I’ll not go so far as to claim chicken tenders have killed the American culinary experience; that’s an argument I would never win.
But I comfortably posit chicken tenders have inflicted grievous harm on Sunday dinner.
Southern fried chicken comes to us by way of Scotland. Scots desperate for something – anything – beyond haggis and porridge were, according to the world wide web, the first to deep fry their chickens in fat, though they lacked the sophistication necessary to truly spice their food.
Eventually, when Scots (many of them) abandoned Brittania for warmer and drier climates, they took their recipes and cookbooks with them.
In time and in the New World, Scottish fried chicken met West African seasoning techniques – including batter – and was widely adopted in The South. Southern Fried Chicken was born. Its distribution was encouraged by the introduction of faster-growing hogs and the accompanying ease of securing lard in which chicken be fried and calories more easily added.
My own theory is that paper bags helped make fried chicken popular. Chicken fried in a cast iron skillet and lubricated with lard reduced from local hog fat is, by virtue of those additives, greasy. Chicken fried and then stuffed into a paper sack was less greasy simply because the bag would soak up much of the grease. It became the perfect centerpiece of a sack lunch – ideal for lunch at work or on the road.
More importantly, a batch of fried chicken, piled high on Mom’s best platter and covered with a crisp, white dish towel to discourage the flies, was lunch. It was, in fact, the perfect Sunday lunch. You can have your pot roast; give me the chicken.
Restaurateurs, those attuned to the gastric demands of Southerners, added fried chick to their menus.
Over recent decades, though, honest-to-goodness fried chicken has been supplanted by chicken tenders, surely an invention of fast food “restaurants.” I’m convinced the early chicken tenders were but reconstituted chicken parts, now they claim to be breast, the least flavorful but most healthful (they say) part of a chicken. You can get your chicken tender with barbecue sauce or honey or mustard or ranch dressing or horseradish, maybe even secret sauce. But you, by golly, aren’t getting a thigh or a breast or a wing or a drumstick… for those you’ll have to visit “fast food” restaurants that have made chicken a part of their name.
Happily, in Kilgore we have Johnny’s Ozark Fried Chicken (the spicy variety really rocks) and the ubiquitous-in-Texas Chicken Express. But, as far as I can find out, no restaurant here offers actual fried chicken with potatoes, gravy, rolls and metal flatware. Even McKay’s Ranch House, my go-to for traditional (fried) food, offers chicken only as a “tender”.
Lordy, I miss a sit-down dinner – in a restaurant where someone else handles the clean-up – of fried chicken.
(I’m sure there’s decent fried chicken nearer, but if you’re in the mood for a road trip as an ‘hors d’oeuvre’, you’ll have a hard time topping the offering at The Pickett House in Woodville. Yes, it’s a drive, but don’t blame me. Blame the folks that invented chicken
The writer is a former newspaperman who sometimes fancies himself a gastronomist and who, from time to time, gets homesick for Sunday dinner with the folks.