This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman


October 22, 2020

You’re welcome, America. I bring you news this week that a delicacy this country has long been known for was originally brought to you from my side of the pond. I speak, though it might surprise you, of one of the most iconic dishes of them all: fried chicken.

It’s as American as apple pie – to me as much as it is to you – so I was surprised to find its origins in Scotland. Not all of it, of course, as there are likely hundreds of ways to go about frying a chicken; we are specifically talking about the style that found its spiritual home in the South.

The precise recipe for a fried chicken the Colonel would recognize appeared in an 1824 cookbook called “The Virginia House-Wife” by Mary Randolph. That publication is widely accepted to be the first time Southern fried chicken turned up in print on these shores, and involved the now-familiar method of dredging the chicken in flour, sprinkling it with salt and frying in lard.

However, the same recipe appeared decades earlier in “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”, published in 1747 in Britain. It isn’t called fried chicken – it’s “to marinate chickens” instead – but the technique is extremely similar.

The author was English and the cookbook was published in Dublin, but it included a range of traditional recipes from around Britain. Further proof comes in a 1773 biography by James Boswell, who described a fried chicken dinner he was served by an elderly tacksman on the Isle of Skye.

Certain historians of a culinary bent now believe the tradition of frying chickens in fat came over with the Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers during the 1700s. I have no difficulty accepting this because it is a truth widely accepted that the Scots will deep fry absolutely anything.

This myth was born in 1992, in a fish and chip shop on the northeast coast of Scotland. The chef of the Haven Chip Bar birthed a brand new stereotype when he decided to dunk a Milky Way® in batter and throw it in the deep fryer.

Now, for reasons best known to the marketing department, Milky Ways are known as Mars Bars® in Britain. This artery-clogging delight of fat and sugar was thus dubbed “the deep fried Mars Bar”, a name that really does get straight to the point.

It caught imaginations around the world and people started to assume that it wasn’t so much a novelty as a normal dinner in a Scottish household. This led a medical journal to commission the University of Dundee to perform a study that involved calling 627 fish and chip shops across Scotland to ask them if they were currently selling said delicacy.

Only 66 of them were, but others had done so in the past. The number may also have been lower than expected as some said they refused to sell them because they turn the frying oil black.

But despite the deep fried Mars Bar not being nearly as ubiquitous as everyone seemed to think, it did start something of a trend. A lot of Scots were already fed up of their burgeoning reputation for having the worst diet in the developed world (largely because it’s not true).

However, other Scots appear to have decided that, if people are going to think a certain thing about you no matter what you do, you might as well just run with it and see what happens.

Since that time, Scottish chip shops have thrown every candy bar they can think of in the fryer just to see what might come out. Look hard enough and you can find fried Crème Eggs®, chocolate-covered coconut bars, Snickers® and even Turkish delight.

It’s not restricted to the sweet portion of the menu, either. As though deciding these things were far too healthy in their ordinary forms, Scottish chefs have invented dishes ranging from deep fried pizza to deep fried cheeseburgers and – because there’s just not enough fat in the original concept to really squeeze your heart pipes – deep fried butter in Irn Bru® batter (try saying that one three times fast.)

The relationship between Scots and their deep fryers has become such an inside joke that you really have to push the boat out these days to get noticed. A fish and chip shop in Perthshire probably set the bar about as high as it’s ever going to go back in 2018, when it began offering an entirely deep fried Christmas dinner.

Now, Christmas dinner in Britain is something along the lines of Thanksgiving in its overall execution. The meal on offer at this chippy therefore included the following:

Deep-fried turkey goujons; so far, so good. Giant “pig-in-a-blanket”, which in Britain is a name for a cocktail sausage wrapped in bacon, but in this case is a really big battered sausage.

Battered and deep-fried Brussels sprouts come next, which is where things start to go off the rails. The normally healthy vegetable side of your meal also includes battered and deep fried carrots and parsnip fritters, followed by a deep fried mince pie for dessert. Oh and, yes, in case you’re wondering: it’s served on a bed of deep fried chunky potato fries (or, if you’re using the proper lingo, “chips”.)

The end result is a box of delights that are wildly different in taste, but uniformly beige in color. My biggest concern is how easy it would be to pop a piece of turkey in your mouth and bite down only to discover it was a sprout.

I think the lesson I’ve learned from all this – aside from there being a lot more things you can throw in a fryer than I’d have thought – is that it’s never worth being too upset by things other people decide to think about you. Instead, as the Scots have proved, not taking oneself too seriously can have surprisingly delicious results.


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