Fried chicken has a distinctive place in African American culture. How did this come to be? Soul Food expert Adrian Miller explains.

By Adrian Miller
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Meredith

Sunday Fried Chicken

Not until I was an adult did I learn that African Americans use "Gospel Bird" and "Sunday Cluck" as nicknames for fried chicken. Yet, as soon as I heard those old-school nicknames, they immediately resonated with me.

If you're African American, and you're making a meal on Sunday, fried chicken is often the entrée of choice. A lot of that has to do with African American church culture, and the spiritual connotation chickens already carried with them when they first arrived in West Africa a thousand years ago. The gradual transformation of fried chicken from a typical Sunday entrée to an essential part of a Sunday meal is a process that I call the "integration of church and plate." By no means am I saying that African Americans are the only ones who have fried chicken for Sunday dinner, but it has a distinctive place in our culture. How did this happen?

How We Came to Eat Chickens

Sometime between 7500 b.c.e. and 5000 b.c.e., people living in South and Southeast Asia domesticated the jungle fowl that is the ancestor of modern-day chickens. The locals who first raised chickens considered them divine and highly valued the animals for their ability to predict the future. (After all, no other animal announces the arrival of the sunrise.) Divination was so prized in the ancient world that some experts believe it was this trait, and not the chicken's value as food, that spurred humans to domesticate chickens in the first place. And since they can't fly well, chickens were transported to other parts of the world by traders.

As merchants traveled, they introduced these strange, wondrous animals to potential customers. In order to close the deal, some traders talked about the chicken's fortune-telling prowess, some boasted about the thrill of cockfighting, and others advocated that chicken was just good eating. Whatever they said, it usually worked.

Chickens were an instant hit with the Arabs, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans. Because different cultures variably used chickens for food, entertainment, and religious purposes, a patchwork of chicken beliefs coexisted throughout Eurasia. When Arab traders introduced chickens into West Africa by 1000 c.e., their debut was nothing short of sensational.

Chickens and Church

Impressed with the sacred reputation of chickens, West Africans used them in many of their ritual religious practices, and chicken was often on the short list of sanctified foods. Enslaved West Africans brought that culinary and religious association with them to the Americas.

The popularity of fried chicken at religious meals increased exponentially after Emancipation, thanks to the dominant role of the African American church. The church was the source of both spiritual life and social life in country and city life. In rural areas, this was mainly due to geographic isolation.

Church-related activities often guaranteed a crowd and good, clean fun. In the urban areas during Jim Crow segregation, the church was one of the few places where African Americans could safely gather to together in large numbers. Some preachers figured out early that they could garner thousands of followers by providing good food — especially fried chicken — after the worship service. In many cases, churches held fried chicken dinners for fundraisers, and operated restaurants featuring fried chicken. In all of these situations, they literally served up heaven on a platter.

A Special-Occasion Food

It's hard to imagine these days, but fried chicken wasn't always a readily-available, convenience food. It was so labor-intensive to prepare: A chicken had to be selected, caught, killed, plunged into scalding hot water to ease plucking the feathers, plucked, gutted, run over a fire to singe and remove the remaining pin feathers, butchered into large pieces, floured, and then fried. With all the prep work, fried chicken was by definition special-occasion food, and for most African Americans, special occasions were communal meals connected to their church.

Today, fried chicken is less about church and more about family. Even though it is a convenience food that can be eaten any time of the week, fried chicken has been, and continues to be, a mainstay at family gatherings. Fried chicken is a favorite for family reunions, but there's nothing quite like loved ones who regularly get together for Sunday dinner with some fried chicken beckoning from the middle of the table. This is where fried chicken really shines. Even though high-end chefs like David Chang and Thomas Keller are getting a lot of press these for their restaurant-made fried chicken, fried chicken's cultural momentum remains strong in African American homes — especially when a venerable fried chicken cook is making the dish from scratch. That certainly deserves an "Amen!"

"This recipe is from my grandmother and great grandmother's family." —Tanya Lewis

Fonzoe Cotto

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About Adrian Miller

Adrian Miller is a graduate of Stanford University and Georgetown University Law School. A culinary historian and a certified barbecue judge, Adrian has lectured around the country on such topics as Black Chefs in the White House, chicken and waffles, hot sauce, kosher soul food, red drinks, soda pop, and soul food.