I can’t remember the first time I ever ate fried chicken and biscuits. As a southerner, I gotta say, it’s likely there was no first time. I was probably just born with a taste for it already in encoded in my DNA. That’s a thing, right? Like the way wolves come pre-wired to stalk a moose, instead of entering the world craving arugula. I’m pretty sure my science is sound here, folks. I’m an actor, after all, which means I’ve auditioned for a lot of scientists. The thing is, fried chicken and biscuits feels so much a part of my life, it’s like I can’t remember a time before it. Like when you’ve been married a long time, or you have kids. There was no time before marriage. That was a different person. With brown hair. There was no time before kids. I’ve been stepping on legos at 4am since the big bang. That’s what fried chicken and biscuits is for me: the big bang of food.
I do have an early memory of eating cold fried chicken for my 4th birthday. If I peer into the magic globe I can see well dressed kids with cake on their faces and He-Man themed paper plates piled high with fried chicken cooked the day before. I can see myself insisting on getting the thighs. No legs for me. I was a big kid now. Legs were for babies, novices.
Recently, I brought this up to my mother, and she asked, “you mean the birthday where you tried to feed the chimpanzee?”
“Huh? What are you talking about I never had a chimpanzee at my birthday,” I said.
“Yes you did. And you tried to feed it chocolate cake,” she said.
This was troubling on many levels, and raised several important questions concerning everything from animal welfare to child safety, but more than anything it was telling. Cold fried chicken left a bigger imprint on my mind than a cake-eating chimp.
(The 6" Petty Knife)
I think many Americans might have a similar relationship to fried chicken. Maybe you never buried memories of borderline animal abuse with crispy birds, but for most Americans fried chicken is a frequent indulgence. It is our most popular prepared food. We eat 8 billion chickens a year, and in 2019, 178 million Americans ate some kind of fried chicken. We’re most likely to buy it from a supermarket, and statistically a majority of us have in the just the last two weeks. Nearly a quarter of all restaurants have some version of fried chicken on their menu. It is everywhere. But as naturally happens with things consigned to ubiquity, much of it is bad. The vast majority of fried chicken that Americans eat is frozen. Maybe you unzip little frozen nuggets from a bag to feed your kids when you’re just not feeling the pots and pans. Maybe you get chicken strips in the drive-thru. Maybe you have a quick fried chicken sandwich. All of those are frozen, and few are good.
True fried chicken is never frozen. The best is made with very small, two to three pound birds. I like to brine it in nothing more than some salt water and honey, and I fry it in seasoned oil, that is, fresh oil with a few tablespoons of older frying oil. I only make it couple of times a year because I feel like fried chicken should feel as special as something like Beef Wellington. And who would disagree with that? It’s just as impressive, tastes way better, and costs about $150 less. And though Beef Wellington has puff pastry, with fried chicken and biscuits you get, well, biscuits.
As for biscuits, there’s no one good type. A biscuit can be tall and flaky. It can be short and fluffy. But unlike fried chicken which tastes just fine cold, a biscuit should always be fresh and always be hot. A cold biscuit is just sad. I feel bad for it. It’s like a deflated soufflé or me when I didn’t get chosen for kickball: it’s not living up to destiny. I like to make my biscuits square because I’m left with no scraps and I have the added bonus of textural variety with the crispy corners. Combine these hot, fresh biscuits, crispy, tender fried chicken and a drizzle of honey, and you’ve got yourself a special occasion explosion of flavor. More big bang for your buck than any fancy roast could ever give.
Fried Chicken and Biscuits
For the Chicken:
For the Biscuits:
(Don’t hate me, but get a scale for your baking. Your leavened breads and quick breads, like biscuits, will be so much more consistent.)
John Tufts is an award-winning actor and author. In addition to being paid to travel the world to wear tights and fight with swords, he has also written a book about the food of Shakespeare’s England called Fat Rascals: Dining at Shakespeare’s Table. His book is available at john-tufts.com/fatrascalsbook. His food history web series, “Eatso-Facto,” currently airs on YouTube. You can follow him on Instagram at @johnnymtufts. He lives in New York.