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Bill Addison/Eater

Fried Chicken Is Common Ground

Editor Chris Ying introduces an essay from ‘You and I Eat the Same,’ his first book in collaboration with Rene Redzepi

You and I Eat the Same is the first book in a new series from MAD, the nonprofit organization founded by René Redzepi and his team at Noma in Copenhagen. I came up with the title for the book, and I’m still not fully convinced of this title’s accuracy. You and I eat very differently, in fact, and that difference is important. People derive identity, pride, dignity, and economic opportunity from the things that differentiate us. But I also know that dwelling in difference can be hopelessly unproductive.

Around the time President Trump announced his travel ban, it dawned on me that yelling at the top of my lungs about equity and fairness was falling on deaf ears. It’s not enough to stomp on the ground and say, “Don’t you see, you fools? Those tacos you love are FROM MEXICO.” This is true, of course, but it might be more useful to point to cuisine as something we actively participate in together — something we create through the fluid movement of people and their sharing of ideas and ingredients. We all value deliciousness. From there, we can discuss just what that’s worth to us.

To that end, this excerpt from You and I Eat the Same begins with the fundamental, agreed-upon fact: We all love fried chicken (vegetarians notwithstanding).

Here’s where Osayi Endolyn comes in. Now that she has you at the table sharing a plate of hot chicken, she presses a little further: If you like hot chicken, perhaps you’d be interested in knowing where it comes from. Fascinating, right? Well, maybe you’d be willing to share in some of the weight of its legacy, too.

This is hopeful stuff — maybe naïvely so. Racists like fried chicken. Xenophobes dig chow mein. It’s hard for me to understand how people can separate the food they eat and the people who make it from their political stances. But I have to believe in our common humanity. I can’t remember the last time I had an argument with someone from the other side of the political spectrum that began from a place of common ground. We’re perfectly happy for that common ground to be fried chicken. —Chris Ying, editor, You and I Eat the Same

Before he started cooking hot chicken in Australia, before he opened his fifth location of Belles Hot Chicken and began planning for expansion in Asia, before he was serving customers like Chance the Rapper and American football star Marshawn Lynch, Morgan McGlone was sitting on a porch in Nashville.

McGlone and friends were eating hot chicken, cooling their lips with glasses of natural wine, when he thought, This is how I should make my living. After an itinerant decade of cooking around the world and three years learning from American chef Sean Brock, McGlone was struck with the idea of bringing Nashville’s most famous dish together with his love for wild-fermented wines and selling it to the audience he knew best: Australians.

But, of course, long before McGlone thought to make money from American-style fried chicken, there were many, many others.

For at least a hundred and fifty years, people have been cooking and selling fried chicken in America. The earliest were black women, newly freed from slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. These entrepreneurial cooks, known as “waiter carriers,” brought their skills and their chicken to markets and train stations to sell to travelers passing through towns like Gordonsville, Virginia. They sold chicken to support themselves and their families, because that was the work that was available to them.

Though their culinary contributions went uncredited for centuries, African and African American cooks were largely responsible for creating what Americans now know as Southern food. From the mid-eighteenth century through Emancipation, dishes like fried chicken were developed and prepared by enslaved cooks, who combined West African culinary traditions with those of indigenous North American peoples and European colonialists.

In the early nineteenth century, white members of high society like Mary Randolph, a distant relative to Thomas Jefferson, wrote cookbooks that commandeered the recipes of black cooks. The books were a revelation to white audiences at the time and helped launch dishes like fried chicken into widespread popularity. Meanwhile, notes writer Adrian Miller in his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time, African Americans who perfected this dish under inhumane conditions were subject to repugnant stereotypes about their affinity for fried chicken. After being forced through servitude to cook for landowners, and later relegated by circumstance to sell fried chicken for a living, African Americans were depicted in advertisements, postcards, newspapers, and flyers as chicken thieves and animalistic consumers of fried chicken — images and stereotypes that persist today. It’s why many black people in America still refuse to eat fried chicken in public, carrying the stigma with them even if they’ve never seen the images in person.

