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Article / The Fried Chicken Stereotype
Imagine if I were to ask you to compare any dish from your ancestral homeland, to a similar dish from a nearby region, country, or even city. I am sure that you would jump to say with utmost certainty that the food hailing from your region is superior. Is it because you have objectively compared the methods of preparation, seasoning, textures and aromas that have gone into each of the dishes? Of course not. We love the food that we do because at its core, the value of food isn’t within the physical preparation, but in the centuries of culture, struggle, and beauty that manifests itself within each dish.
This thought is one of the inspirations behind my YouTube series: The Origin of Food. I believe that if we use food as a common ground point of discussion, we can achieve a far more effective and positive way of educating people about cultures.
The fried chicken stereotype: a stereotype so common that we were all aware of it growing up. The stereotype that Black people, specifically African Americans, love eating fried chicken. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any negative connotations with this statement. However, we all know that it is generally said with a condescending and derogatory tone. So how did this stereotype come about? Furthermore, what if I told you that if you read into the history of fried chicken, you would actually come to see it as a remarkable symbol for resistance.
Going back over excerpts from African American slave journals, we can gather a fair image of the type of diet they were fed by the slave owners. Most of the meat which they would have been given would be discarded from the main cuts that the owners would eat. Undesirable cuts such as entrails of pigs, neck and rear cuts of cattle etc. Chickens would be the best chance of having a decent cut of meat as they were the cheapest animals for the plantation owners to discard. Enslaved people that were given such a lowly ration would have to do a lot to it in order to make it both palatable, and highly calorific. This is where frying comes into it. By taking pieces of seasoned, breaded chicken and frying them in cauldrons of hot oil over fires, they were able to increase the value of this and aid their chances of survival. While this may seem like a strong form of survival on their plantation, it is important to remember that many cooking techniques which the enslaved Africans had learnt, was not from the US, but from their motherland. West Africans already had a tradition of frying meat in hot oil, cooking with yams and native greens etc.
We can see through this that no matter how much of their identity the slave owners tried to strip away, the core elements of their culture could never be removed. Where they used yams in Africa, they found sweet potatoes in America, and collard greens became their newfound plant. The resilience of African Americans was so powerful that they created an entire cuisine off the back of the oppression which they faced.
Fast forward to the days of emancipation and African Americans were faced with the challenge of surviving in a country which still didn’t view them as free. While they may have been able to walk freely, they were restricted from certain rights such as owning cattle.
This meant that many entrepreneurs raised chickens on farms, selling their meat and also frying chicken as a means of business. In the face of oppression, the success grew within the African American community, something which was met with resistance from the right wing. There were many attempts to paint this narrative that African Americans had better lives as slaves, and as freed individuals were lazy and uncouth.
In 1915, a film called ‘Birth of a Nation’ was released; a film which came from the minds of the KKK and which was pivotal in the creation of the fried chicken stereotype. There is a scene within it which features ‘The Negro party in control of the State House of Representatives’. Through this, the viewer sees an awful depiction of African Americans with their bare feet up over court room desks, eating greasy fried chicken with their bare hands, and behaving in an ‘uncivilised’ way. It is important to note that the average white American during this time had not owned slaves and were simply forming their understanding of Black people through the way in which they were being depicted by the elite class of the US. This film would go on to undermine the success of African Americans and create a vilifying caricature which would go on for over a century. A food which was so powerful and significant, completely flipped around to become a negative stereotype which bears significance even today.
It is not enough for us to teach the next generation the simple lesson, ‘don’t be racist’, simply because it does not erase these latent stereotypes that exist within us all. Instead, we must look into the stories surrounding these misconceptions, and not just unlearn them, but to relearn the true history.
The truth is that soul food is one of the greatest acts of defiance and resilience in the face of oppression. Where African Americans had no voice, no freedom, and no power; soul food existed as the steppingstone to freedom, with fried chicken at the forefront.
Yusuf’s Fried Chicken Burger Recipe:
- 8 Boneless Chicken Thighs
- 1 Tbsp Salt
- 1 Tbsp Black Pepper
- 1 Tbsp Cayenne Pepper
- 1 Tspn Garlic Powder
- 1 Tspn Onion Powder
- 3 Tbspn Mayo
- 1 Tbspn Siracha
- 1 Tbspn Honey
- 500ml Buttermilk
- 250g Plain Flour
- Brioche Buns
- Baby Gem Lettuce
- 1L Vegetable Oil
- Mix the mayo, sriracha, and honey together to form a sweet and spicy mayo.
- Add half the dry rub to the chicken thighs and mix half in with the flour.
- Once marinated, add the chicken into buttermilk. Once coated it can be used straight away or left to tenderise overnight
- Coat the chicken pieces in flour, making sure that it is thoroughly covered.
- Heat the oil to a medium high heat, and drop the chicken in, in small batches. Fry until golden on both sides and the chicken is thoroughly cooked.
- Toast the brioche buns and spread with an even layer of mayo on both sides.
- Slice the gherkins lengthways and layer on the buns along with the lettuce. Add the chicken on top and serve.