It is a Sunday rite in my hometown of LaGrange, GA. Church lets out and you head to Big Chic, our local fried chicken shop. Orders are taken from a simple walk-up counter, and hungry Baptists sigh happily as they wait for red-check boxes of sizzling, crispy goodness for afternoon supper. The car ride home is sanctifying as the fried, salty aroma fills the air like a spirit.
America’s sweetheart dish is apple pie, but its savory counterpart is most certainly fried chicken. A piping-hot platter of floured-and-fried chicken is the Bruce Springsteen of foods. Golden breading, flavor-packed skin, and fall-off-the-bone meat—this is the workingman’s filet mignon. Brought over by British pilgrims, and seasoned to higher stature by African American cooks in the Deep South, fried chicken has its origin in country kitchens. But to say refined gourmands don’t relish a steaming bowl of drumsticks is foolish.
If fried chicken came with celebrity status, Atlanta chef and James Beard award nominee Linton Hopkins would be an A-lister. His Restaurant Eugene in Buckhead is quietly becoming a foodie pilgrimage site for the Sunday-only fried chicken entrée—if not for the taste, for its nod to history. When Hopkins decided to open his flagship café on Sundays, he wanted to do something special. His answer? Using the oldest fried chicken recipe on record: Mary Randolph’s prerefrigeration formula, catalogued in the 1824 edition of the cookbook The Virginia House-Wife.
“We doctor up our skillet with bacon bits, lard, peanut oil, and some Benton’s country ham trimmings,” Hopkins says. “Just like a southern cook would have done. What can I say, I’m a geek.”
From coast to coast, fried chicken is a craving that has withstood centuries of supperdom, never waning in the country’s tastes, while simultaneously allowing room for creative evolution. In Los Angeles, the popular Roscoe’s is a pioneer of the blended-meal tradition of chicken and waffles. (One fan is Larry King, who once showed up with a camera crew and Snoop Dogg.) And in Nashville, Prince’s Hot Chicken wins the fear-factor category with a cayenne concoction (born from an angry lover’s quarrel) that will make you sweat—then want another bite.
As our nation’s dish of choice, fried chicken outpaces the burger and out-souls the pizza pie. Whether made by small-town cooks or big-city chefs, whether eaten minutes after frying or as chilled leftovers from the cooler, this one dish, above all, holds a wistful and enduring draw: its ability to comfort.