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Sizzlin Feature

Bird is the Word

At Picnic Time, There's Something About Maryland Chicken

By Natalie Davis | Posted 5/23/2001

Much of our state's culinary charm comes from Chesapeake Bay seafood, and that's cool. But a summertime picnic just isn't a picnic without a batch of golden, crispy Maryland fried chicken.

The Colonel may have made "Kentucky" synonymous with fried chicken, but the Free State can more than hold its own on fowl ground. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maryland ranks seventh among the states in producing broilers (frying chickens)--nearly 1.4 billion pounds worth last year. The Eastern Shore is home to the nation's fourth-largest chicken producer, Salisbury-based Perdue Farms, and No. 1 Tyson Foods, headquartered in Arkansas, bases much of its operation here. Maryland chicken is big business.

It may also be a big headache, environmentally speaking, depending on whom you ask. (The state blames runoff from big poultry operations for fish-killing Pfiesteria.) But for many cooks with a Maryland state of mind, chicken is a lifesaver--less expensive and easier to get than fresh seafood, relatively easy to prepare but a challenge to get just right. Chicken is a super source of protein, there are no biblical prohibitions against eating it, and it doesn't put on airs--you can, nay, you're supposed to eat it with your fingers. And good fried chicken is its own piece of heaven.

So what makes our state's fried poultry so special? And what, for that matter, makes an oil-cooked fowl a Maryland fried chicken?

Any number of things, apparently. A scan of 100-odd cookbooks revealed more than 50 recipes for the dish. The one many experts cite as the first appeared in 1828, in the third printing of Mary Randolph's The Virginia House-Wife: Chickens are cut up, dredged in flour, sprinkled with a little salt, put into a skillet with hot fat, and fried until golden brown. Linda Stradley, the Oregon-based co-author of What's Cooking America, says she too has seen a bevy of Maryland fried chicken methods. "Through the years there have been hundreds of attempts to improve upon [Randolph's] recipe, and plenty of tricks and special touches," Stradley writes via e-mail, "but they are all simply minor variations on the original."

Cindy Wolf, executive chef and owner of Baltimore's Southern-flavored Charleston restaurant, makes more than minor variations to create her special--and infrequently offered--fried chicken. "I use a boneless, skinless breast that's been marinated in buttermilk, flour, salt, and pepper for 24 hours," she says. "Then I bread it with cornmeal, all-purpose flour, and sesame seeds, salt, and black pepper, and deep-fry it in very fresh peanut oil."

Not everyone takes the notion of Maryland fried chicken as far afield as Wolf does, but there seem to be as many versions of the dish as there are cooks making it. "Our fried chicken is unique," says Dave Crump, general manager/executive chef at Micah's, the buffet-style soul-food mecca in Northwest Baltimore. "It comes in fresh, and we inspect and hand-season each piece. Then we marinate it, lightly batter it, use the best oils, and keep it fresh on the line."

"It's the breading," insists Linda Wilkerson, whose family owns the Ocean City eatery Capt. Bob's. Wilkerson won't reveal what's in the Capt. Bob's mix, but whatever it is, "It brings out the flavor of the chicken and makes it really crunchy."

But all these chefs agreed on one thing: Using local birds is key. One of the oldest Maryland distributors is, appropriately enough, Maryland Chicken Co., which was founded by Herman Lubcher as a poultry retailer in 1950 and soon expanded into distributing whole and cut chickens to many Eastern states. Barry Goldberg joined the firm in 1960; after a long career, he sold it in 1998.

"What made Maryland Chicken special was being local--you couldn't get chicken fresher," Goldberg says. "We could often offer overnight service. If the bird was killed today, you'd have it in your store tomorrow, if not sooner."

That kind of service to retail customers gave Baltimore-based Maryland Chicken an edge, Goldberg says. "We would service them to death. We'd help them with their ads, and if we saw something good for customers we got it for them. Anybody could sell a box of chicken; we tried to give them something extra."

Doug Green, a fifth-generation farmer and the first in his Somerset County family to raise poultry, is a contract grower for Perdue, raising chicks for the industry giant. (Green also grows soybeans and corn, which he sells to feed mills owned by chicken producers throughout the Delmarva region.) It's his job to raise baby chickens until they reach market weight--four to five pounds for broilers, seven to eight pounds for chickens that will be sold whole. At 7 or 8 weeks of age, he says, the birds are transported to a processing plant for slaughter: "They usually use a mild electric shock to stun them, and then they go through a machine that cuts their throats. It's very humane."

Like Goldberg, Green has seen major changes in the state's poultry industry. Some, he insists, are for the better.

"Perdue made the industry more quality conscious, and that's good for us and consumers," Green says. "Technology has allowed us to become more efficient, productive, and humane. And as the industry has evolved, research has propelled it by leaps and bounds over other meat industries in the last 30 years. We're producing a much better, much safer chicken."

