KFC Fried chicken: crispy, golden and delicious – an infamous dish in the culinary south – but its history runs much deeper.

From drumsticks to boneless wings, the fried chicken market is expected to reach $8.25 billion by the year 2025. Sadly though, the history behind your KFC bucket is bleak. With its origins grounded in racism, today I’m taking you back to the roots of the synonymously South American dish.

When the Scots made their way over to the American south in the 18th century, they carried the tradition of fried chicken with them. Where they brought it over, it was the half a million enslaved west Africans that possessed the skill of frying and braising chicken. Forced to work in kitchens of slave plantations, these African Americans refined and perfected the art of fried chicken that we know and love today.

Back then, chicken was a seasonal dish, its cooking process being extensive and complex. Below pork and beef in the slave holder’s food chain, chicken was seen as the ‘weak man’s meat’, viewed as invaluable and worthless. As a result, in 1741, the slave code made it illegal for slaves to own horses, cows or pigs – only chickens were allowed. After the rest of the south naturally followed suit and chickens became increasingly sentimental to slaves, who traded their meat, eggs and feathers.

Fried chicken, as we’ve come to know it, is a result of these enslaved Africans only being allowed to keep chickens due to their small size because they didn’t take up too much space on their masters’ land. Golden, juicy chicken in all its goodness is a result of this painful history.

When African Americans left the south to head north, their food followed them, causing fried chicken to become their national dish. African American food critic Cheryl Ajamu said that she’s still glad ‘soul food’ is a part of her culture. The term was coined in the mid 1960’s when African American culture was commonly described as soul.

“Traditional foods for African Americans are what we call soul foods, as it’s so distinct to southern cuisine,” says Cheryl, 41. “Any home cooked food that has been passed down through generations with roots in the south is soul food: fried chicken being a big one, pork, fish, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, these are the examples that come to mind straight away.”

For the black community today, the history of soul food is still sour, its past embedded in slavery. Every meal has a story like this, a story important to the cultures that still eat them today. In this case, for the millions of African Americans, these stories of food leave a dark trail of the suffering of their ancestors.

Cheryl, (who swears by the hashtag #BlackGirlFoodCritic) uploads and reviews soul foods on her Instagram for her followers. Based in Detroit, United States, she promotes black-owned restaurants and businesses in Michigan. 

“When I’ve read about the history of soul food it’s hard. The history is dark and painful, of course, because of the way it came about.”

Cheryl ajamu

“Whites in the 20th century used fried chicken to degrade and stigmatise black people, so the history is triggering.”

So how has this tragic history transformed into globally adored cuisine? How is there now a national fried chicken day?

With America filled with black-owned hospitality businesses for foodies across the United States, black families celebrate the art they have so flawlessly perfected. They fill up on the jerk chicken meals made by their mothers and auntie’s and support their triumphs in the exciting and flavourful goodness.

Cheryl told Behind the Bite that despite its sad history, there is always a silver lining to every dark cloud – and this silver lining is taste!

“Blacks back then had to make the most of the less valuable meat, but this led to creative food. The paprika, mustard powder, cayenne pepper, fried chicken back then would only be served on special occasions, look at it now!

Cheryl thinks it’s important to acknowledge the painful history behind the chicken we eat.

“So if you can, go to your black owned chicken shops and restaurants wherever you are in the world and show some love to my black brothers and sisters”.

You’re probably thinking, if fried chicken originated from African American culture, why the F- is the world’s most famous chicken franchise owned by a white man?!

Behind the face of the bearded Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of the infamous KFC fast food-chain is an on-going controversy. Did Colonel Sanders steal his fried chicken recipe from a black woman?

Although there is no hard evidence, it is thought that he stole the original recipe from a black woman called Miss Childress. 

The African Diaspora Facebook page claimed: “Meet Mrs. Childress. Colonel Sanders stole his famous fried chicken recipe from a black woman named Mrs. Childress. He later paid her $1,200 for her recipe. KFC is worth 15 billion dollars today.”

Similarly, American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson hoped to challenge the famous food-chain, but Colonel Harland Sanders surpassed her efforts.

Despite the uncomfortable history behind fried chicken, the black community along-side black business owners have refused to be restricted by racism. Instead, they celebrate the dish that binds them together, at home and in restaurants.

Louise Lyons-Appiah is a Ghanaian-British mental health advocate who grew up in Gerrards Cross. With two Ghanaian parents and having lived there for two years, she shared with Behind the Bite what it meant for her to be black growing up, and how food allowed her to feel connected to her culture. 

“Food for me made me very happy, growing up in a different culture to what your parents were raised in can be quite complicated, and food can remind you of who you are and where you came from,” says Louise.

Food is a staple way to retain one’s cultural identity, by eating the same meals as your ancestors, it allows people to reconnect, expand your knowledge, and learn about different food traditions. For many, indulging in cuisine from their family’s origins helps them remember where they came from and celebrate their identity.

Louise founded ‘Birmingham Breathe Uni’ in 2019 – she advocates for young people’s mental health, discussing a wide range of issues from religion to racism and more. Recently in her podcast ‘thejnlpodcast’, she did a featured episode surrounding racial stereotyping. 

Visiting Ghana whenever she can over the years, she told Behind the Bite of stories from her time there, and the foods she eats and loves allowing her to feel connected to her family. 

“It really connected me to my grandma, whenever I went to her house, she had all this food ready for me which made her really happy to cook that for her grandchildren.”

Louise lived in Ghana for 2 years and says she only ate Ghanain food, including Jollof rice. “All my aunties made it differently which was nice. This allowed me to feel very connected to my culture when I was younger.”

Food passed down from our mothers, uncles and aunties can remind us of where we came from. Lyons-Appiah’s love for Ghanaian food reassures her of her heritage, “Peanut butter soup, rock cake, bofrot is a delicious donut-type food. I will definitely make jollof rice for my kids, it’s the best thing known to man.”

Black dietitian Maya Feller explained in her Healthline article that white people in the United States have long thought of themselves as the default, “the cultural norm”. By branding ‘soul foods’ as unhealthy and invaluable, we are enforcing harmful stereotypes around black people and food.

Sadly Louise says many blacks experience racism around the food they eat. Louise touches on the racist fried chicken stereotype for black people. 

“There is one-hundred-percent racism around food, suggesting I should like chicken, which I do – but suggesting that I should for a reason other than that’s what my taste buds like is racism,” she says. 

“I had an experience at university when someone I was living with made a comment about my Nigerian housemate, saying she stank of fried chicken, it was a derogatory comment, I thought, is this what you think about me? I had to stick up for this girl, which annoyed me that I had to do that.”

However, the importance of celebrating your roots through food is apparent. Lyons-Appiah spoke about how her parents never let her culture be lost, adding that she loves introducing her friends to her culture through food.

She says her parents have always made a conscious effort to not lose the food that I’ve grown up with. “My kids will definitely be eating that sort of food. I’m going to make a massive effort for my aunties to teach me how to make it properly, because that’s also a problem – people trying to westernise these foods with ingredients that don’t make sense.”

So next time you are craving that juicy bucket of fried chicken, support that black-owned business that you’ve never tried before and let the sweet, sharp flavours melt in your mouth – you won’t regret it.