Comedian Chris Rock and feminist writer bell hooks have something in common.
Both have the ability to answer grave misrepresentations of the Black experience with piercing retorts. Both came to mind after reading a recent article (“We’ve Officially Reached Peak Fried Chicken Sandwich Mania”) in Bon Appetit’s first-ever Culture Issue, in which the popular food magazine extended a barrage of accolades for the concept of the fried chicken sandwich, extolling honors from the “sandwich of the year” to the “sandwich of the millennium.”
Respectfully, the article includes a recent historic timeline of the fried chicken sandwich, various reviews and references to several chain restaurant offerings, but not one mention of Black chefs, restaurants or family traditions. Instead, fast-food chicken franchise Chick-fil-A’s founder, the late S. Truett Cathy, is credited for providing the first fried chicken sandwich in the 1960s, completely disregarding and disrespecting the same fried chicken sandwich our parents and grandparents grew up enjoying many decades before and subsequently passed down in soulful appreciation.
As a lifelong fan of fried chicken and fried chicken sandwiches, my inner cultural critic sent me to the Black newspaper archives to prove this article wrong. There, I found several rebuttals to any Chick-Fil-A invention, including a small ad in Topeka’s Kansas Whip newspaper for a fried chicken sandwich special featured at the Booker T Café all the way back in 1936.
Why have so many Black influences and contributions been erased from America’s culinary repertoire? Perhaps the answer can be found in bell hook’s 1992 essay “Black Looks: Race and Representation Within Consumer Culture,” in which she says, “[E]thnicity becomes seasoning to spice up the dull white palate. It is something to be eaten, consumed and quickly forgotten.”
It’s easy to dismiss something thought to be as insignificant as chicken, but University of Maryland professor Psyche Williams-Forson said it best in her award-winning book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power. “Objects are politicized by the meanings inscribed in their uses and associations historically and contemporarily. This is particularly salient to an object like chicken that is perceived to be generic in its uses among many races and ethnicities of people. The meaning that chicken holds for Black people are as diverse as they are.”
This solidified my need to know more. Further archival research on the fried chicken trail led me to a 1968 issue of Time magazine (October 11) that included an article that described Kentucky Fried Chicken founder, the late “Colonel” Harland Sanders, as a supporter, contributor and possible running mate during Alabama Governor George Wallace’s presidential bid. Sanders, who popularized franchising the fried chicken chain, sold the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Utah in 1952. By 1964, Sanders sold the company and its “secret finger-licking-good” recipe, which supposedly included pressure cookers and 11 herbs and spices, to former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown and a group of investors for about $2 million.
While the Chick-Fil-A and KFC empires have flourished, little is known about early African-American enterprises in the fried chicken game or how our Black contributions have been overlooked and often ignored for decades. Drive in to any KFC today and you’ll spot the promotion for their new “Nashville Hot” chicken. This spicy style fried chicken actually has its origins in Nashville’s Black neighborhood as evidenced by blogger Rachel L. Martin on her bittersouthernor.com blog. “[A]lthough I’m a second-generation Middle Tennessean, the daughter of a Nashville native, I had never eaten hot chicken—or even heard of it—before I moved away for graduate school in 2005.”
Although Nashville hot chicken may be labeled a culinary obsession today, this newly minted “hometown signature dish” teased Black taste buds some 80 years ago when Thornton Price III opened the original BBQ Chicken Shack in Nashville and found local success featuring his spicy fried chicken seasoned with cayenne pepper. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until just three years ago that the James Beard Foundation acknowledged the restaurant, now run by Prince’s great-niece, Andre Prince Jeffries, as an “American classic.”
Even Black celebrities tried but failed to compete with the established White chicken chains. In the late 1960s, civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, an attorney, minister and the first Black criminal judge in Tennessee, left the bench to become president of Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken Systems, a new chain of fried chicken franchises designed to go up against Kentucky Fried Chicken. Based in Nashville and financed by local entrepreneur John Jay Hooker, Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken franchises boasted “tongue-licking good” yard birds. The business went under in 1972 with many franchises citing the inability to compete with KFC as the cause of their lackluster sales.
Although Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken didn’t have the indelible success of KFC, Jackson’s recipes live on as an example of the deeply rooted influence African-Americans have had in American cuisine. It’s no surprise that mainstream recognition has been lackluster, but it’s up to us to continue to foster an appreciation for our shared cultural roots. Here’s a recipe from Jackson (whose cooking was said to be just as good as her singing), adapted from her 1970 cookbook, Mahalia Jackson Cooks Soul.
Southern Fried Chicken
2/3 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/4 cup yellow corn meal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each: pepper, paprika
1 3-pound fryer, cut up
Melt enough shortening to cover the bottom of a Dutch oven, three-inches deep. Lightly beat egg and milk together. Sift flour, corn meal, baking powder, salt, pepper and paprika together. Add slowly to milk-egg mixture to form a batter.
Dip chicken in batter and fry in hot fat until nicely browned on both sides. Cover tightly and lower heat. Continue cooking for 45 to 50 minutes or until chicken is tender. Remove and drain.