Young and Hungry

The Mystery of Maryland Fried Chicken

maryland fried chicken

The Maryland fried chicken at Crisfield Seafood Restaurant in Silver Spring

One of the online menus I found for Tommy Marcos' Ledo Restaurant noted that the Adelphi institution serves "Authentic Maryland Fried Chicken." I called to confirm that the place still offers the dish and was met with...momentary silence.

After a beat or two, the woman on the other end of the line finally said, sure, they could make it for me. The cooks would just need to make a quick run to the Shoppers Warehouse next door to buy chicken.

If I was impressed with Ledo's willingness to stretch its kitchen — the current menu, after all, does not offer Maryland fried chicken, authentic or otherwise — I was even more impressed with the bird in front of me. It was crispy, salty, moist, and savory. Why it's not on the full-time menu remains a mystery to me.

I asked our waitress if this version was considered authentic Maryland fried chicken. She checked with the kitchen, which confirmed that it was. I then asked the waitress if she knew the characteristics of authentic Maryland fried chicken. She didn't have a clue, and by the look on her face, I didn't have the heart to send her back into the kitchen for more answers.

I was left thinking the Baltimore City Paper must be right on some level: Maryland fried chicken is little more than crispy legs, thighs, and breasts prepared with birds raised in the Free State. It's sort of our Kentucky Fried Chicken, minus the secret recipe but with fresher birds.

"What made Maryland Chicken special was being local — you couldn't get chicken fresher," a source told BCP in 2001. "We could often offer overnight service. If the bird was killed today, you'd have it in your store tomorrow, if not sooner."

I have to admit that I find this locally sourced bird definition wholly unsatisfying, particularly because the Delmarva poultry industry is impossibly large and powerful and destructive. This is not a source to be proud of. The local-source definition also runs counter to a number of cookbooks, including the Harvest of American Cooking, a 1956 collection of stories and recipes by Mary Margaret McBride, who writes:

"Chicken Maryland was probably born in the kitchen of the 1600's, when the hot corn bread came from the oven at the exact moment that the floured, salted, peppered and fried golden-brown chicken was ready. And so the two were put together and another southern classic was created. The corn bread must be made with white cornmeal, sliced in half and the fried chicken placed on top, the boat of rich cream gravy alongside."

Michael Landrum, the man behind the Ray's empire, used to serve a Maryland fried chicken at Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring. The item is long gone, but Landrum's memory of it remains.

"What distinguishes it is that it's done in a cast-iron skillet," Landrum says, "and it's not submerged in oil." Instead, Landrum says the chicken is dredged in seasoned AP flour only (no egg dip) and then pan-fried with the bird submerged two-thirds deep in oil.

I tell Landrum about the many different variations of Maryland fried chicken that I've run across, and he says something that rings true: "Every family that's from Maryland has their own recipe."

In other words, Maryland fried chicken is sort of like ragu alla bolognesein Emilia-Romagna: The dish can vary  from household to household, but they're all authentic.

This is where you come in, Y&H Nation: What's your definition of Maryland fried chicken? And where are your favorite places to get it? E-mail me with your stories and recipes and restaurant suggestions. We'll get to the bottom of this yet!

  • just sayin

    Dredged in flour with some salt & pepper, cooked in oil but not submerged, as Landrum says. The only thing that makes it Maryland is that I make it in my house in Silver Spring. Was not even aware that I was following a tradition.

  • DanielK

    The fried chicken that Landrum was serving at Ray's the Classics was astounding - and frequently had me bypassing his masterful steaks to order a plate.

    I was crushed when he pulled it from the menu. I am hoping that it shows up on the menu at the forthcoming East River location.

  • monkeyrotica

    Having grown up in Maryland, I'd never heard of the stuff until I visited Galway in the mid 1990s and found it on the menu of a chip shop. They served it with pineapple. Then I dug up some old recipe books from the 1930s and almost all of them have recipes for Maryland Fried Chicken cooked in a shallow cast iron pan, finished in the oven, and served with pineapple. Because when I think "Maryland" I think "pineapple." And loveboat.

  • jeff n.

    I've labored under the impression for a very long time that it was the soaking it in buttermilk before frying that made it particularly Maryland-y – the BCP piece mentions this a little bit, but I dunno how common it is elsewhere.

  • saf

    Wow, something in common with monkey. Although my chip shop experience was in Donegal.

    I don't eat fish, so when the attachment wanted fish and chips, I got chicken. Maryland chicken. It was a deep-fried chicken breast topped with mozzarella cheese, a pineapple ring, and a maraschino cherry. I was baffled. Really, had it said Hawaiian chicken I could have seen it, but Maryland chicken?

  • monkeyrotica

    I don't think buttermilk is unique to Maryland. Many places in the South do this; one forgoes the wet/dry combo entirely and just soaks the chicken in a seasoned buttermilk/flour slurry before throwing them in boiling lard.

    Also, I think Hawaiian Fried Chicken should be served with poi and a slice of Spam.

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  • Brian Gabriel

    buttermilk is not unique to maryland. i like to cook recipes from the outback steakhouse for guests, which isn't maryland either but they love it.

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  • Anthony

    This myth of Maryland fried chicken is laughable its done the same way in most African African households and in may areas further south

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  • Quizicat

    I guess anyone can take the recipe and move it south. The best Maryland Fried Chicken I have ever had was at a little place called Staub's in Beallsville. Along with the large selection of fresh pies there was always a line out the door. Sadly it has closed.
    In the end how many ways can you fry a chicken? Fresh ingredients and preferably free range chicken and fresh oil
    plus the don't crowd or drown the chicken are the keys.