But the industry's growth has come at a price. In 1996, watermen started discovering lesion-covered fish in the Pocomoke River. The culprit was the bacteria Pfiesteria piscicida--"a mean little critter," Carole Morison wrote in an August 1997 issue of the now-defunct Web zine The Shore Journal, "waiting for the perfect water conditions to rear its ugly head and attack." The Maryland Department of Agriculture determined that the combination of heavy rains and the spreading by Eastern Shore farmers of poultry waste on fields as fertilizer caused excessive runoff into the waters of the Pocomoke, making conditions prime for Pfiesteria to grow.

The state instituted new regulations and threatened poultry producers with steep fines for noncompliance. Farmers protested, complaining that politics and public relations motivated the harsh measures. But by the end of 2000, Maryland had become the first state to issue five-year permits to major poultry producers establishing shared responsibility between processors and their contract growers to provide adequate facilities and recycling options to manage excess chicken waste.

"I have no problem sharing responsibility for keeping our waters clean," Green says. "Maryland farmers--and this may be what helps make our chicken special--believe we're stewards of the land, the birds, and the bay. We've been doing things for the environment a lot longer than people think. Farmers are very proactive, and we've surpassed every standard the state set for us. We didn't get credit for it. I'm still not sure that we're getting the credit we deserve."

And not just in terms of the environment, Green says. Agriculture remains a major economic engine in Maryland, he says, and an important, often forgotten part of the state's history and culture: "We were largely agricultural before World War II, but now we're four or five generations past that. Most people have no clue how chicken gets onto their plates, and they don't appreciate the importance of the poultry industry in their own lives and in the state's economy." (In 1999, according to the trade association Delmarva Poultry Industry, 36 percent of Maryland's cash farm income came from poultry.) "We have to educate the nonfarming community about what we do. If we don't do that, they can't understand our problems and our importance."

That legacy, Green says, is part of the mystique of Maryland fried chicken, transcending any particular way of making the dish. "It's a cultural thing," he says. "I think it represents a way of life that is particular to Maryland."

Bill Reihl, a public-relations executive now living in Atlanta, grew up in the Kent County town of Rock Hall. "When I was a little kid, I'd see these chicken houses, low-slung narrow buildings," he says. "The farmers would get their birds in, and there'd be a sea of tens of thousands of baby chicks that would get trucked out after they attained market weight." In those days, Reihl says, "churches would hold fund-raisers, and not fish fries or crab feasts--they'd always be chicken events. The Lions Club would sell open-roasted chicken once a week. Lots of summer picnics and lots of fried chicken."

Reihl realized his home-state fowl's cachet during a period when he lived in Manhattan. (After visits to the folks in Rock Hall, he says, he'd catch a ride back north in an Allen Family Farms truck delivering chickens to New York.) "I remember walking along Broadway, on the Upper West Side, and seeing a [restaurant] sign saying maryland fried chicken. It blew me away." And the chicken? "Really good."

Since the days of Mary Randolph, perhaps no one has done more to make "Maryland fried chicken" a familiar term than Albert Constantine, actually a native of nearby Wilmington, Del. After moving to Florida in 1959, Constantine, then 39, decided to become a restaurateur. With only "$2,500 and good credit," he bought a place in the Orlando area, dubbed it Constantine's, and served a traditional full menu.

Two years later, another newcomer appeared on the local dining scene--an honorary Kentucky colonel named Harland Sanders. "He had a line outside his store every day and all day Sunday," Constantine complains. "I figured I could do business like that too."

But first, he had to come up with a counter to the colonel's meal ticket. Constantine had a "broaster," a pressure-fryer for chicken, and he decided to put it to use. He experimented with thousands of combinations of ingredients; eventually he came up with a breading that he says incorporated 21 herbs and spices. Then he pressure-fried the chicken in pure peanut oil.

"It wasn't greasy at all," Constantine contends. "It was the best chicken in the world."

Now ready to engage the colonel fowl for fowl, Constantine had a stroke of marketing genius. A few years earlier, Maryland-based aerospace giant Glenn L. Martin Co. (now Lockheed Martin Corp.) opened an Orlando plant, which brought a wave of Baltimoreans to town. Eager to exploit the Mobtowners' likely need for "a taste of home," Constantine went for the jugular: "I called my place Maryland Fried Chicken and put up a 35-foot sign. From day one, people snapped it up."

He went on to establish a chain of MFCs that earned him millions before he finally sold the franchise operation in 1975. Retired since then, he says he spends his time "dancing with pretty ladies" and traveling. Meanwhile, MFC eateries still thrive in a host of states, although not their namesake; the nearest outposts are in Bethlehem and Easton, Pa. But they still get most of their birds from Delmarva producers--and, Constantine says, still traffic in the nostalgic ideal of family farms and picnics in the sun.

"I hear it's a good way of life," he says. "I guess for a lot of people, the chicken represents that."

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