Special Sauce: Osayi Endolyn on the Legacy of Southern Fried Chicken

[Photographs: Andrew Thomas Lee and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The superb young food and culture writer Osayi Endolyn is back again for this week's episode of Special Sauce. This time our far-reaching conversation includes a discussion of a brilliant piece on fried chicken Endolyn wrote for You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another, a fascinating anthology edited by former Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying and Noma's Rene Redzepi.

First, we talked about the fundamental premise of the book. "It's obviously not true that food always brings us together, and it's obviously not true that food necessitates a further reflection on a culture, right," Endolyn said. "A lot of us eat tacos or hummus without thinking anything more about where those dishes come from. But, if you took the premise that, we are more alike than we are different, and looked at food as the medium to do that, where could you go? And this book wanted to explore migration and immigration in ways that maybe we weren't always welcoming of having those conversations."

Endolyn picked fried chicken, one of my favorite foods on the planet, as her subject. She used the Australian Chef Morgan McGlone as a jumping off point: A classically trained chef, McGlone learned to make hot fried chicken while working for Southern uber-chef Sean Brock before returning to his native country to open Belles Hot Chicken, a mini-chain of hot fried chicken restaurants based in Melbourne. That cross-cultural recognition became the metaphor that shaped Endolyn's story. To quote briefly from her piece: "No matter where it’s cooked, American fried chicken carries the learning and effort and skill of a people who persevered against unfathomable odds. That Southern hue follows fried chicken all the way to Melbourne and Sydney, too. And therein lies an incredible opportunity. If everyone can agree to share fried chicken, then perhaps that’s a step toward sharing the weight of its complex legacy as well."

I asked Endolyn about fried chicken's legacy, and she said, "There's a lot of struggle, it doesn't always come from one direction, as I mentioned in the book. Because of so much of the hateful iconography,that was used to depict the African Americans stealing chicken and as kind of just gluttonous chicken eaters. During the post-enslavement period and into Jim Crow, you have a lot of people who still feel kind of unsure what it means to eat fried chicken. Whether or not to do so in public."


Where Endolyn nets out on fried chicken requires answering the two fundamental questions all of us must answer whenever we are eating something: "Is it delicious?" and "What does it mean?"


So if that's a question that interests you (and I hope it is) then you have to listen to what Osayi Endolyn has to say on this week's Special Sauce.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats' podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Osayi Endolyn: It's old journalism adage, right? Whenever everyone is going left, you go right. And a lot of times, that other direction that's gonna hit the sweet spot is something that you experience, that you observe, that you're complaining to your friends and family about, and not underestimating the uniqueness but also the universality of your experience.

EL: Back with us is the James Beard award-winning, and the great food and culture writer, Osayi Endolyn. So, we gotta talk about fried chicken 'cause I love fried chicken. Who doesn't? And you wrote a wonderful piece about it in You and I Eat the Same, which is this wonderful book that I wasn't even aware of until I saw your essay. And so I literally like ... "I wonder if the publicist would get-" and in an hour, she got me the book, last night.

EL: So, let's talk about that piece 'cause it's an amazing piece because it's both a searing indictment and almost hopeful at the end. And that's a hard thing to get in one piece.

OE: Yeah. It was a tough nut to crack.

EL: Yeah.

OE: So, Chris Ying, who conceived this collection has been working with Rene Redzepi on this series. Teaming up for this piece, we had gone back and forth on a number of ideas over, I would say, maybe almost a year.

EL: Wow.

OE: And things were just not quite gelling, and when we finally landed on this, he kind of had the premise in mind and, but let me run with it. And-

EL: The fried chicken of all nations premise?

OE: Yes, this idea that if we start, it's obviously not true that food always brings us together, and it's obviously not true that food necessitates a further reflection on a culture, right. Like a lot of us eat tacos or hummus without thinking anything more about where those dishes come from. But, if you took the premise that, we are more alike than we are different, and looked at food as the medium to do that, where could you go? And this book wanted to explore you know, migration and immigration, in ways that maybe, we weren't always welcoming of, you know, having those conversations.

