CUISINE OF WHICH CONTINENT?
Smithsonian Magazine reports that the first recipe for fried chicken printed in America was in a tome titled The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, published in 1825 by Mary Randolph, the daughter of a wealthy, socially connected (her brother was married to Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter), slave holding Virginia plantation family. Mary’s cookbook, the first published in America, emphasized regional ingredients and was very well received; her recipe for fried chicken would have been well known to southern housewives of the time. She instructs her readers to cut the birds 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.” She recommends serving the chicken with small pieces of fried cornmeal, and offers the first published American recipe for what would later be called hush puppies. New York Times food writer Julia Moskin commented that her chicken recipe has “never been substantially improved upon.”
But while Mary Randolph may have been the first to record and publish a recipe for fried chicken, the origins of the recipe may stretch back much farther. British cooks would have been more likely to boil or roast a chicken than to fry it in boiling lard. That has lead some to postulate that fried chicken may have arrived in America with West African slaves. Another New York Times writer, Raymond Sokolov, writes in his book The Cooks Canon, “Millions have been made on chicken pieces fried in deep fat. And millions of Americans care deeply about their notion of where it came from and how it should be cooked…I know that the southern part of “southern fried” is a polite way of claiming for Dixie what came to the prebellum South in the minds of slaves from West Africa…How do I know for sure that southern frying is really African frying? Because I have seen and tasted “southern fried” food all over the Caribbean and in parts of South America with significant black populations descended from slaves.”
Whether you consider your fried chicken African or southern, always approach hot oil with extreme caution:
- Your choice of pan matters. A deep, preferably cast iron, skillet will work for most of the recipes in this section, which call for a depth of only an inch or two of oil. Remember that when you add the chicken to hot oil it may bubble up, sometimes dramatically. If it overflows and makes contact with the flame below, your kitchen will be on fire. DO NOT increase the amount of oil the recipe calls for.
- A pan with deep sides will reduce spattering. A wide pan will allow you to fry more pieces at once, but will require considerably more oil; a narrower pan will conserve oil but will mean you must cook in batches. Resist the temptation to make larger batches. More chicken will reduce the heat of the oil and the chicken will not cook properly. A bigger batch also increases the chance of an oil overflow.
- White meat cooks faster than dark, so either add the white meat after the dark has begun to brown, or cook them in separate batches (white meat will take about two thirds the time of dark meat).
- While chicken can be fried in bacon fat, butter or lard, vegetable oil or another oil with a high smoking point is commonly used today. Heat the oil slowly, over moderate heat, to the temperature stated in the recipe (the following specify somewhere between 325* and 375*). A deep-frying thermometer will take the mystery out of whether the oil has reached the desired temperature. Remember to reheat the oil to the right temperature between batches.
Once fried, your chicken can be served hot, warm or cold. At room temperature. it is a great choice for picnics.