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Did Scots introduce Americans to fried chicken?

Fried chicken is one of the staple dishes of the American South - but its origins lie in Scottish immigrants who arrived in the region centuries ago.

Published: May 9, 2016

There are few dishes as synonymous with the United States as fried chicken.

This staple of the Deep South became globally popular in the late 20th century thanks to the success of fast-food chains like KFC and countless smaller High Street takeaways.

Its popularity is such that fried chicken restaurants were evaluated by business analysts in 2014 to be the fastest-growing small chains in the US.

But this most American of meals has a surprising back story. Many historians credit Scottish immigrants for first introducing the dish across the pond.

There is a tradition in Western Europe of frying strips of meat dating back to at least Roman times. But the most common method of cooking chicken in an era of primitive kitchen equipment was baking or boiling. The Scots however preferred to pan-fry it in fat - the precursor to modern deep-fat frying.

Relatively cheap to produce and quick to make, fried chicken was associated with the poor who could not afford more expensive meats like beef or pork. Convenience also played a part - the birds were easier to rear and required less fuel to cook.

The dish also has negative connotations. Its association with the American South is commonly said to date from the slavery era of the 18th and 19th centuries. Fried chicken offered nourishment to communities who were forced to labour on farms and plantations for no pay. Slaves were typically barred from owning most material possessions but were allowed to keep chickens for their own sustenance.

Immigrants from across Europe made the American South their home in the years before slavery was finally abolished in 1863. But settlers from Scotland and Ulster - the origin of the 'Scotch-Irish' term still commonly used by Americans - were particularly prevalent from the mid-18th century onwards. The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups estimates there were 400,000 U.S. residents of Irish birth or ancestry by 1790 - half of whom were from Ulster.

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It is these settlers and their descendants - some of whom would go on to own or staff southern plantations dependent on slave labour - who are thought to have popularised the dish in the region.

John F. Mariani, editor of the respected Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, has written extensively about the dish and its origins.

"Southerners were not the first people in the world to fry chickens, of course," he wrote in the 1999 edition. "Almost every country has its own version, from Vietnam's Ga Xao to Italy's pollo fritto and Austria's Weiner Backhendl, and numerous fricassees fill the cookbooks of Europe.

"The Scottish, who enjoyed frying their chickens rather than boiling or baking them as the English did, may have brought the method with them when they settled the South.

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"The efficient and simple cooking process was very well adapted to the plantation life of the southern African-American slaves."

The lingering association of fried chicken with slavery makes it a sensitive subject to this day. Ohio’s Wright State University was strongly criticised last year for serving the dish as part of its wider Black History Month celebrations.

Images of the menu shared online provoked anger that the university had juxtaposed the event with foods associated with offensive racial stereotypes.

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