When it’s time to prep the fried chicken, 89-year-old chef and cookbook author Emily Meggett always starts to grab a brown paper bag. A woman who appreciates simplicity, relies on just four main ingredients: raw chicken, seasoning salt, vegetable oil, and self-rising white lily flour. She cleans, seasons, coats, shakes and batters the chicken before placing it in incredibly hot vegetable oil, where it cooks until it floats to the surface, appears golden brown and crunchy. One bite of chicken, and Meggett’s process makes sense: The thin layer of crunchy, seasoned, and flaky skin increases the tenderness and juiciness of the meat. It’s a marriage that Meggett regularly organizes, along with thousands of black chefs across the country.
“That kind of cooking? This is the cooking that will keep you full for a while,” she says serving fried chicken with sides like dirty rice, yellow squash, and stuffed zucchini. For Meggett, fried chicken can be the centerpiece of a meal that tells a story about food, culture and family. It’s also an important part of the story Meggett tells in her first cookbook, Home cooking Gula Jichiwhich was released earlier this year.
Fried chicken is a crucial ingredient in black American food ways, especially in the South and the Low Countries. Along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, and the northern coast of Florida, the Jolla Jechi people have preserved their culture and have been instrumental in the spread of Lowcountry favorites like red rice, fried seafood, and fried chicken across the greater South. Mejet, who is the mother of Gula Jichi home cooking and winner of the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award, has been instrumental in those efforts.
“Miss Emily is 89 years old, and she’s got [the culinary traditions] PJ Dennis, a country chef and cultural stand-up in Gola who was deeply influenced by Mejet’s culinary knowledge and thought. As someone who stopped by her home on Edisto Island—one of the Sea Islands in South Carolina—to learn and enjoy a plate of Lowcountry food, Dennis is still fascinated not only by the crunchy exterior of Mother’s fried and perfectly battered chicken, but also by the tradition preserved in every bite.
“When you do the math and connect those dots, [cooks like Meggett] Hold on to the tradition we’re talking about, at least, over 100 years old,” says Dennis. “I think it’s really important because you not only get a legacy but also a history lesson with something as simple as fried chicken.”
Like countless other black women who have turned to cooking—and fried chicken specifically—as a means of economic opportunity, Megat has been able to use her fried chicken, along with dishes like fried fish, red rice, and chicken pirlo, to create her own dish. A path into the culinary space of South Carolina. This space was once dominated by white chefs who would describe black food as “southern food”. Meggett’s work was a reminder of the critical role that blacks continue to play in the development and spread of the dishes that have become synonymous with the South. Her career—which includes contributing to a local church cookbook during the 1980s, catering to her community on Edisto Island, and cooking for several notable homes in her neighborhood—has also allowed her to support her husband and ten children, all while continuing a rich culinary lineage that has continued through generations. In doing so, she avoided what Dennis believed to be an irreparable loss. “You lose a part of your heritage, you lose a part of yourself,” he says.
For Meggett, the best fried chicken is still made by black hands. “There are so many ways to enjoy fried chicken,” she says. “Our community has figured out how to make chicken shine.” Meggitt is eager to teach her guests the “paper bag method,” and instructs them, “You have to hold the bag from the bottom!”
While Meggett’s instructions are essential, the story behind the food is most important to her. “When I was growing up, everyone had fried chicken—everyone,” she recalls. “You didn’t even have to go to the store for it. People raised themselves in those days, knew how to clean, cook and serve. We looked forward to it in those days; we look forward to it now.”
Serves from 20 to 30
Chicken nuggets: 8 legs, 8 thighs, 8 wings, 4 whole breasts (total 10 lbs / 4.6 kg)
1½ tablespoons seasoning salt, plus more to taste
4 liters (3.8 liters) vegetable oil
4 cups (500 grams) self-raising flour, preferably white lily
Step 1: Peel the chicken skin to reveal some of the unnecessary fat. Remove it by scraping with a knife, and then put the leather back in place.
Step 2: Season chicken with seasoning salt.
Step 3: Heat the oil in a cast iron Dutch oven over high heat. Heat the oil to a high temperature, but be careful not to let it smoke.
The fourth step: Pour the flour into a large paper bag, such as a grocery bag. Add 6 to 8 chicken pieces to the bag at a time. Use one hand to close and hold the top of the bag, and one hand to support the bottom of the bag. Gently shake the bag from side to side, and coat the chicken pieces with flour on all sides.
Fifth step: Fry these pieces, carefully placing them in the oil one by one. Don’t flour all the chicken pieces in advance. Flour it before frying.
Sixth step: Once the first batch of chicken is in the oil, reduce the heat to medium-high and cook the chicken on one side for about 20 minutes. When the chicken is golden brown, turn it to brown on the other side for 8 to 10 minutes longer. The chicken will float when fully cooked. Regulate the temperature as needed. If the oil is not hot enough, the chicken will absorb the oil and become greasy.
Seventh step: When the first batch is done, place the chicken on a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. Repeat this process until you are done.
Reprinted with permission from Gullah Geechee’s Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island By Emily Meggett with contributions from Kayla Stewart and Trelani Michelle, Copyright © 2022. Published by Abrams Books.
Photography by Clay Williams, copyright © 2022.