OE: So, I was really thrilled and I felt strongly that there needed to be an African American experience in this conversation. Which, you know, sometimes, although African American has grown to encompass many different experiences and types of movement from one diaspora to another. It often gets left out because it's really inconvenient to talk about this history that's based in so much tragedy, yet, you know, spurred so much beauty and diversity. And that's still, I think, an ongoing and fairly new conversation, the diversity of African American cooking, which many people are on that tip. You know, I think we are going to see more of that in the next year or two in terms of books coming out and projects that people are working on, and restaurant openings. But, the story for me was to look at how this chef, Morgan McGlone, whose in Australia, originally from New Zealand, came to the American South, in a kind of talk about roundabout way, he had many different streams of his career and landed in Sean Brock's kitchen and-

EL: Sean Brock is the great Southern chef from Husk and ...

OE: During a time, when Sean Brock was, and he continues to, but doing a lot of study and reflection on the intricacies on Southern cuisine, and certainly not the only person to do it. But, the exposure there was inspiring to McGlone, and he ended up taking ideas from hot chicken that he had had, and said this could look really great back home.

EL: We should say that hot chicken was first made famous in Nashville. Prince's was the legendary, in Nashville. I don't know if it was really the first place, but it was certainly the first place that I went to.

OE: Yes, and they certainly put themselves on the map as being a place where it all started. But, it certainly came out of black communities in Nashville. And if he takes this idea, and launches a brand in Australia that's done very well called Belles. We kind of wanted to look at this, what's the middle part there that seems interesting. Every culture fries bird in some way, but if you take American fried chicken out of America, what gets left behind? It's like that migration movement that we were talking about earlier. Do you leave the history behind?

EL: Right.

OE: How much is that responsible and do we even really understand the history here and what does that, does that constrain us or does that liberate us and how? Those are some of the questions that, I don't know that I really answered any of those questions.

EL: There's a great quote that you say at the end of the piece. You say that McGlone has landed on the two questions that give all food consequence. Is it tasty and does it mean something? And so you quickly and easily say that fried chicken is indisputably tasty.

OE: Indisputably.

EL: And there was not much to say about that. It's eaten all over the planet, as you say. And you know, fried chicken is kind of like pizza, because even bad fried chicken is okay.

OE: Yeah, yeah, yes.

EL: I say that as somebody who has written an entire book on pizza and many pages on fried chicken. And so with this deliciousness unquestionable, all that remains is what fried chicken means. No matter where it is cooked, American fried chicken carries the learning and effort and skill people persevered against unfathomable odds. That Southern you follows fried chicken all the way to Melbourne and Sydney, too. And therein lies an incredible opportunity. If everyone can agree to fried chicken, then perhaps that is a step towards sharing the weight of it's complex legacy, as well. Not only is that beautiful writing, but there is a glimmer of hope there. Did you think you would land on a glimmer of hope? When you first started the piece?

OE: I think that was on the horizon, you're never quite sure. Sometimes the ending comes to you before you get to it. I know that the book wanted ...

EL: That the book was about bringing people together and-

OE: I understood the book wanted to strike an optimistic tone and I did believe that because that is a possibility. I don't know on what timeline we're talking about that, actually coming to fruition. There's a lot of struggle, it doesn't always come from one direction, as I mentioned in the book. Because of so much of the hateful iconography, that was used to depict the African Americans stealing chicken and kind of just gluttonous chicken eaters. During the post-enslavement period and into Jim Crow, you have a lot of people who still feel kind of unsure what it means to eat fried chicken. Whether or not to do so in public.

EL: Yeah, that was a fascinating sentence that even today, a lot of the African American people don't want to eat fried chicken in public, just because of all the baggage.

OE: I think that's changing but I don't think the conversation is gone internally.

EL: Right.

OE: At the Smithsonian's National Museum for African American History and Culture, fried chicken is on the menu, but notably of all the different regions of food waves that they explore in their cafeteria, Sweet Home Café, which by the way, just came out with a beautiful cookbook. Watermelon was not on the menu when I went there and I heard reported that they just didn't even wanna bring it in because of the experience of coming through all these historic images, many of them very painful, it's like do you want to then come into this place in the museum experience where you're resting and you're trying to recover and move on to these galleries that show the beauty of this culture. And then have to deal with whether or not you want to be biting into a rind. I mean, that may have changed since I was there. Just the fact that these are things that people are talking about and I think it's important to understand it's not always about something being good. Sometimes, it's about what it means to have that in your household. I don't, no one in my house ever cooked fried chicken. We would sometimes have it as a fast, casual meal, or even like a fast food meal and that was rare, and I mean rare. We did not do fast food a lot in my house. But, I didn't even know what it took to fry chicken, until I was an adult and then you're almost amazed that people actually that this is available to us all the time, anytime, day or night. It's a lot of work.

