Several theories exist on the origins of fried chicken. A popular one is that it originated with the Scottish, who fried unseasoned chicken parts in fat as far back as the Middle Ages; another points to the West African traditions of frying seasoned, battered chicken in palm oil. Still others trace it to China or the Middle East. The fourth-century Roman cookbook Apicius has a recipe for deep-fried chicken called Pullum Frontonianum.
The earliest known written recipe for American-style fried chicken was published in a British cookbook in 1747 — Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” According to First We Feast’s “An Illustrated History of Fried Chicken in America” by Adrian Miller, “That recipe … called for floured pieces of chicken to be fried in hog’s lard. Glasse’s cookbook was wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s no surprise that her recipe became a prized way to make fried chicken in many well-to-do American households.”
Whoever made it first, it’s undeniable that African-Americans perfected the dish in the American South. To the region, the West African slaves brought their seasonings, and the Scottish brought their frying method. What resulted is today one of the ultimate American comfort foods.
“When we’re talking about classical, I think there’s a lot of different ways you could go,” says Gerald Ford, CMC, executive chef of the Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Georgia and captain of ACF Culinary Team USA. “I started thinking of quintessential regional American dishes. Fried chicken is something we do on the regular here at the plantation. … It’s very homestyle, very classical. It touches people’s souls a little.”
To create this version, Ford marinated the chicken, breaded it with a seasoned flour and fried it in a cast-iron pan in lard he’d rendered from pig fat. On the side he served collard greens, pickled vegetables and Carolina rice grits (a crop that, in the 1920s, was grown on what are now the grounds of the Ford Plantation). You can’t get much more classical than that.
What was once Henry Ford’s winter home, now called the Main House, itself teeters on the edge between classical and modern. The grand home was built in the 1930s along the banks of the Ogeechee River in Greek revival style — with air conditioning and an elevator.
Today, much of the Main House’s décor remains classic, but sleek bathroom renovations and other choice updates lend an elegant, contemporary feel. When Chef Ford (no relation to the famous Ford who now lends his name to the property) came on board with the Plantation last August, he also pushed to modernize the tiny kitchen and the grounds. Currently, Ford and the Club’s gardeners are in the process of building a swath of raised beds to grow fresh ingredients right on property.
When considering a modern version of fried chicken, Ford thought about how chefs often try to recreate a childhood memory exactly, rather than exploring the possibilities of the flavors. “It’s a good candidate to be made modern,” Ford says. “We kinda miss that mark as chefs when we transition something that ties into a really great memory from Mom. It can lack that personality.”
To give the dish the personality it deserves while maintaining the “spirit” of the dish, Ford drew inspiration from his surroundings (as generations of Southern cooks have done before him). “It makes the most sense to me to use the closest available local ingredients. They travel less, they tend to be in season,” Ford says. “The South, in season, has some amazing produce and products. I wanted to highlight those things.”
He puréed the collard greens in a blender with some chlorophyll. After marinating the chicken, he treated it like a galantine and poached it in a combi oven, then fried it.
“I used the same process of breading and frying that I would have normally done,” he says. “I cut the vegetables a little bit smaller than I normally would. I consider the modern a little more refined — instead of larger pickled vegetables and bigger chunks that require the guest to use a fork and knife, I carved the veggies a little more.”
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