It was a place where African Americans could escape the gaze of White Washington.
In the early and mid-20th century, America in general, and Washington specifically, was still a segregated land, with an imbalance of power established by laws, informal agreements, vigilantes and racist stereotypes. One of the most persistent, and pernicious, stereotypes involved fried chicken, that staple of the American South. Through postcards and ads, films and commercials, interviews and memes, Black Americans were (and continue to be) subjected to a multigenerational smear campaign designed to erase their expanding social and political status. It linked them to a dish that they had a large hand in creating, based on a bird with a sacred history in West Africa, all somehow trying to “prove” the inferiority of African Americans.
“My argument is the Lost Cause was maybe lost but never abandoned,” says Adrian Miller, a food scholar who wrote the 2013 book, “Soul Food.” “So these Whites that were stripped of power, they see this emerging African American cultural, political, socio-economic — at least the seedlings of that power — and so they started a culture war.”
“I don’t know why it worked, but demonizing African Americans and food was part of a message,” Miller continues. “It was part of a culture war to say, ‘Why are you giving these people these rights? And trying to integrate them in society? They’re not worthy of it, and here’s why.’”
Here in the 21st century, Jim Crow laws are history. America has elected a Black man to the highest office in the land — twice. But the racist stereotypes around fried chicken have largely held firm. They have gnawed at generations of Black Americans (even a Black woman in England), at times depriving them of the pure gustatory bliss that White Americans take for granted, especially when a Black man or woman dares to bite into a crispy piece of chicken in public.
Years ago, Dave Chappelle identified the issue in a pitch-perfect stand-up routine, satire dripping from his every word. Chappelle pretends to eat his microphone, as if it were a chicken leg, while a White parent and child watch from a distance. “Look at him!” Chappelle says, parodying an uptight White man’s voice. “He loves it. Just like it says in the encyclopedia. Look how happy he looks.”
Chef Rahman “Rock” Harper, founder of Queen Mother’s Fried Chicken in Arlington and winner of season three of “Hell’s Kitchen,” says he has seen the impact these stereotypes have had on the Black community. “I know people, celebrities, prominent individuals who will not eat bone-in chicken in public,” says Harper. Perhaps more insidious, these stereotypes have tried to strip away any sense of pride that Black Americans have about chicken, a bird that their enslaved ancestors might have farmed, cooked, eaten, sold and used to secure their freedom. This smear campaign has all but said, “We’re going to make you hate this very powerful thing,” Harper says. “We’re going to make you hate yourself.”
The loss created by this disinformation is incalculable, not just the loss of power but also the loss of pleasure. Yet, over the last few weeks, as I plotted out my chicken runs — from the breakfast sandwich at Butter Me Up to a whole line of sandwiches at the new Roaming Rooster location at the Ellington — I noticed a small trend along the U Street corridor. It mirrored a larger national trend: Black chefs, Black restaurateurs and Black customers alike are publicly embracing the dish that racist America has long tried to demonize as uncivilized.
“The heartening thing that I’m seeing” says Miller, the food scholar, “is more and more African American chefs are saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to embrace my heritage. I don’t care what y’all think. This is glorious stuff, and I’ve got my spin on it. I’m going to make my contribution to the culinary scene by talking about this food and sharing it with people.’ ”
So, yes, America has been enjoying a fried chicken sandwich renaissance over the past year and a half, but it’s also been quietly reckoning with a racist past that, like the recent cries of election fraud, has absolutely no basis in reality. This might be something you can chew over as you bite into one (or several) of my favorite fried chicken sandwiches from around the D.C. area.
Queen Mother’s Fried Chicken, (located inside La Cocina Cafe, 918 S. Lincoln St., No. 2, Arlington; 703-997-8474; rocksolidfood.com/queenmothersdc). Growing up in Alexandria, Rock Harper didn’t realize he was poor, he says, until someone pointed it out to him. Perhaps that’s because Harper was surrounded, as he notes, with “a lot of friends and love.” His mother, Carole Harper, was also a great cook. Her chicken, fried in a cast-iron skillet, still influences his approach to the dish, even though his career path has taken him to culinary school and through kitchens such as B. Smith’s and the Carlyle Club. Harper relies on many of the same flavors that his mom uses: onions, garlic, paprika (though Harper now prefers the smoked variety from Spain), salt and pepper. But over the years, he has developed a three-flour blend for his dredge that makes for a thin, shattering shell, which encases an 8-ounce piece of breast meat brined, not in buttermilk, but in a salt-and-sugar solution. At nearly $15, the Queen Mother’s Classic is not a cheap sandwich. But it’s a great sandwich, maybe the best. (Note: Be mindful of the shop’s limited hours. It’s open for lunch Tuesday through Friday only.)
Etta Faye’s Fried Chicken, (1051 N. Highland St.,Arlington, 571-312-8791; ettafayeschickenshack.com). Etta Faye’s is a ghost kitchen operating out of Smokecraft Modern Barbecue (No. 4 in last year’s rankings). It’s the brainchild of executive sous chef Will Burke, who named the pop-up after his grandmother and based its menu on two of her favorite comforts: fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits. Unlike many of the chicken sandwiches out there, the ones at Etta Faye’s rely on buttermilk-brined thigh meat, not breast meat. “I don’t have any white meat chicken in the house,” says Andrew Darneille, owner and pitmaster of Smokecraft. Those biscuits are so flaky, they barely hold their form, which explains why your sandwich is packaged to go with little assembly. You have to apply your own pickles and/or harissa hot sauce and kimchi slaw (if you order the Hot D*amn sandwich, whose heat is not as intimidating as the name suggests). The DIY assembly is a smart way to prevent your sandwich from disintegrating before you take a single bite. When you do bite into the “simple” sandwich, your first reaction may be similar to mine: BUTTER! If this sandwich were any more Southern, it’d hold a lighter aloft and yell for “Free Bird.”
