“Tastes like chicken” has a lot of comic mileage because nearly everyone on the planet is familiar with the fowl. Chicken is on most any menu anywhere (except, of course, at plant-based restaurants, though plenty offer items that, um, taste like chicken). The largest meat-cooking section in most general cookbooks is of recipes for chicken. And, according to one grocer I know, “skinless, boneless chicken breast is the country’s most popular (animal) protein sold.”
Even so, in a strange culinary roundabout, we’ve engineered most chicken — especially those skinless, boneless breasts — to taste like not much of anything at all, much less chicken. Chicken meat has become the tofu of the animal protein diet, designed to carry other flavors while possessing little of its own.
Because chicken is so present to us, on our home plates and when dining out, we assume it’s always just been there. But in North America, the domesticated chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is late to the party, having arrived here post-Columbus. Some science places a Polynesian chicken-like bird in South America, or at least on Easter Island, prior to 1492, but no indigenous chicken bones have been found in North America that could be dated to before then.
So the chicken that we know is part of the Colombian Exchange, that vast interchange of foodstuffs between the New World and the Old World, in this case in a westerly direction — so west that it begins in the Far East. Most hen genealogists suggest that our Gallus gallus domesticus traces back to the Indian subcontinent, through Persia, Greece and then into the Roman Empire. (A separate line of chicken originated several millennia B.C. in Thailand, from the wild jungle fowl. For the most part, it dispersed itself into ancient, and now modern, China.)
The history of the chicken is interesting, from a cook’s point of view. For the most part, it was not much a food in Europe and the West, not until the 19th century. Prior to that, other fowl — pheasant, duck and goose, dove, even swan — were preferred for eating, all through Asia and Rome, during Europe’s Middle Ages, and into the era of the New World.
The rooster and the hen (and her eggs) played other roles in peoples’ lives: decorative, ceremonial, augural and very much for purposes of entertainment and gaming. The role of the rooster in everyday life, apart from those few chosen to fight, was largely for what he told his humans about time or threat.
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When, in the modern age, we got ahold of Gallus gallus domesticus, we couldn’t wait to fiddle with it. We prized its white over its dark meat, and the more of the former the better, so we developed battery farming aimed at big breasts, rapid egging and speedy growth. We in the United States consume close to 110 pounds of poultry per person per year; only the Israelis top us at 132 pounds.
It’s interesting that the chicken is an omnivore like we are (or may choose to be). However, for our part and by and large, we have bred the chicken into tastelessness for ourselves. Of course, and of late, some farmers breed and sell savory exceptions.
For a cook, chicken may not be in every pot, but it is very common, isn’t it? A roast chicken is the epitome of simple, unadorned perfection, but little other meat is as useful for the conveyance of variability of flavor, and we praise it so. Its very names at the butcher counter tell us about its several hats: fryer, broiler, roaster, stewing hen. (Interestingly, these are also code for age, from youngest to oldest respectively.)
Learning how to cut up a whole chicken (it’s very simple, really) saves money and makes handy for the kitchen more of its parts for extended food preparation such as base stock or nibble bits. (Remember to use separate cutting boards for fowl and vegetable prep, or clean well in between the one board that you do use.)
Today’s recipe is for a style of chicken that carries so much flavor that its wallop has become somewhat of a rage. You may find other recipes online for the same general preparation that do not fry in fat (but rather bake in the oven). This recipe, how ever unhealthy anyone might consider it, is closer to the Tennessean source.
More food from the Colombian Exchange coming Oct. 9: The potato.
Nashville-Style Hot Chicken
From bonappetit.com. Makes 8 servings. A note from Bon Appetit magazine: “No doubt about it, six tablespoons of cayenne is a lot, but that’s what Hattie B’s (a well-known hot chicken restaurant group) considers “medium.” For a milder heat, decrease to two tablespoons.”
2, 3 1/2- to 4-pound chickens, each cut into 10 pieces (breasts halved) 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper 2 tablespoons plus 4 teaspoons kosher salt 4 large eggs 2 cups buttermilk or whole milk 2 tablespoons vinegar-based hot sauce (such as Tabasco or Texas Pete) 4 cups all-purpose flour Vegetable oil (for frying; about 10 cups) 6 tablespoons cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar 1 teaspoon chili powder 1 teaspoon garlic powder 1 teaspoon paprika White bread and sliced pickles (for serving)
Toss chicken with black pepper and 2 tablespoons salt in a large bowl. Cover and chill at least 3 hours. Whisk eggs, buttermilk, and hot sauce in a large bowl. Whisk flour and remaining 4 teaspoons salt in another large bowl.
Fit a Dutch oven with a thermometer; pour in oil to measure 2 inches. Heat over medium-high heat until thermometer registers 325 degrees. Pat chicken dry. Working with 1 piece at a time, dredge in flour mixture, shaking off excess, then dip in buttermilk mixture, letting excess drip back into bowl. Dredge again in flour mixture and place on a baking sheet.
Working in four batches and, returning oil to 325 degrees between batches, fry chicken, turning occasionally, until skin is deep golden brown and crisp and an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of pieces registers 160 degrees for white meat and 165 degrees for dark, 15-18 minutes. Transfer to a clean wire rack set inside a baking sheet. Let oil cool slightly.
Whisk cayenne, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, and paprika in a medium bowl; carefully whisk in 1 cup frying oil. Brush fried chicken with spicy oil. Serve with bread and pickles. (Chicken can be seasoned a day ahead. Keep chilled.)
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