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 only four key ingredients: raw chicken, seasoning salt, vegetable oil, and White Lily self-rising flour. She cleans, seasons, coats, shakes, and batters the chicken before placing it in unbelievably hot vegetable oil, where it cooks until it floats to the top, showing off its golden brown and crisped exterior. One bite of the chicken, and Meggett’s process makes sense: The thin layer of crunchy, seasoned, flaky skin heightens the tenderness and juiciness of the meat. It’s a marriage that Meggett officiates regularly, alongside thousands of Black cooks around the country.
“This kind of cookin’? This is the cooking that’ll keep you full for a while,” she says as she serves 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 her first cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking, which came out earlier this year.
Fried chicken is a crucial component of Black American foodways, especially in the South and Lowcountry region. Along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, and the northern coast of Florida, Gullah Geechee people have preserved their culture and played a fundamental role in the proliferation of Lowcountry favorites like red rice, fried seafood, and fried chicken across the greater South. Meggett, considered the matriarch of Gullah Geechee home cooking and a winner of the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award, has been instrumental in those efforts.
“Miss Emily’s 89 years old, and she got [the culinary traditions] from her grandmother,” says BJ Dennis, a Lowcountry chef and Gullah cultural bearer who has been deeply influenced by Meggett’s culinary knowledge and intellect. As someone who has stopped by her home on Edisto Island — one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands — to learn and enjoy a plate of Lowcountry food, Dennis remains captivated by not only the crisped exterior of the matriarch’s perfectly battered and fried chicken, but also by the tradition that’s preserved within each and every bite.
“When you do the math and connect those dots, [cooks like Meggett] held on to the traditions that we’re talking about, at a minimum, 100-plus years,” says Dennis. “I think it’s really important because you’re getting not only a legacy, but a history lesson with something as simple as fried chicken.”
Like countless other Black women who turned to cooking — and fried chicken specifically — as a vehicle for economic opportunity, Meggett has been able to use her fried chicken, along with dishes like fried fish, red rice, and chicken perloo, to forge her own path in South Carolina’s culinary space. That space was previously dominated by white cooks who labeled Black food as “Southern food”; Meggett’s work has 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. Her storied career — which includes contributing to her local church cookbook during the 1980s, catering for her community on Edisto Island, and cooking for various prominent homes in her neighborhood — has also allowed her to support her husband and 10 children, all while continuing a rich culinary lineage that’s endured across generations. In doing so, she has avoided what Dennis believes could 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 Black hands. “There are so many ways to enjoy fried chicken,” she says. “Our community has figured out how to make the chicken shine.” Meggett is eager to teach her guests her “paper bag method,” instructing them, “You’ve got to hold the bag from the bottom!”
While Meggett’s instructions are vital, it’s always the story behind the food that matters most to her. “When I was growing up, everybody had fried chicken — everybody,” she recalls. “You didn’t even have to go to the store for it. Folks raised their own in those days, and they knew how to clean it, cook it, and serve it. We looked forward to it in those days; we look forward to it now.”
Serves 20 to 30
Chicken pieces: 8 legs, 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 back the chicken skin to reveal some unnecessary fat. Remove by scraping with a knife, and then put the skin back in place.
Step 2: Season the chicken with seasoning salt.
Step 3: Heat the oil in a cast-iron Dutch oven over high heat. Heat the oil to a high temperature, but be careful not to let it smoke.
Step 4: Pour the flour into a large paper bag, such as a grocery bag. Add 6 to 8 chicken pieces to the bag at a time. Use one hand to close and grip the top of the bag, and one hand to support the bottom of the bag. Gently shake the bag from side to side, coating the chicken pieces with flour on all sides.
Step 5: Fry these pieces, carefully placing them into the oil one at a time. Do not flour all the chicken pieces in advance. Flour them just before frying.
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 golden brown, turn it to brown on the other side, 8 to 10 minutes longer. The chicken will float when it is fully cooked. Regulate 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 finished, place the chicken on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat this process until done.
Reprinted with permission from Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes From the Matriarch of Edisto Island by Emily Meggett with contributions by Kayla Stewart and Trelani Michelle, copyright © 2022. Published by Abrams Books.
Photography by Clay Williams, copyright © 2022.