When it’s time to make fried chicken, 89-year-old cook and cookbook author Emily Meggett always starts by grabbing a brown paper bag. A woman who appreciates simplicity, she relies on just four key ingredients: raw chicken, seasoning salt, vegetable oil and White Lily self-rising flour. She cleans, seasons, coats, shakes and breads the chicken before placing it in incredibly hot vegetable oil, where it cooks until it floats to the top, showing off its golden, crispy exterior. One bite of chicken, and Meggett’s process comes into its own: the thin layer of crispy, seasoned, flaky skin enhances the meat’s tenderness and juiciness. It’s a wedding that Meggett celebrates regularly, alongside thousands of black cooks across the country.
“This kind of cooking? This is the cuisine that will keep you full for quite some time,” she says, serving the fried chicken with sides like dirty rice and stuffed yellow squash and 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 that Meggett tells in his first cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home cookingwhich came out earlier this year.
Fried chicken is a crucial part of black American eating habits, especially in the Southern and Lowcountry region. Along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, and the northern coast of Florida, the Gullah Geechee people preserved their culture and played a fundamental role in the proliferation of Lowcountry favorites like red rice, fruits fried seafood and fried chicken in the Deep South. Meggett, considered the matriarch of Gullah Geechee home cooking and winner of the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award, has been instrumental in these efforts.
“Miss Emily is 89 years old, and she had [the culinary traditions] from his grandmother,” says BJ Dennis, a Lowcountry chef and bearer of Gullah culture who was deeply influenced by Meggett’s culinary knowledge and intellect. As someone who stopped at home on Edisto Island – one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands – to learn about and sample a plate of Lowcountry food, Dennis remains captivated not only by the crispy exterior of the matriarch’s perfectly breaded and fried chicken, but also by the tradition that is preserved in every bite.
“When you do the math and connect those dots, [cooks like Meggett] have maintained the traditions we’re talking about, at least for over 100 years,” says Dennis. “I think that’s really important because you not only get a legacy, but a history lesson with something as simple as fried chicken.”
Like countless other black women who have turned to cooking — and fried chicken in particular — as a vehicle for economic opportunity, Meggett has been able to use her fried chicken, as well as dishes like fried fish, red rice and the chicken perloo, to forge its own path in the South Carolina culinary space. This space was previously dominated by white cooks who referred to black food as “southern food”; Meggett’s work served as a reminder of the critical role black people continue to play in the development and proliferation of dishes that have become synonymous with the South. His storied career – which includes contributing to his local church’s cookbook in the 1980s, catering to his community on Edisto Island, and cooking for various prominent homes in his neighborhood – has also allowed him to support to the needs of her husband and 10 children, while continuing a rich culinary lineage that has spanned generations. In doing so, she avoided what Dennis believes to be an irreparable loss. “You lose part of your heritage, you lose part of yourself,” he says.
For Meggett, the best fried chicken continues to be made by dark hands. “There are so many ways to enjoy fried chicken,” she says. “Our community has figured out how to make chicken shine.” Meggett is eager to teach his guests his “paper bag method,” telling them, “You have to hold the bag from the bottom!”
While Meggett’s instructions are vital, it’s still the story behind the food that matters most 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 that. People were raising theirs in those days and they knew how to clean it, cook it and serve it. We were looking forward to it at that time; we are looking forward to it now.
For 20 to 30 people
Chicken pieces: 8 thighs, 8 thighs, 8 wings, 4 whole breasts (10 pounds/4.6 kilograms total)
1½ tablespoons seasoning salt, plus more to taste
4 quarts (3.8 liters) vegetable oil
4 cups (500 grams) self-rising flour, preferably White Lily
Step 1: Peel the skin off the chicken to reveal some unnecessary fat. Remove by scraping with a knife, then put the skin back in place.
2nd step: Season the chicken with seasoning salt.
Step 3: Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat. Heat the oil on high, but make sure it doesn’t smoke.
Step 4: Pour the flour into a large paper bag, like a grocery bag. Add 6-8 pieces of chicken to the bag at a time. Use one hand to close and grab the top of the bag, and one hand to support the bottom of the bag. Gently rock the bag from side to side, coating the chicken pieces with flour on all sides.
Step 5: Fry these pieces, carefully placing them in the oil one at a time. Do not flour all the chicken pieces in advance. Flour them just before frying them.
Step 6: Once the first batch of chicken is placed in the oil, reduce the heat to medium-high and cook the chicken on one side for about 20 minutes. When the chicken is nicely browned, turn it over so that it browns on the other side, 8 to 10 minutes more. The chicken will float when fully cooked. Adjust the temperature as needed. If the oil is not hot enough, the chicken will absorb the oil and become greasy.
Step 7: When the first batch is done, place the chicken on a plate lined with paper towel to drain. Repeat this process until you are done.
Reproduced with permission from Gullah Geechee 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.