As an unhealthy and inexpensive food, fried chicken invokes images of poverty, ignorance, sloth, and other racist associations. Add to that its slavery-related heritage, and the Obama-chicken scandals make quite a bit of sense. Once the dust had settled in Beijing after the latest incident, Obama hosted the Chinese delegation at a special White House dinner. The guests were treated to D’Anjou pear salad, poached Maine lobster, and dry aged ribeye with buttermilk crisp onions, flanked by vegetables harvested from the first lady’s garden. Even if you’re not a culinary snob, you’d probably agree that’s a bit more presidential-sounding than Extra Crispy Wings (even if those wings are made with 11 secret herbs and spices).
Still, it’s worth noting that African-Americans, particularly in the Deep South, have no problem acknowledging the centrality of fried chicken to soul food cuisine. In a 2010 study led by Wendy Jefferson of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama, young, educated black men and women from the Birmingham area were asked, “What are the foods you associate with being African-American?” The top 10 responses, in the order of number of votes received from these participants, were: chitterlings (pig intestines), fried chicken, pig parts (feet, ears, tail), collard greens with ham hock, ribs, macaroni and cheese, souse meat, sweet potato pie, cabbage, and BBQ.
While these participants understood that many of these foods are terribly bad for you when prepared in the traditional way (presumably, the original soul food diet helped sustain the gruelling physical demands of slave labor), the fact that they remain a core part of the African-American cultural identity, reason the authors, provides some insight into why the rates of major dietary-related health problems are especially high among blacks. “These foods often provide a sense of familiarity and comfort,” the authors point out. “Omitting [them] from the diet completely is often less than desirable and can lead to a feeling of abandoning one’s cultural heritage.” (The researchers focused on African-American nutrition in the Southeast, yet a similar argument can probably be made regarding the traditional foods of many other ethnic groups.)
In fact, the social and emotional factors that promote the consumption of culturally familiar foods like those mentioned above lurk very deep in human cognition. In a study published this year in Psychological Science, SUNY Buffalo researchers Jordan Troisi and Shira Gabriel found that, for many people, simply thinking about “comfort foods”—let alone eating them—actually reduces feelings of loneliness.* People who were asked to write an essay about getting into a fight with someone very close to them, and then a follow-up essay about eating their favorite “comfort food,” said they felt less lonely than did those who followed up the fight essay with one about simply trying a new food.
Troisi and Gabriel explain these effects by arguing that comfort foods become comfort foods because we are repeatedly exposed to them in the presence of family and friends. “In other words,” they explain, “because comfort foods are typically initially eaten with primary relationship partners, the perceptual experience of eating these foods is encoded along with the higher-order experience of social cognition.” Thus, food literally becomes a sort of social surrogate eaten to recapture those positive feelings. I experienced this when my partner, Juan, made matzoh ball soup for me a few weeks ago, and I was immediately flooded by warm memories of my dearly departed Jewish grandmother. (If only she’d known at the Seder of 1981 that 30 years later my gay Mexican partner would be borrowing the family recipe.)
I hesitated to even write about this subject because it elicits such raw feelings—and justifiably so, given the above. Still, leaving the issue unexamined for so long obviously hasn’t done much good, either. At least we can all agree that when it comes to fried chicken, Dave Chappelle is on to something. There’s no denying that fried chicken became a global phenomenon because it just tastes delicious to our color-homogenized human taste buds. I, for one, am a European-American mongrel with extremely pasty skin, and I'll readily confess that there's something wonderful about the Colonel’s original recipe even if it makes you think that I’m slovenly, dumb, and immoral.
Correction, May 23, 2013: This article originally misspelled researcher Jordan Troisi's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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