Pizza is sold by the slice. Hamburgers are wrapped up one at a time. Tacos arrive in pairs or trios, twirled in foil or arranged like overlapping petals on paper plates. But among America’s most coveted foods, fried chicken is different. Piping-hot portions are sold by the bucket; wings, by the dozen. You don’t order a single drumstick or thigh the same way you don’t order one crawfish or a lone nacho. Fried chicken is best consumed by the bird, by the pile, by the feast.
Fried chicken is for gatherings. It’s the stuff of church picnics and family reunions and backyard cookouts and tailgates and after-school boba runs and Super Bowl parties and dive bars and all the other places we choose to come together with food and friends and family. The preparations may vary, but the rule is a constant: Where there is fried chicken, there is community.
Eater reached out to photographers across the country to document the various ways in which people gather over mounds of crispy fried poultry. There are the veteran surfers refueling after a day on Hawai‘i’s waves, New York karaoke kids crushing lacquered wings between duets, Los Angeles workers on their way home scarfing pollo y papas fritas at the city’s Guatemalan night market, massive parish picnics hosted by the Czech community in Central Texas, a family-style backyard housewarming of sorts in Atlanta.
This is what community in America looks like, when anchored by glistening, gilded mountains of flesh and bone.
By Bill Esparza, photography by Wonho Frank Lee
“Give me five orders to go, two pieces [of chicken] each,” says Luís, a jornalero on his way home from work. He’s making a quick stop at the Guatemalan Night Market, an informal street food fair known to LA’s Guatemalan community — most of whom are Indigenous Maya — as the Buffet Guatemalteco, or Guatemalan Buffet. The curbs around Sixth and Bonnie Brae streets are crowded with vendors and their smoky grills cooking up tamales, recados (stews), antojitos (snacks), soups, churrasco (grilled meats), and the crowd favorite: pollo y papas fritas, heaping piles of fried chicken and thick seasoned french fries dressed in swirls of mayo, ketchup, and picante, a mild green hot sauce.
Ever since Cuban immigrant Domingo Moreira opened El Caporal, considered the first fried chicken and fries concept in Guatemala in the 1960s, plus the global success of Pollo Campero, a Guatemala-based fried chicken franchise, pollo y papas has been served all over Guatemala and wherever Guatemalans gather. Most nights in LA that’s here, where Isabél, a street vendor from Solalá, Guatemala, dips her chicken in a well-seasoned batter before frying it to order and dousing it and the fries liberally with Bijol, an annatto powder condiment. The minute she gets ahead of the orders, her customers clean her out again. “It’ll be just a few minutes; I’m waiting on fries,” she says.
A hungry mob surrounds Isabel’s stand, where secret spices, a little mustard, milk, flour, and Bijol yield flavorful reddish-brown fried chicken. Eaten with tasty fries and corn tortillas, it becomes a filling, inexpensive meal that’s the pride of Guatemala.
By Rae Sojot, photography by Michelle Mishina
In the parking lot fronting Oʻahu’s famed surf breaks Ala Moana Bowls and Kaisers, a group of friends known as the Kaiser Surf Crew set up their weekly potluck. Under a grove of milo trees, the men transform folding tables and truck beds into a makeshift cooking station and buffet.
It’s a prime social zone where the crew surfs, plays music, and potlucks together on a regular basis. “During the summer, you’ll find us here five days a week,” says Dustin Fernandez.
With nearly a quarter of Hawaiʻi’s population identifying itself as multiracial, the foodscape naturally reflects the islands’ ethnic diversity. At any local gathering — a baby’s first luau, a graduation party, or a pau hana Friday — expect to see a lineup of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and American fare, plus more. More often than not, that spread also includes Zippy’s fried chicken, a crowd favorite from a beloved local chain.
Today fried chicken is on full display at the Kaiser Surf Crew’s potluck, alongside poke and salad, steamed ahi and falafel. Sliced pineapple and Spam musubi squeeze in next to powdered doughnuts and namasu. At the center of it all, though, is the Zippy’s — a convenient post-surf selection: no utensil or plate required.
More than the spread, the Kaiser Surf Crew values the sense of community their potlucks foster. Kupuna (elders) sit on driftwood benches, chatting and fixing fishing nets. Surfers swing by to talk story en route to the water. One friend, on an impromptu visit from LA, arrives straight from the airport just to say hi. The Kaiser Surf Crew’s potluck is representative of Hawaiʻi’s aloha spirit, and true to local living, all are welcome to eat. “Everyone helps or brings something to enjoy,” Reid Taira says. “We don’t mind feeding as much people as we can even outside our circle of ohana [family].”
