Fritters have existed in Europe since the middle ages. The Scots, and later Scottish immigrants to the southern United States, had a tradition of deep frying chicken in fat, unlike their English counterparts who baked or boiled chicken.
A number of West African cuisines featured dishes where chicken was fried, typically in palm oil, sometimes having been battered before. These would be served on special occasions in some areas, or sometimes sold in the streets as snacks in others. This provided some means of independent economy for enslaved and segregated African American women, who became noted sellers of poultry (live or cooked) as early as the 1730s. Because of this and the expensive nature of the ingredients, it was, despite popular perception, a rare and special dish in the African-American community.
After the development of larger and faster-growing hogs (due to crosses between European and Asian breeds) in the 18th and 19th century, in the United States, backyard and small-scale hog production provided an inexpensive means of converting waste food, crop waste, and garbage into calories (in a relatively small space and in a relatively short period of time). Many of those calories came in the form of fat and rendered lard. Lard was used for almost all cooking and was a fundamental component in many common homestead foods (many that today are still regarded as holiday and comfort foods) like biscuits and pies. The economic/caloric necessity of consuming lard and other saved fats may have led to the popularity of fried foods, not only in the US, but worldwide. In the 19th century cast iron became widely available for use in cooking. The combination of flour, lard, a chicken and a heavy pan placed over a relatively controllable flame became the beginning of today's fried chicken.
When it was introduced to the American South, fried chicken became a common staple. Later, as the slave trade led to Africans being brought to work on southern plantations, the slaves who became cooks incorporated seasonings and spices that were absent in traditional Scottish cuisine, enriching the flavor. Since most slaves were unable to raise expensive meats, but generally allowed to keep chickens, frying chicken on special occasions continued in the African American communities of the South. It endured the fall of slavery and gradually passed into common use as a general Southern dish. Since fried chicken traveled well in hot weather before refrigeration was commonplace, it gained further favor in the periods of American history when segregation closed off most restaurants to the black population. Fried chicken continues to be among this region's top choices for "Sunday dinner" among both blacks and whites. Holidays such as Independence Day and other gatherings often feature this dish.
Since the American Civil War, traditional slave foods like fried chicken, watermelon, and chitterlings have suffered a strong association with African American stereotypes and blackface minstrelsy. This was commercialized for the first half of the 20th century by restaurants like Sambo's and Coon Chicken Inn, which selected exaggerated depictions of blacks as mascots, implying quality by their association with the stereotype. Although also being acknowledged positively as "soul food" today, the affinity that African American culture has for fried chicken has been considered a delicate, often pejorative issue. While the perception of fried chicken as an ethnic dish has been fading for several decades, with the ubiquity of fried chicken dishes in the US, it persists as a racial stereotype.
Before the industrialization of chicken production, and the creation of broiler breeds of chicken, only young spring chickens (pullets or cockerels) would be suitable for the higher heat and relatively fast cooking time of frying, making fried chicken a luxury of spring and summer. Older, tougher birds require longer cooking times at lower temperatures. To compensate for this, sometimes tougher birds are simmered till tender, allowed to cool and dry, and then fried. (This method is common in Australia.) Another method is to fry the chicken pieces using a pan fried method. The chicken pieces are then simmered in liquid, usually, a gravy made in the pan that the chicken pieces were cooked in. This process (of flouring, frying and simmering in gravy) is known as "smothering" and can be used for other tough cuts of meat, such as swiss steak. Smothered chicken is still consumed today, though with the exception of people who raise their own chickens, or who seek out stewing hens, it is primarily made using commercial broiler chickens.
The derivative phrases "country fried" and "chicken fried" often refer to other foods prepared in the manner of fried chicken. Usually, this means a boneless, tenderized piece of meat that has been floured or battered and cooked in any of the methods described above or simply chicken which is cooked outdoors. Chicken fried steak and "country fried" boneless chicken breast are two common examples.
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