EL: And you also make this very interesting observation in the same piece. There is a distinct pattern in the United States where African American chefs struggle to find parity with their white counterparts in terms of recognition, funding, and reward. And I think that goes for many aspects of black culture.

OE: Oh my gosh!

EL: I spent years as you know, 20 years, working with principally African American jazz musicians and that was the story they told everyday, that was their life. That was their life story, each and every one.

OE: It's like you're supposed to do it faster with fewer resources and be more exceptional, and get less credit. That's just across the board, yeah. And I think that every industry has tried to figure out it's ways of navigating that, but yeah for sure. I have heard a lot of stories. So, my grandmother's first daughter, before my mother was born, was my aunt Patrice, Patrice Rushen.

EL: I was gonna say, Rushen, that's ... Patrice Rushen is this beautiful...musician.

OE: She's a fantastic musician. She currently chairs the top music program USC's Thorton Music School and has been doing very wonderful things there. But, throughout her really varied career, she has had experiences as a band leader, a pianist, a composer -

EL: As an African American woman, jazz band leader.

OE: Yes, and music director for tours for all kinds of artists, for award shows. The Grammy's, NAACP Image Awards, many, many different experiences, many hats that she's worn. And many accolades that she's received, but because of her multiple streams of experience, she's gotten to see a lot, too. There's a lot of unfortunate parallels that map between blackness and food and blackness and music. Sort of from only being expected to be able to do one genre.

EL: Sure.

OE: My aunt was classically trained, she studied with the jazz greats, as well. She understands all the technology so she can do the newer iterations of the things that came from R&B and Jazz, as well. But, people are somehow shocked when they hear a symphony.

EL: Right, sure, sure.

OE: It's like it shouldn't be surprising that an African American chef can cook something of Asian background, make something that has Latin influences, same thing goes.

EL: Yeah, sure, now that I think about it, there's a sort of link between your aunt and what Wynton Marsalis has done. At Jazz at Lincoln Center, he has ... I can do this and I can do this and I can do this and I can do this, I don't want to be seen as just another African American, New Orleans-born jazz musician.

OE: And I think from my own observations, that's a perspective, you'll have to talk to Marsalis to then find out where he's at about it, but I think that he has evolved because I think that in the earlier days, maybe in the 90's, it was very strict about-

EL: Super purist!

OE: You play this way and only this way. And this is the way it's meant to be done.

EL: Absolutely!

OE: I think there's a balance between recognizing tradition and valuing and learning it and understanding it. Particularly as more and more of these genres are played by people who are not African American, that did not necessarily come from these lineages. It's really important to know where these ... Where that blue scales came from, what prompted that and so to know that is important, but to be able to evolve it and keep it current and making it feel alive is crucial, too.

EL: So, who inspired you to be a writer? Who taught you the most about writing? This is a three part question, so I apologize.

OE: That's okay.

EL: And what advice would you give to young, aspiring writers about food and culture?

EL: You have 30 seconds.

OE: Well, the closest and most constant influence for writing came from my mom because she encouraged me so much to read and she was such a supporter of me reading. I really think for writers to have a chance, you have to read a lot. And, that's not always the connection that people make.

EL: Yeah.

OE: And, I read a ton as a kid. I mean it was a problem sometimes. I had books taken away from me 'cause they were a little outside my age level.

EL: Now, that was never my problem!

OE: I got caught with reading I, Tina, Tina Turner's biography. That was not a great day. I was like 10 or something. And then, as I kind of started to actually think about writing professionally, I was in my late 20's. I came to it kind of late. I think for a long time, I didn't know how to even conceive of a career like that, and it was really out of desperation, and sort of fatigue of trying to pillow my way around and I just said "screw this" I'm just gonna go for what I really want and that turned out to be the thing that doors opening up for me.

OE: But, one of my best friends, Bailey, her father, Mike Decastro, who died a few years ago, was a huge influence on me and my writing. He would give me a lot of constructive and sometimes difficult feedback.

EL: Was he a writer himself?

OE: He was, he was a writer, he was a photographer, he was brilliant. He was a Puerto Rican Jew living in San Francisco.

