The Southern Spread
Our culture, our history, our spirit, and our hospitality are some of the ingredients. Southern foods are heavily influenced by African, English, Scottish, Irish, French, and Native-American cuisine, and although most of them are served across the country today, there are foods in the U.S. that are strictly thought of as SOUTHERN. There’s Creole, Lowcountry and Floribbean, and I’m not sure where fried chicken and deviled eggs fit into the mix, but to be certain, they perform with a southern accent. In “The Southern Spread,” we’re exploring southern foods and traditions.
This Week’s Feature:
Southern Fried Chicken
Take grits off the board, and nothing screams southern quite like fried chicken — or, as it’s often billed on restaurant menus — southern fried chicken. We can’t take full credit for it though. A fourth-century Roman cookbook, Apicius offered a recipe for deep-fried chicken called Pullum Frontonianum.
The fried chicken that we know today is a marriage of the Scottish version, which was fried in fat, and the West African method, which was battered and cooked in palm oil. The African-born slaves who became cooks on southern plantations also introduced seasonings and spices that weren’t found in the Scottish influenced offering.
Healthy eaters and cardiologists cringe at the mere mention of fried chicken or any of the countless other fried foods we’re credited with down here — like fried Twinkies or fried pecan pie. We’ll even take perfectly nutritious vegetables, like okra, squash, eggplant, corn, or tomatoes — to name a few — season them, batter them, and drop them in hot, bubbling oil. No food is safe from frying in our world. But fried chicken is our calling card, and we’re sticking with it!
There are enough fried chicken chains across the country though to convince me that even the healthiest eaters occasionally indulge in our claim to fame. But in the South, most of us eat it without shame, so much so that you can sometimes find great fried chicken even in our grocery stores. The very best of the crispy skinned fowl, however, can almost always be located in small, locally owned restaurants or off-the-beaten-path cafes.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken qualifies as all-of-the-above. A secret fried chicken recipe developed in the early 1950s in a small restaurant space in the town square of Mason, Tennessee, is now legendary. When Napoleon Bonner and his wife Maggie first started serving their spicy hot chicken, it became so popular with the locals, that enough funds were raised by the community to enable them to build a small cafe on Highway 70 in Mason, to increase their visibility. Their chicken was so good, at what was then called Maggie’s Short Orders that racial barriers weren’t an issue in the small building that Nate Bonner built with his own hands.
Nate and Maggie Bonner both died in 1983, but their son Vernon — nicknamed Gus — reopened the business in 1984, renaming it Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. The little shack that his father had built burned to the ground in 2002, but once again, the community rallied and raised funds to rebuild the structure, upon request from Vernon, precisely as it had been built initially — sloping floors and all.
Today, ten years after Vernon’s death, there are Gus’s franchises in multiple places across the country, and the chicken has been written up in Saveur and GQ magazines and featured on Food Network shows like Rachel Ray’s Travels, The Best Thing I Ever Ate and $40 a Day. For the price of a franchise, a buyer secures the name, and the secret “proprietary batter,” which is delivered to the locations. As Vernon once stated, “This is a dead man’s recipe [and] I ain’t telling.”
The restaurant on Highway 70 in Eads is still in operation, and there are multiple locations in Memphis. Don’t be in a hurry if you visit one though because there’s almost always a line.
Fried chicken image: Wikimedia
Water Color of Mason, TN Gus’s: Deborah Fagan Carpenter
Photo of Downtown Memphis Gus’s: Deborah Fagan Carpenter