What does it take for a dish or a food to be considered American? Is there something inherent in the seasonings, the ingredients, or the presentation that makes it ours? Or is it just something most everyone’s tried, or at least would recognize on a glowing fast-food menu? National dishes are particularly tricky in this country where one’s eating habits are so deeply dictated by their individual experience — something we know varies widely depending on location, ethnicity, cultural background, socioeconomic status, and plain ol’ taste. Depending on those variables, your idea of a defining American dish might look like apple pie, macaroni and cheese, a New York slice, a Big Mac, a crunchy taco, chop suey, gumbo, or a Twinkie. But is there, in fact, some singular food that connects all of our vast and varied cultures, across state lines and borders? I would argue yes, there is: a plate of crackling, battered, piping-hot, golden-crispy fried chicken.
It’s been said that anywhere a yardbird is found, somebody has probably fried it. And while fried chicken is indeed one of the globe’s most recognizable feats of cooking, eaten across continents and countries, it’s most closely associated with the uniquely amorphous culinary canon of this one. Like so many of the things that are considered American, fried chicken is really an amalgamation of traditions and techniques tweaked and perfected to fit particular palates. It is a dish that represents our past and our present as a country of immigrants and outsiders, and has been interpreted and reinterpreted time and time again, whether just to fill a belly, to find comfort, or to feed movements.
The country-fried, Southern-style, deep-fried chicken that has won the hearts of so many Americans was created alongside one of the country’s most horrific atrocities, the transatlantic slave trade, and serves as a reminder that often what gives us joy has deeper, darker origins. The story of how this style of fried chicken came to be is dredged in both European and African cultures. But in the process of the dish becoming one of America’s most popular meals, its history has been erased and weaponized against the people who helped create not only the recipe, but the societies that surround it.
Still, fried chicken has endured — in Black communities, but also as it connects with the country’s panoply of immigrant populations. Today, all types of Americans crave glossy Korean fried chicken wings, craggy karaage, tortas stuffed with Milanese cutlets, and juicy morsels of Taiwanese popcorn chicken just as much as a Southern-fried drumstick. Fried chicken has emerged as a tool of reclamation and celebration, an edible emblem of our grand diversity.
This collection of stories is part of that celebration. After all, it’s in telling the tales of our foodways — however painful — that we reaffirm our own narratives and honor our individuality. By acknowledging how it is that we all came to be eating at this imperfect table together, we are able to understand one another a little better. Fried chicken is American because it represents the trauma of our past but also the hopeful optimism and potential innovation of our future.
It also happens to be delightfully communal, closing the gaps between communities where so often words and policy fail. Whether through church gatherings, baby showers, Sunday suppers, weddings, funerals, political outings, or nostalgic memories of a family dinner around a bucket of KFC, fried chicken has the ability to connect and satisfy us on the most basic levels: hunger and the need for human interaction. Black Twitter and TikTok continue to (mostly) lovingly drag people over their frying techniques; many jokes have been lobbed between family and friends over who makes the best bird; recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. We live in a world that seems filled with so much uncertainty, but one thing remains inarguably true: The perfect piece of juicy, crunchy, golden fried chicken can bring a little greasy goodness and a lot of joy to life. — Amethyst Ganaway
So why is fried chicken the great American food?
The Best Fried Chicken in America
These 27 restaurants are the American experts in fried chicken
Pass the Drumsticks, Please
From Honolulu to Atlanta, when you need to feed a crowd, fried chicken is the answer
Inside America’s Fried Chicken Capital
Why Houston is the country’s top chicken town
The best fried chicken in:
Editorial leads: Lesley Suter, Jesse Sparks
Creative director: Nat Belkov
Contributors: Nicole Adlman, Monica Burton, Rachel Blumenthal, Hillary Dixler Canavan, Nadia Chaudhury, Martha Cheng, Adam Coghlan, Beth D’Addono, Serena Daniels, Madeleine Davies, Erin DeJesus, Mike Diago, Farley Elliott, Dayna Evans, Holly Fann, Ellen Fort, Missy Frederick, Debra Freeman, Feroz Gajia, Brittany Britto Garley, Gary He, Nickolaus Hines, Mona Holmes, Brenna Houck, Torsheta Jackson, Brooke Jackson-Glidden, Justine Jones, Matthew Kang, Janna Karel, JP Karwacki, Matt Kirouac, Matt Lardie, Todd Lazarski, Clair Lorell, Jeffy Mai, Bettina Makalintal, Alona Martinez, Amy McCarthy, Beth McKibben, Jonathan Nunn, Julia O’Malley, Lennie Omalza, Erin Perkins, Tierney Plumb, Anne Wolfe Postic, Lauren Saria, Jaya Saxena, Ron Scott, Ashok Selvam, Robert Sietsema, Courtney Smith, Rae Sojot, Jade Yamazaki Stewart, Kayla Stewart, Ryan Sutton, Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme, Douglas Trattner, Lynsey Weatherspoon, Candice Woo
Photography: Melissa Blackmon, Josh Brasted, Sydney Foster, Wonho Frank Lee, Gary He, Kit Macavoy, Michelle Mishina, Lynsey Weatherspoon, Arnea Williams, Clay Williams
Illustration: Michael Hoeweler, Nien-Ken Alec Lu, Keisha Okafor, Naomi Otsu, Saskia van de Geest
Editors: Nicole Adlman, Monica Burton, Nick Mancall-Bitel, Erin DeJesus, Brittany Britto Garley, Brenna Houck, Missy Frederick, Rebecca Flint Marx, Beth McKibben
Fact checking: Kelsey Lannin
Copy editors: Nadia Q. Ahmad, Leilah Bernstein, Rachel P. Kreiter
Engagement: Frances Dumlao
Project manager: Lesley Suter
Special thanks to: Lillehammer Allen, Cynthia Graber, William Joel, Amanda Kludt, Ellie Krupnick, Christian Moreno, Nicole Twilley, Stephanie Wu