EL: Oh! That huge population of Puerto Rican Jews living in San Francisco!

OE: Oh man, just like, he was a special, special man and I miss him a lot. He really, he gave me a lot of courage and encouragement and I think when you're at that early period, where you're trying to figure out who you are as a writer and what matters to you, and what your take is on a subject that any number of people might write about, but what makes you the person to have this conversation. He was very forthright with me about not bullshitting, not being too distant, always pushing me to, kind of blood on the page, I want to feel it, I want to see it.

EL: But you do that and you have this combination of an elegant pro stylist and being an incredibly conversational writer.

EL: My writing heroes were the late Nora Ephron, and Bud Trillon because of the way they could combine those two things.

OE: And I think that you can have writing influences from ... So I loved and still love Joan Didion's writing, she's just a master. But I knew that wasn't quite my ... I tend to be a little more optimistic than Miss Didion, so I knew that wasn't quite where I was going. But, I'm trying to think of other ... Certainly Maya Angelou, talk about a conversational writer. You just felt like she was sitting next to you telling you her life story. Then you'd come across some phrasing, and it's like gosh how did she do that? You asked me so who were those influences and then what would I say.

EL: Well, you've already said you should be reading a lot.

OE: Yes, I think reading a lot is really important. Looking in word, so often particularly with social media, I think we're driven to go out and chase experiences, and do what other people are doing. To a degree, I think that can be useful because it helps give you a sense of what you think about what's trending and what's popular. It's an old journalism added, whenever everyone is going left, you go right. A lot of times, that other direction that's gonna hit the sweet spot is something that you experienced, that you observed, that you're complaining to your friends and family about and that's the thing that you should put in a couple of paragraphs and pitch it. So, not underestimating the uniqueness but also the universality of your experience is really important for people who are kind of starting out. And to find someone who can be the cheerleader for you, find someone who will read your shitty drafts and-

EL: And I think in my case, I actually had a great, for my first book, a great book editor who encouraged me to be both universal and unique at the same time, which I think is what you're saying. And you need editors that push you in both directions.

OE: Right.

EL: And they're hard to find.

OE: They are hard to find. I was really lucky with Mike, I was really fortunate. I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design for my MFA. I attended the Atlantic campus and I knew having been out of school for a few years, I studied French and Afro-American Studies at UCLA. I really didn't know what to do after that. It was about 6 years before I applied for that grad program, but when I did, I was really clear and I was really ready. And so everything that my professors gave me, every writer that came to visit, every office hour-

EL: You soaked it all in.

OE: To the point where it probably damaged some relationships with my peers because I was just so clear, but you're paying that high price for that education. And you don't want to waste time, I kind of felt like gosh I figured this out, what felt to me, a little late. And so I didn't want to waste the moment. And I feel very grateful for having those opportunities because that exploration ... Having people who are, who get lit up around your enthusiasm for learning something, that's a really special relationship. And I got a lot of encouragement, it was challenging.

OE: You get to try a lot of different things out. SCAD for me was a place where yes, it's good to do what you're good at, but you're also encouraged to stretch out. I tried my hand at photography, I tried my hand at printmaking, got a whole new appreciation for what it takes to roll paper through a press and see what comes out on the other side. And those kinds of things humble you and bring you to another level of appreciation in terms of how you tell stories, how you bring images to life through words. I think that cross pollinating yourself, too, as a writer is important. I was at a performance space last night. This beautiful exhibit that just closed called "Black Power Naps," where these artists, Niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa, had created physical space for black people to rest, inspired by this study they had observed where African Americans are the least rested demographic in our nation.

EL: Wow.

OE: And this idea that "hey, if you see people lying down in this space, don't call the police," and they had all this verbiage, but it was also like this really nurturing, soothing environment there, everyone was just kind of lounging. That is influencing me as a storyteller. So, having the openness to go and investigate things like that, I think is important.

EL: So, now it's time for the All You Can Answer Special Sauce Buffet. So we don't have a bell that we ring, but we ask you to move along in a timely manner.

OE: Yes, I'm so stressed out.

EL: Who is at your last supper, no family allowed, and it can be people living or dead, artists, musicians, politicians, anybody that you think would be interesting to share your last supper with.

OE: So, Ida B. Wells, the journalist and activist. She was talking about lynching before a lot of people were and advocating for African Americans to be liberated and to be really free.

