18: As with watermelon, the stereotype of African Americans and fried chicken became so horrible that it produced atrocities like the infamous Coon Chicken Inn, a small restaurant chain that thrived in several western states from 1925 into the 1950s.
With that legacy, some won’t eat fried chicken in public. QuestLove said, “I hate to say this, but no, I will not eat fried chicken in front of white people.” (But Cornel West said the opposite: “I love me some fried chicken and I refuse to curtail my life because of a fear of the white gaze.”) Recently, when a school in California observed Black History Month by serving fried chicken, watermelon and cornbread for lunch, parents (and the press) had a meltdown. It’s a great meal, but it just carries far too much baggage.
It’s a complicated stereotype, however. First, fried chicken was not uniquely African. African cooks did use palm oil, and sometimes batter, in preparing chickens, but it was infrequent. For some, the Guinea fowl (introduced by Arab traders) had taken on a religious mystique, and were used for divination. Chicken was not a daily meal, but something cooked on special religious occasions. That may be the distant root of the tradition of eating the “gospel bird”—fried chicken— for dinner after church on Sundays, or annual church picnics.
Rather, it appears that what we know as fried chicken came from Scotland. The Scots preferred to fry it, whereas the English baked or boiled it. In the South, where hogs were easy to raise, their calorie-rich and tasty lard was available. Chickens were easy to raise too. Lard+chickens=fried chicken.
But on the plantations, the preparation of fried chicken would have fallen to enslaved cooks, who almost certainly improved it with proper seasoning. But how did the stereotype linking this Scottish dish to African Americans emerge? After all, everyone likes fried chicken, and for us, the face of fried chicken is white.
Recently, Kentucky Fried Chicken brought back Col. Sanders as their corporate mascot, played by Darrell Hammond (here), Norm MacDonald, and Jim Gaffigan
A variety of answers have been proposed, none entirely satisfactory. Some have kept it simple: Fried chicken was associated with the South, so when blacks came north in the Great Migration, they brought with them a preference for fried chicken that their northern neighbors noticed. When I was a kid, my northern Mom made a lot of chicken, but I don’t recall her ever making fried chicken. I’m not sure I tasted it before KFC arrived in our town in the early 1960s.
As a kid, this was fried chicken. By 1970, Kentucky Fried Chicken “finger-lickin’ good” buckets had become so iconic that you could include this Life-Like kit on your model railroad layout.
Claire Schmidt, a professor at Missouri, believes the stereotype grew out of the 1915 blockbuster, Birth of a Nation, a pro-KKK film. In it, a rowdy black legislator during Reconstruction was shown eating fried chicken. Well, so what. People have to eat, and southerners like their chicken. How does that translate into a stereotype? The logic of it is more complicated than it may appear to us a hundred years later.
Today, chicken is comparatively cheap. At the end of 2015, for instance, the average price of ground beef in the Midwest was $4.24 per pound, while a whole chicken could be had for $1.35 per pound. But a hundred years ago, chicken was not cheap, and most were raised for eggs. In St. Louis in 1915, for instance, beef chuck roast was 14 cents a pound, versus 20 cents for chicken, which was the same price as leg of lamb! At the end of 2015, leg of lamb in Omaha could be had on sale at the Super Saver for $6.77/lb. Remember that the Republican Party’s 1928 election promise was to put “a chicken in every pot,” a symbol of genuine prosperity, not mere subsistence. It would be similar to promising a leg of lamb in every oven today.
Now this makes some sense. In 2016, all we have to do is change meats. Then we run into standard conservative dogma. Imagine how people today would scream if they saw someone on SNAP support buying a leg of lamb. Well, actually, we don’t have to imagine:
While campaigning in the South in 1976, Ronald Reagan talked about “you” standing in line at the grocery, waiting to buy hamburger, while a “strapping young buck” uses food stamps to “buy a T-bone steak.”
(Reagan campaigning in New Hampshire in 1976)
Reagan was criticized for that overtly race-baiting language, and in the northern states, he changed the “strapping young buck” to “some young fellow,” but the underlying idea was the same.
Reagan was inviting his followers to observe: Your job is to keep track of who is buying what with their food stamps. Monitor those food stamp rations carefully, and take it upon yourself to make sure that the moochers (Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent”) aren’t living too high on the hog with “your” money.
In 2015, the state legislatures took up the call. Most notoriously, in Missouri, Wisconsin, and Maine, bills were introduced to limit the kinds of food that people on SNAP are allowed to buy.
For instance, Missouri state rep. Rick Brattin claimed anecdotal evidence as fact in pushing for HB 813. He told the Washington Post, “I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards. When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either” (my italics). His bill would have prevented SNAP users to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”
So we shouldn’t be surprised that in 1915, a black guy eating fried chicken would have been seen as a sign of being “uppity.” In the eyes of the majority audience, he was taking something that somehow should have been in the hand of a white man instead, a threat and usurpation of power.
A hundred years later, fried chicken in the hands of an African American politician is still a powerful albeit disgusting image. These are not brain-damaged baboons cranking out this kind of garbage. They have 21st century computer skills:
Maybe it’s enough to say that if even something as wonderful as fried chicken could become a symbol of racism, that’s a measure of just how deeply America has been stained by racism, both past and present. It’s sad that something so delightful could be used for something so awful, just in the name of crass bigotry and preserving institutional racism.