In spite of these indignities, fried chicken didn’t disappear within black communities. In fact, it spread even farther as part of the six-decades-long Great Migration, during which at least six million African Americans fled a turbulent and segregated South to start anew in northern and western cities. As scholar Psyche Williams-Forson documented in Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, these men, women, and children were prohibited from using most train accommodations along their trip, so they prepared fried chicken from recipes designed to withstand the long journey, boxed it up cold, and carried it on board for sustenance. When they arrived in their new homes, fried chicken was a special Sunday meal — a place it occupied for much of the early twentieth century.

Then, a few years after World War II, Harland Sanders turned a single restaurant in Kentucky, where he served pressure-fried chicken, into a full-fledged franchise business under the name Kentucky Fried Chicken. By marketing his restaurants using his symbolic status as a nonmilitary “Colonel,” along with a heavy dose of imagery that evoked slavery-era plantations, he grew Kentucky Fried Chicken into a multimillion-dollar company. Later, after Sanders had mostly stepped away from the business, KFC would swell into the world’s second largest restaurant brand, with locations in more than one hundred countries. KFC’s success (along with that of Church’s and Popeyes) brought a version of Southern fried chicken to a global audience.

Almost seventy years after the Colonel opened his first franchise, and a century and a half after Emancipation, McGlone, an affable half-Maori, half-Irish sous-chef working for one of America’s most celebrated Southern chefs, decided that fried chicken and natural wine was a pairing that needed to happen. He flew to Australia armed with a recipe and a business plan.

All of this, for better or worse, is possible because fried chicken is unequivocally, fundamentally delicious. At various periods throughout history, fried chicken has been craved, rejected, heralded, excoriated, belittled, honored, and exploited — often all at once. The dish’s exact origins are hard to pin down and, perhaps, beside the point. A quick survey of the food world reveals that practically every culture that eats chicken has come up with a way to crisp birds in hot oil.

In addition to the bone-in, breaded, and skillet-fried chicken ubiquitous in the United States, there’s twice-fried Korean fried chicken with gochujang; adobo-rubbed chicken in the Guatemalan tradition; Japanese karaage seasoned with soy, ginger, and garlic; Brazilian fried chicken, Chinese fried chicken, Thai fried chicken, and a Keralan American mash-up with cilantro, mint, and serrano peppers popularized in Atlanta, Georgia, by chef and cookbook author Asha Gomez. At grocery stores, gas stations, walk-up windows, and fine dining restaurants, fried chicken is served in buckets and baskets, as sandwiches, wraps, biscuits, nuggets, tenders, fingers, and wings. A U.S. trade association estimated that Americans would consume 1.35 billion chicken wings in a single day: the 2018 Super Bowl. Many of them were no doubt served Buffalo-style: deep-fried and tossed in hot sauce, with a creamy blue cheese dressing and batons of celery and carrot on the side.

In 1945, in a black neighborhood of Nashville called Hadley Park, Thornton Prince opened Prince’s BBQ Chicken Shack — today, known as Prince’s Hot Chicken — the first-ever hot chicken establishment. The name “hot chicken” is a charmingly matter-of-fact and apropos descriptor of the dish: chicken breast, legs, or wings dredged in flour and fried, then bombarded with a proprietary blend of dry seasonings (secret spice rubs abound when it comes to fried chicken) that always includes a heavy dose of cayenne pepper. It’s customarily served atop slices of squishy-soft white bread to absorb the chicken fat and scarlet-red seasoning, with sweet cucumber pickles on the side.

An evening and late-night haunt, Prince’s built its reputation by serving the city’s African American population, but white customers began to pay attention after the restaurant moved to a downtown location. In the decades since, Prince’s, along with numerous copycats, have become tourist destinations in the city and throughout the United States. Nashville now has a Hot Chicken Festival. And in 2016, KFC started serving its rendition of hot chicken in more than four thousand US locations.

