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; fry small pieces of mush and a quantity of parsley
nicely picked, to be served in the dish with the chickens; take half a
pint of rich milk, add to it a small bit of butter, with pepper, salt,
and chopped parsley; stew it a little, and pour it over the chickens,
and then garnish with the fried parsley.’
A Receipt for Fried Chicken
I have converted Glasse’ recipe for modern day use in case anyone wants to try it. The batter produces a more greasy fried chicken than when it is dipped in milk and then floured. It is not the most healthy of dishes but a fascinating, and delicious, historical experiment. Happily, the chicken is brined, something that the best recipes for fried chicken call for today, for it produces a very juicy result. I have forgone the ‘good gravy’ in this recipe as I am purely interested in the fried chicken.
Ingredients (serves 3 – 4)
1 young chicken weighing roughly 1.5kg
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
200ml white wine (a dry German riesling would be suitable)
150g plain flour
2 egg yolks
25g melted, unsalted butter
4 x 250g blocks of lard
1 tsp black pepper
3 tsp salt
2 bay leaves
nutmeg for grating
1 tbsp chopped parsley
lemon for garnish
extra parsley for garnish
Joint the chicken into four pieces. You want to cut it up in a way that every piece is on the bone.
If you don’t know how to do this you could buy your chicken from a butcher and get them to do it. I suppose you could just buy pieces already cut up, but you don’t get the variety of cuts, so its not as good. Click here for a good youtube video showing you how to do it.
Mix the chicken with the vinegar, bay leaf, 2 tsp salt, black pepper and cloves in a bowl, cover and leave to sit in the fridge for 3 – 4 hours. Lift it out of the fridge after 3 hours to bring it up to room temperature.
When the chicken is marinated sift the flour into a large bowl and whisk in the wine. Now add the egg yolks, melted butter and 1 tsp salt. Finally add a grating of nutmeg and stir in the chopped parsley.
Take a large heavy based pot with high sides (about 10 inches wide) and melt the lard (you want enough so the fat comes just under half way up the pot). Bring it up to a temperature of 180˚C. Dip the chicken in the batter and piece by piece carefully (and slowly) add the chicken to the lard (you may want to use tongs to do this). Keep the heat on high as the chicken will bring down the temperature of the fat. You want to maintain a temperature of 150˚C to cook the chicken evenly. The chicken will take about 15 – 20 minutes to cook. It is probably best to do this in batches, cooking the legs together first and then the breasts. If the chicken is too brown before it is ready you can finish it in the oven. You are aiming to reach an internal temperature of 65˚C. Lift the chicken out of the fat and drain on a towel. Leave it to rest for 10 – 15 minutes to cool. Meanwhile fry the parsley and slice the lemon for the garnish.