The Mystery of 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."
"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!