New York City
Story and photography by Gary He
New York City’s Koreatown on a Friday night has a density and energy level that rival even that of Times Square. Teenagers throng chains like Tous Le Jours and Paris Baguette from the moment school lets out, while tourists and regulars cluster along the sidewalks to get into longtime neighborhood staples like Kunjip and Wonjo. In the pandemic era, the action has spilled onto the street, with tables, food, and music adding to the chaotic spirit.
But for those in the know, the real party is inside a nondescript office building in the middle of the block, five floors above the street-level bustle. Turntable LP is the marriage of New York’s Korean fried chicken craze of the mid-2010s and noraebang, the Korean concept of private singing rooms that, stateside, is widely referred to as karaoke. Decorated with thousands of vinyl LPs, tour posters, and vintage speakers, the restaurant has a feel reminiscent of the popular record bars in Seoul’s Gangnam district and beyond.
The main dining area and bar act as a waiting room of sorts, where groups of 20-somethings pregame by washing down fried chicken with lychee martinis and beer from glowing towers cooled by dry ice before being ushered into one of the three noraebang rooms. Renditions of songs ranging from Celine Dion to the Pokemon theme soon follow, along with more platters of fried chicken, which are slathered in a hot and spicy sauce or a milder soy-garlic version.
Some say the fried chicken is so good, they come here just to eat. “I go to a lot of Korean spots,” says regular Deepak Motiram as he enjoys a mixed tray of a dozen wings. “I don’t get flavors like this.”
By Brittany Britto Garley, photography by Kit MacAvoy
In April, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Moulton, Texas, celebrated Easter with its annual fried chicken picnic, inviting people from across the region to chow down and raise money for the church. German and Czech communities settled in Texas in the 1800s, searching for economic stability. As a result, there’s now a vibrant culture in Central Texas filled with distinct food traditions, like kolaches, klobasnek, and fried chicken picnics that draw thousands to small towns like Moulton.
These mass gatherings began several decades ago, when — according to Harvey Kloesel, owner of Kloesel’s Steakhouse and Bar — the chicken was cooked over charcoal in a kettle grill. Georgia Cerny, 83, says she remembers attending fried chicken picnics with her family since she was a little girl. “It’s the Czech way,” she says. “It means we all get together and celebrate our heritage,” adds Mary Lou Dierschke, an administrative assistant for the church.
The setup is elaborate. Community members gather as early as 4 a.m. to begin prepping the sides — coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and green beans — and more than 6,500 pieces of chicken. The mostly man-led kitchen creates an assembly line, with roles for sorting and seasoning the chicken with salt and pepper, before covering the poultry in milk and seasoned flour, and then dropping the pieces into piping-hot fryers. “We’ve used the same seasonings and battering techniques for the past 40 years,” says Steve Blahuta, who began overseeing the church’s tradition in 1988 after being invited by his wife’s family. “It helps to have great people batter the chicken that know what they’re doing… It’s just a nice homestyle tradition.”
Story and photography by Lynsey Weatherspoon
Who got the biggest piece of chicken at the table? Hot sauce or honey? Sides or no sides? Why do kids mostly eat the wings?
This Memorial Day, we sat in my backyard, enjoying music and libations and celebrating my move into a new house. As everyone told stories on the porch, I was frying chicken in the kitchen and reminiscing about the first time I ever saw my mom doing the same in our Birmingham home. The aromas of grease and spices brought about a familiar sense of safety as I cooked for my friends and family, but also thoughts of how Black people were once ridiculed for eating this dish in public, all while helping perfect what’s become a signature American meal.
Fried chicken has sustained me more times than I can count. Like the time a pile of cold leftover chicken kept my whole family fed on a long flight home from Florida. Or the time I was returning from a Thanksgiving trip and everything was closed, and Popeyes was my saving grace. Or the countless times I’ve had it delivered to my home after a long day of driving and making photographs. No matter the time, no matter the place, this dish so often mislabeled and generalized within my community has never failed to provide.
Life in the South has its own complications, and food shouldn’t be one of them. So, in this moment, as we blessed my new house, we also chose to honor and reclaim a food that brings comfort to some and a sense of home to many. Like generations before us, we gathered around a table full of smiles and sides and paid homage to the folks who taught us the fine art of frying chicken.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award winning writer covering food, drinks, and culture in Latin America, and Latino gastronomy the United States, and is a leading Chicano voice for food travel shows and documentaries.
Rae Sojot is a culture writer from Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi.
Michelle Mishina is a Hawaiʻi-based lifestyle photographer.
Gary He is a two-time James Beard Award loser/winner based in Brooklyn, NY.
Kit MacAvoy is a photojournalist living near Charleston, South Carolina.
Lynsey Weatherspoon is a photographer based in the Atlanta and Birmingham who loves hot dogs, cool weather, and collecting books about Black photographers.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein