July 6 was National Fried Chicken Day; a day that celebrates a flag-waving dish as diverse as the United States itself. Maybe your fondest childhood memories are of Finger Lickin’ Good Family Buckets, or variations like buttermilk-battered, Nashville hot, cornflake-crusted or Cuban mojo fried chicken. Maybe you were lucky enough to eat fried chicken with waffles. In any case, Americans might love their pizza and burgers, but fried chicken is a national obsession.
Chickens were first brought to the colonies by English settlers in 1607, and the Europeans who followed had been frying chicken in fat for centuries; but it was enslaved black Americans, with their West African culinary traditions, who would help elevate fried chicken to its gold standard preeminence.
Historically, it was the chicken that granted black Americans some semblance of self-determination and enterprise that they couldn’t have otherwise enjoyed. As far back as the 17th century, it had been illegal for enslaved blacks to own, raise or sell most livestock. But they could raise and sell chickens, and effectively operate their own cottage industries, because chickens were scrap meat that offered no real chance of buying one‘s freedom. It‘s ironic, then, that fried chicken specifically, and not creative black enterprise, would take root as a black stereotype that still persists today.
Even if you don’t follow golf, many people remember the golfer who offered to invite Tiger Woods over to his house and make him some fried chicken. But fried chicken is not the real issue. In his memoir Notes from a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi, the Rising Star Chef of the Year at the 2019 James Beard Foundation Awards, recounts the evening he cooked an elegant meal for the white TV producer of a cooking show. He had made an elegant Brussels sprouts petal salad, port-glazed quail with corn velouté and cauliflower polenta. Her reaction was fabulously articulate.
The dinner was amazing, amazing. It‘s clear you know how to cook. The problem is, Kwame, and I hate to say it, but America isn‘t ready for a black chef who makes this kind of food.
To clarify, she added, “Fine dining: velouté. What the world wants to see is a black chef making black food, you know. Fried chicken and cornbread and collards.“
Wow, a black chef being told to remember his place in the 21st century. Over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson‘s chef de cuisine, James Hemings, became the first French-trained American to prepare elaborate menus in both France and at Monticello. Virtually lost to history is the story of Emeline Jones, a slave-turned-cook and caterer in numerous New York clubs (and at the John Daly Clubhouse at Long Branch), whose classic dishes were so revered that she received job offers from the wealthy and famous, including three American presidents. Emeline Jones
And black celebrity chefs date back to the 1980s. I’m thinking of Patrick Clark of Odeon and The Hay Adams fame. We’ve all heard of Carla Hall of ABC’s The Chew, but today, numerous black chefs and pastry chefs are setting the highest standards for cuisine. Most notably, Mariyah Russell, who became, in 2019, the first Black American chef to be awarded a Michelin star, at the Chicago restaurant, Kikko and Kumiko. There are too many more to list here, like Executive Pastry Chef Lasheeda Perry of the Beverly Wilshire, Four Seasons in Los Angeles and vegetable maestro (and award-winning James Beard Foundation chef) Bryant Terry. There’s also a growing number of award-winning sommeliers, like Andre Mack, who went on to become Head Sommelier at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan.
Mack, who is now a winemaker and wine educator, summarized it best when he said, “Everybody’s like, ‘How is it being a black man in such a white industry?’ It’s no different than any other day of my life. Every day I show up, I challenge the status quo. Hey, I’m here. That’s how I choose to confront it.” Andre Mack Haute cuisine aside, there’s a treasure trove of classically-trained, and not so classically-trained, black chefs putting in the hard work. Recipes And some do also embrace their roots, continuing to cook the food they grew up with, and thank God that often includes their own twist on fried chicken.