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Adventures in food for curious cooks.

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Week 7 - Chickens In America

Recipe: Chicken Noodle Soup

Recipe: Chef Jayson's Buttermilk Fried Chicken

by Lynley Jones

Pilgrim Chickens

In 1620, as the Mayflower passengers huddled in the dank 'tween decks, praying they would survive the illness and frigid weather that greeted them in this frightening new land, they likely shared their cramped space with dogs, goats, pigs and chickens.

Those chickens would later come in quite handy. Two years after the famous "first" Thanksgiving in 1621, Chief Massasoit of the nearby Wampanoag tribe became gravely ill. He had been a great friend to the English pilgrims, literally saving them from complete starvation in their first year by sending an emissary named Squanto to help them learn to grow new crops. One of the pilgrims now visited Massasoit, bringing along some live chickens with which to make some healing chicken soup. As Massasoit began to recover, he asked for the chickens to be left behind so the tribe could raise a flock that would nourish his people. And thus, chickens became a part of culinary life for Native people and English pilgrims alike.

Chicken Soup for the American Soul

Around the world, nothing says healing comfort like a bowl of chicken soup (see Week 4 of this series for the lemon-egg version traditional in Armenia). My recipe this week is made in the classic American style with noodles, but of course you could make it with rice or matzoh balls if you prefer. I use whole-wheat pasta, because it is so much more filling and nutritious than white pasta and to my palate makes for a more satisfying dish. But of course, you can use whatever pasta you like.

African Fried Chicken in the south

Fried Chicken. As American as an apple pie at a picnic. 

Like so many of the best things about American culture, we have African-Americans to thank for this delicious dish. And like so many aspects of African-American history, it is both heartbreaking and inspiring, all at once. 

Enslaved African-Americans in the American south commonly grew their own vegetables in garden plots they tended themselves. They were not allowed to hunt, fish or own any livestock except for flocks of chickens that they were often permitted to keep. Chickens were apparently seen as having little value for the white slave owners, and this practice meant they could spend less on food for their human chattel. These chickens were raised for both eggs and meat, and actually for profit as well; in many parts of the south, slaves were permitted to buy and sell chickens and keep what they earned.

People enslaved in plantation kitchens often used traditional West African cooking techniques to fry chicken parts in fat, sometimes dredging them first in flour or cornmeal. When Mary Randolph, a white Virginia chef and hostess, published the first-ever Southern cookbook in 1824 called The Virginia Housewife, she included a recipe for a new dish called Fried Chicken. The African-Americans who actually created the dish were not credited.

Chef Jayson's Fried Chicken

Our recipe for Fried Chicken this week comes from my friend Jayson Brown, Executive Chef at Restaurant Associates in New York City. In Jayson's recipe, soy sauce is added to the flavorful buttermilk marinade, along with hot sauce, to lend additional dimensions to the flavor of the meat. And chicken pieces are twice-dredged in flour to ensure a crispy, delicious skin over all that juicy, flavorful goodness. You'll want this at your next picnic.

Historical and archeological information in this post is based on Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick; and Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.


Chicken Noodle Soup

America's favorite cure-all, and a one-dish meal you'll love.

Chef Jayson's Buttermilk Fried Chicken

A thoroughly modern version of this delicious, classic dish.


Final Week Next Week: Modern America