Roaming Rooster, (3176 Bladensburg Rd. NE, 202-507-8734; 1301 U St NW, 202-808-2993; roamingroosterdc.com). My affection for Roaming Rooster is well-documented. The budding chain was founded, in part, by two brothers from Ethiopia, where cooks, unlike those in West Africa, have little experience with fried foods. But the owners — Michael and Biniam Habtemariam, along with Biniam’s wife, Hareg Mesfin — are quick studies. They’ve transformed the fast-food fried chicken sandwich into a statement of purpose: They rely on breast meat from free-range, grain-fed, antibiotic-free birds. Brined in buttermilk and dredged in seasoned flour, the chicken is fried to a golden state, its crunch less pronounced perhaps than others. But the secret, I’m convinced after many tastings, is the kitchen’s housemade vinaigrette slaw, which electrifies every bite. It’s little wonder that, without any outside investment, Roaming Rooster has expanded to U Street, with other locations to follow in Tenleytown, the new Western Market food hall and Anacostia. “It’s the American Dream,” Michael Habtemariam says.
Fuku, (delivery only, available in Northwest Washington and Arlington; eatfuku.com). Fuku’s original location in the East Village was chef and enfant terrible David Chang’s attempt to enter the fast-casual fried chicken market — and reclaim a few racist stereotypes. The walls were decorated with framed posters, featuring some of the most offensive Asian characters in cinema. The sandwich wrappers were printed with the word, ‘Dericious!” Chang wanted “white people to see it and feel completely uncomfortable saying it out loud,” he wrote in his memoir, “Eat a Peach.” Few diners got the point, and Chang soon dropped the coded references. Fuku survived the awkward branding to become a growing chain of ghost kitchens that offer fried chicken sandwiches and chicken fingers to those fortunate enough to live in the delivery zone. I don’t. So I parked my car outside the After Hours tuxedo rental shop in Arlington, typed the address into my app and informed my delivery driver about the subterfuge. I was rewarded with a New Spicy Fried Chicken Sando right in my car. It has to be one of crunchiest chicken sandwiches ever, each bite cushioned in a soft Martin’s potato bun, the contrasts seductive. The heat, like the chain’s original branding, is no joke: Its spice surpasses some Nashville hot chicken I’ve sampled.
Butter Me Up, (651 Florida Ave. NW, 202-986-2079; halfsmoke.com). Located steps from Howard University, the historically Black university that serves as the beating heart of the neighborhood, Butter Me Up is a breakfast pop-up inside Halfsmoke. It’s one of several ghost kitchens that owner Andre McCain has installed to survive this mess. One of Butter Me Up’s best eye openers is a sandwich by the name of Feels Like Home. It starts with organic thigh meat, brined in buttermilk, and topped with this gooey, glorious mass of soft scrambled eggs and a layer of smoked cheddar cheese. Somewhere in this mountain of ingredients, there are also caramelized onions, Sriracha mayo and Gordy’s pickles, all of which add moisture that tends to soften the crunch of the chicken. You won’t mind. This high-calorie breakfast sandwich is basically built to put you right back to sleep. It sounds like the perfect survival tool for the rest of the pandemic.
Stellina Pizzeria, (399 Morse St. NE, 202-851-3995; stellinapizzeria.com.) The Popeye fried chicken panini at Stellina may allude to its fast-food cousin, but the sandwich has nothing to do with the Louisiana-inspired chain. No, the inspiration behind this particular Popeye comes from Avellino, a Southern Italian town situated on a plain in the Apennine Mountains. Stellina co-founder Antonio Matarazzo hails from the area, and his mom used to make a beloved roast chicken dish with potatoes, pork and sausage. “We’re like, ‘Let’s try to reproduce that dish just using different kinds of meats in a sandwich,’” says Matteo Venini, chef and co-owner. The result is a jaw-dropping (jaw-unhinging?) sandwich, featuring leg meat that’s deboned, brined, cooked sous-vide for two hours and then fried to order. The chicken is paired with smashed fingerling sweet potatoes, red cabbage, speck, mixed greens and a spicy aioli spiked with three chiles. The flavors are so robust — sweet, spicy, acidic, savory, herbal — your palate won’t know what hit it. And don’t forget: The Popeye is sandwiched between bread made from Stellina’s pizza dough. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.
Mélange, (449 K St. NW; 202-289-5471; melangedc.com). Chef and owner Elias Taddesse grew up with a foot in two cultures, one American and the other Ethiopian. It should come as no surprise that when the former fine dining chef tried his hand at a fried chicken sandwich, he incorporated both influences. The National is American in appearance — exuberant, abundant and messy — but its soul is Ethiopian. The sandwich is a riff on doro wat, the sweet, spicy chicken stew often described as the national dish of Ethiopia. Deboned breast meat is marinated in buttermilk with the spices and chiles associated with doro wat, including black cardamom, black cumin and berbere. The flour dredge includes many of the same ingredients. The chicken is then tucked into an onion roll (a nod to the onion-enriched sauce for doro wat) and surrounded with a turmeric slaw, an Ethiopian spiced-butter aioli and a fried or hard-cooked egg. The flavors of this chicken sandwich are unmistakably Ethiopian, a reminder that American gastronomy knows few boundaries. We’re the better for it.