McGlone tasted his first hot chicken in 2012 at a Prince’s-inspired restaurant in Nashville called 400 Degrees. He’d recently been promoted to chef de cuisine of Husk Nashville, the sibling to Chef Brock’s celebrated New Southern restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. Before arriving in the American South, McGlone had spent the preceding decade in and out of the culinary world, cooking for chefs like Alex Atala in São Paulo and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. But he also put in time working on the sets of photo shoots, and as a security escort and talent scout in the upper echelons of the fashion world, amassing more than his fair share of hilarious, terrifying, and outrageous experiences involving Russian models, P Diddy’s New Year’s Eve party, rock stars, and an original Picasso.

Like many chefs, McGlone is a wanderer. New Zealand is his birth country, but he has rarely stayed in one place for long. He credits Brock’s impassioned advocacy of Southern food for luring him to the region and keeping him there for three and a half years.

“I used to think that Southern cuisine was just fried chicken and barbecue, but it’s actually an incredibly refined way of cooking that’s taken its influences from the Huguenots, from the Jewish settlers, and especially in Charleston, from the Gullah people,” explains McGlone.

Southern cuisine is, in fact, a cuisine that is especially black — African — in that the food was grown, cultivated, processed, improved, prepared, and served by West African people and their descendants. “It’s not from my culture,” he says. “I just gravitated toward it.”

In many places, but particularly in America, this is where things can get tricky. Anyone can gravitate toward a culture, and “Southern culture” contains a sprawling, nebulous multitude: everyone from trap rappers to rural squirrel hunters will talk about their love for the culture, land, and food of the South. But it’s easy to misappropriate culture, too. There is a distinct pattern in the United States, wherein African American chefs struggle to find parity with their white counter-parts in terms of recognition, funding, and reward. Both codified and unspoken social policies ensured that the black women who worked as waiter carriers in the nineteenth century never saw their business become a global franchise.

Brock, McGlone’s mentor, has had to walk a careful line in trying to show appreciation and deference to the black Southern cooks who came before him while still becoming a prominent proponent. And while Brock grew up in the South, McGlone is one step further removed — an immigrant of Polynesian and European descent, who sells hot chicken on the other side of the world.

McGlone is a talented chef. He’s beloved all across the restaurant world. He has studied the nuanced levels of hot chicken spiciness, the benefits of flour hydration, and how oil temperature affects the crispness of his chicken. He acknowledges the lineage of black American entrepreneurs who invented and popularized hot chicken. He is an engaged citizen of the world, who speaks four languages. His chicken has won dedicated fans from Australia as well as visitors from America and other parts of the globe. He is proud to say his beans, greens, and macaroni and cheese are faithful to the recipes he learned in the South. He likes to feed people, and to eat his cooking is a joyful thing.

But American fried chicken will always be tied inextricably to race and the violent, egregious exploitation of black Americans. Outside of the United States, this complex food can seem dissociated from its history.

“First they want to make sure that it’s delicious,” says McGlone of his diners at Belles. “And then they want to make sure that it has provenance, and then they want to make sure that it’s a continuation, that it means something.”

And there, McGlone has landed on the two questions that give all food consequence: Is it tasty? And does it mean something?

With fried chicken, the taste question is moot. Vegetarians notwithstanding, everyone loves fried chicken. Some fried chicken is better than others, but even bad fried chicken is better than none. Everyone who wants to cook fried chicken should. Everyone who wants to sell American-style fried chicken ought to be able to give the market a try. Fried chicken is eaten all over the planet. People from completely opposite sides of the socioeconomic and political spectrum, who might agree on almost nothing, can agree that fried chicken is good.

And so, with its deliciousness unquestionable, all that remains is what fried chicken means. No matter where it’s cooked, American fried chicken carries the learning and effort and skill of a people who persevered against unfathomable odds. That Southern hue follows fried chicken all the way to Melbourne and Sydney, too. And therein lies an incredible opportunity. If everyone can agree to share fried chicken, then perhaps that’s a step toward sharing the weight of its complex legacy as well.

Excerpted with permission from You and I Eat the Same, edited by Chris Ying (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018.

Osayi Endolyn is a writer and editor whose work often explores food, culture, and identity. Her work appears in Eater, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Oxford American, The Splendid Table, and Gravy, among others. Southern Living named her to their list of 30 Women Moving Southern Food Forward. She received the 2018 James Beard Award for column writing.


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