EL: And it's not a name you hear very often, I only read a little bit about her.

OE: Yeah, I need to know more about her. But just from one of these ... I'm kind of on a project where we are trying to explore the under-told African American figures of American history. And I think that she is someone that I'm starting to learn more about and be kind of riveted by. How brave and courageous she was.

EL: Alright, so she's there.

OE: She's there. Also because I think a lot of these figures get kind of tied up in there, import, but she probably had to have a pretty good sense of humor.

EL: Alright.

OE: Zora Neale Hurston, I think is up there too. Another writer, of course that as many of us love from Their Eyes Were Watching God. More recently, Barracoon, her long awaited non-fiction work. I think, Dianne Reeves, is a just phenomenal vocalist. And I've seen her perform so many times. I've never really had a conversation with her. I used to work at a concert production site which I would actually be very close to her, proximity wise. But, she's someone who brings so much of herself to her performance. No single iteration is the same.

EL: She's a great singer and an under-appreciated great jazz singer because she's a phenomenal improvisor.

OE: She's a joy. I think those ladies would probably be at the table.

EL: Alright, I think we're good.

EL: So, what are you eating?

OE: What are we eating at the dinner?

EL: Yeah.

OE: Oh my gosh, I would love a persimmon dish on this spread.

EL: You're the first person who has ever said persimmon dish, but keep going.

OE: Some kind of like persimmon dish, I think it would be great. Maybe some roasted lamb-

EL: Like a barbacoa?

EL: Just like a lamb. Lamb roast? Lamb chops.

OE: Some edamame in there with maybe some anchovies, olive oil paste. Some herbs-

EL: Okay, I like this.

OE: I don't know why, but I think dan dan noodles should be on this table. There ought to be some biscuits or like a cornbread.

EL: And then all that's left is a dessert.

OE: A dessert. Well, we need a vegetable. Maybe like a brussels, I love some brussels. And some pecan pie, probably.

EL: Alright, I like it.

OE: That's so absurd.

EL: What's on your nightstand right now, book wise?

OE: Literally, My Sister is a Serial Killer. The novel. It's a fairly new book. Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones.

EL: I've read a lot about that book, but I haven't read it.

OE: Striking. And I also have Bunk, by Kevin Young. The noted poet who is also the director of the Schomburg Center, for black culture research. But, he does this interesting investigation into how we start to tell lies culturally, and it's an interesting book to read now.

EL: So, who would you love to have a one on one lunch with just to see how she or he thinks?

OE: You know, I think it would be really cool to sit down with Ava DuVernay, the film director. I feel like I understand a lot of how she thinks because she's been so open about her processes, but that would be-

EL: Yeah, I like that, So, it's just been declared Osayi Endolyn Day all over the World. I just declared it. What's happening on that day? What are people doing?

OE: People are ... so I love body and energy work. So, there's gonna be yoga classes at different levels if you're interested.

EL: A yoga class on every block!

OE: For everyone, there is going to be massage therapy. I really love a good foot reflexology.

EL: Alright.

OE: There's going to be Swedish Fish for everyone.

EL: I like the combination of Swedish Fish and yoga.

OE: Yes, there will be any book you want, it would just appear in front of you.

EL: Got it.

OE: For free.

EL: I like that.

OE: I think that there will also be maybe jollof rice for everyone.

EL: Jollof rice.

EL: We should explain that jollof rice is native t ...

OE: Well, that's a big debate.

EL: Yeah, I know.

OE: But, my neck of the woods, that's a Nigerian tomato based rice dish that if you're familiar with red rice, you're gonna have a sense of jollof rice which tends to have a more robust flavor profile.

EL: Yes, more intense for sure.

OE: Sort of a ceremonial party dish you can't do without. But the Senegalese and the Ghanians and the...

EL: So, there's jollof rice and Swedish Fish for food. I like that, it's very colorful. Alright, well thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us Osayi Endolyn.

OE: It's been great.

EL: Do pick up a copy of You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another, and read her brilliant take on fried chicken. And go to OsayiEndolyn.com, which is what I did, where you'll find a great introduction to her work. And soon, hopefully, you'll be seeing Osayi Endolyn on Serious Eats.

OE: Let's make it happen.

EL: So long Serious Eaters, we'll see you next time.