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Will Flavor Flav Return Fried Chicken to Its Roots?

5 minute read
Josh Ozersky

Normally, the opening of a fried-chicken restaurant in Clinton, Iowa, wouldn’t make much news, but that, presumably, is why the restaurant’s owner has partnered with Flavor Flav. The Public Enemy rapper, who has become a fixture on outré reality-TV shows, has decided to leverage his recent VH1-fueled fame in one of the happiest ways possible: by giving his name to a fried-chicken chain, set to open its first outlet sometime this year. “The Colonel better watch his back, G,” Flav boasted in late January. “The Colonel might end up in my fryer.”

Ah, Flav! You’re not the first celebrity to take on the Sanders dynasty. As I’ve learned while researching a biography on the Colonel, better men (and women) than you have tried — and failed. Case in point: in the 1960s, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson had her own fried-chicken chain, Mahalia Jackson’s Gloree-Fried Chicken. (Slogan: “It’s Gloree-Fried, and that’s the gospel truth.”) Jackson’s chain didn’t last too long before bowing to the all-powerful Colonel, but like Flav, she deserves notice by students of American food and culture for the fact that her eponymous chain underscored, in however exploitative a way, the connection between African-American culture and fried chicken. To my knowledge, Flav’s Fried Chicken (FFC) will mark the first time this has happened in the hip-hop era. I would have expected Jay-Z to be the one since he is already helping bankroll his cousin’s chicken-wing spot. But Jay-Hova, for now, remains just an investor. So it’s for Flav to carry the hip-hop banner into the chicken wars. And I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed. I want FFC to be A) good, B) successful and C) to finally do justice to fried chicken as an African-American invention.

(See the top 10 food trends of 2010.)

The U.S. didn’t invent hot dogs, it didn’t invent apple pie and it didn’t invent roast beef. But it did invent fried chicken the way we know and love it today. Slaves arriving in the South took the bland, unseasoned fried chicken being used in old Scottish recipes and added West African spices to it. They cooked it in lard in cast-iron pans. And since a lot of skill is needed to fry chicken well, techniques were passed down, usually mother to daughter, along with the well-seasoned, indestructible pans needed to cook the birds. Over the course of the 20th century, this chicken dish has been degraded by corporate America in a manner not unlike the way the African-American music has been degraded: frozen industrial chicken parts dropped into dirty, 400-degree oil is the culinary equivalent of using a gospel choir to back up Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” (I don’t know which one is worse!)

That’s why I’m always heartened to see another at least partially African-American-owned fried-chicken business. I still have a warm spot for Chicken George’s, a Baltimore-area chain named after the Roots character played by Ben Vereen that flourished briefly in the 1980s. Flavor Flav is probably not the guy I would have chosen to take up the gauntlet, but on the other hand, he did grow up in the restaurant business. His parents ran the Soul Diner on New York’s Long Island, and he went to culinary school in the ’70s. And since he has become known for wearing giant clocks around his neck, he’s unlikely to lose track of time and overcook his chicken.

(Read “KFC’s Colonel Sanders: He Was Real, Not Just an Icon.”)

What I’d really love to see, though, is his chain — or someone else’s — actually paying homage to the great, and rapidly disappearing, fried-chicken traditions that inspired the megachains like KFC and Popeyes. You can see, and eat, the originals — light as air, with delicate, perfectly rendered skin and piquant seasoning — at places like Dooky Chase in New Orleans, Bertha’s in Los Angeles and Charles Country Pan-Fried Chicken in Harlem. These restaurants don’t just serve fried chicken, either — a lot of them serve something even better called smothered chicken, which is fried chicken simmered in pan gravy.

I know that Flavor Flav is famous, but is that enough? If someone is going to go to war against the Colonel — and Flav is definitely going to war, even setting up shop next door to a KFC — I would hope that he represents the great African-American old-school chicken in the best possible way. To be fair, Flav seems pretty serious about it. Just watch this video. He’s passionate about seasoning. He’s keen on crunch. Who knows? Maybe Flav will be the one. It’s a noble, if quixotic undertaking since it’s unlikely anyone will ever topple the Colonel, but there may be no one better situated than Flavor Flav to, you know, fight the power.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award—winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky’s food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.

See TIME’s photo essay on food as pop culture.

See a video of TIME’s Joel Stein eating a KFC Double Down sandwich.

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