Southern Cast Iron

Faces of Fried Chicken

“There has always been a debate among African American chefs about serving fried chicken or claiming it as our own,” says Todd Richards, chef and owner of Richards’ Southern Fried in Atlanta. The debate he speaks of is formidable. In one corner you have economic empowerment and in the other, grotesque stereotypes that still haunt African Americans decades later.

Sometime, somewhere among the almost 1 million square miles that make up the American South, fried chicken became the embodiment of the region’s cuisine, the allure of each crispy, juicy bite wielding a picture of life below the Mason-Dixon Line. No one knows exactly who the first person was to deep-fry a breaded bird in fat, but in the South, many suspect it was enslaved Africans who borrowed the technique of frying food in hot oil from their homeland. Back then, it was simply breaded and fried in lard, the kind of meal so basic that it needed no written recipe. It wasn’t the deliciously spiced, golden-skinned fried chicken we find in restaurants today, nor was it as popular. In her book , Psyche Williams-Forson stresses that chicken, which she says has been part of America since or before Christopher Columbus, was the “least desirable form of livestock that was brought, primarily as provisions for traders.” Most chickens weren’t kept in henhouses, but rather allowed to run free, which is where names like yard bird originate, or what Williams-Forson points to—barnyard or dunghill fowl. Chickens were considered dirty, but, on the other hand, they were inexpensive, easy to raise, and a good source of meat. For African Americans, the

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