Tag Archives: fried chicken

Basic fare: fried chicken

Actually chicken, however it was prepared, was not so basic until well into the 20th century. Only then were poultry raising and marketing streamlined to produce the tender, year-round, low-cost product which made chain restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chicken Delight feasible. Until after World War II chicken was not terribly popular in most restaurants, often being rather expensive yet tough and stringy.

The chicken found on the menus of most American eating places of the 18th and 19th centuries was not fried, but roasted, boiled, or broiled. Fried chicken seemed to be limited to the South for many decades. The first instance of fried chicken in a restaurant that I have found occurred at the 1876 Centennial fair in Philadelphia where one of the concessions specialized in Southern dishes such as fried chicken and hominy. Despite this, fried chicken did not catch on in restaurants for some time. It could be found mainly in small, down-home style cafés run and patronized by Afro-Americans. An example in the 1890s was a small cabin called the Café Du Chat Noir in Washington, D.C., run by a former slave who went by the name Madame Early. A bit later, in San Francisco, a black restaurant provided possum and yams in season, corn pone, watermelon and chicken, fried, boiled, or roasted. Another type of early 20th-century fried chicken venue was the Chinese restaurant.

The third kind of eating place that made a specialty of fried chicken was the country tea room. In fact chicken of all kinds – fried, in salads, or creamed on waffles – dominated tea room menus. It’s likely that the substantial increase of women restaurant patrons in the 20th century, tea rooms’ main clientele, was behind the rise in chicken’s popularity. Restaurateurs often noted that while men preferred steak, women favored chicken. Taking the family for a Sunday automobile ride into the countryside for a fried chicken dinner at a tea room or family-style inn was a major form of entertainment for millions of Americans well into the 1950s.

The reason that fried chicken became popular primarily in out-of-the-way places, whether Afro-American, Chinese, or tea rooms, may have been due to these places having access to freshly killed chickens at a time when so much poultry served in restaurants had been ruined by long stays in cold storage. Cold storage chicken –- i.e., frozen — so dominated the market that in 1909 California law required restaurants to inform patrons if their chicken came from that source. On the other hand, restaurants run by blacks and Chinese often kept live chickens in cages, while rural tea rooms had local suppliers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Fried chicken blues

The 1960s were a boom decade for marrying fast food to franchise businesses christened with celebrity names. Chicken seemed like the up-and-coming successor to hamburgers in a business more about marketing concepts and stock quotations than food or hospitality. Following the success of Harlan Sanders, whose 500-unit Kentucky Fried Chicken chain mushroomed to 1,700 when he sold to a corporate buyer, entrepreneurs looked around for other celebrities to hitch their schemes to. Performers Minnie Pearl, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, and Eddy Arnold, along with many sports figures, were persuaded to lend their names, rarely assuming any further involvement.

Minnie Pearl’s Chicken System, Inc., was the creation of Tennessean John Jay Hooker whose political ambitions included becoming governor, then president. Minnie Pearl, a Grand Ole Opry comedien whose frumpy stage persona suggested down-home eating, covered the white market, while gospel singer Mahalia Jackson lent her name to the black-owned side of the enterprise aimed at black inner-city consumers. Around the same time, ca. 1969, “king of soul” James Brown figureheaded the Gold Platter soul food chain which failed to get beyond the pilot stage in Macon, Georgia. Minnie’s and Mahalia’s ventures, too, lasted only a few years. Hooker, chicken systems mastermind, did not make it into office, but Benjamin Hooks, co-owner of Mahalia Jackson’s Gloree-Fried chicken (carryout only), went on to become executive director of the NAACP.

Though hailed as a restaurateur, Jackson received royalties for the use of her name but did not choose to invest in the Mahalia Jackson Chicken System, Inc. Perhaps she did not approve of its slogan: “It’s Gloree-Fried, and that’s the gospel truth.” The Minnie Pearl system totaled several hundred locations at its peak but it’s not clear how many outlets the Jackson chain comprised, probably many fewer. Chicago had only two units, paired with gas stations. The chain also operated in Memphis, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Detroit. In addition to chicken, menus included fish sandwiches, sweet potatoes, fried pies, and a ‘Soul Bowl’ of chicken giblets in gravy on rice.

Minnie Pearl’s chicken — and later roast beef sandwiches — business went bankrupt in 1970.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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