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From tumultuous beginnings, chicken between two pieces of bread has been a stalwart of pop cuisine. Follow us far down the rabbit hole as we indulge ourselves in the history and evolution of the Chicken Burger. We’ll also address the big chicken in the room - the controversial naming convention.
Warning: this story goes into far more detail about chicken burgers/sandwiches than most would ever care to know. Read on at your own risk.
Choose your own adventure.
All three of these situations have something in common. It’s chicken burger time. You know it and we know it. The spot will be well hit.
Now you remember the feeling but do you know the story of one of the world’s most popular burgers? Some of you might already take issue with the fact we’re calling that picture above a burger but, alas, let us shed some light. For the answer to this naming convention we have to go back to the start and clear this mess up once and for all!
Let's begin with the Montagus. Specifically, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. It was the year 1762 and young John had a gambling problem. One day, when sitting at the games table, this lazy sod decided he didn’t want to get up for lunch and asked for something to eat at the table where he wouldn’t get his hands dirty. The cook sent up a bit of meat between two slices of bread. Bam! What a revelation so thought Montagu and soon the two became inseparable anywhere at any time. As Montagu got around a bit, this new combination got a bit of publicity and became so popular with the English beau-monde, people would ask for the “Same as Sandwich” which eventually became simply “sandwich” all named after a lazy gambler. Or in actual fact, his cook.
In further ‘actual fact’ John had travelled through the Mediterranean prior and most likely got the inspiration from the Turkish / Greek mezze plates. Had to be said.
Eventually the sandwich made it across the Atlantic to a newly formed country made up of 13 states in 1776; America. Officially the sandwich first appeared in an American cookbook in 1815 but the true explosion happened after the forming of the union following the American civil war. So popular did the sandwich become that it finally received a national day in the USA on November the 3rd - the Earl’s birthday, which is celebrated still to this day. Strangely, only in recent years have the English started celebrating the day along with a dedicated week to Sandwiches that takes place in May.
Now with the history of the sandwich somewhat covered, we need to address the chicken. Particularly fried chicken. The Scottish used to fry their breaded chicken in fat which made for a very bland but crunchy piece of chicken. Check out this 300 year old recipe here.
What took this chicken to stardom was the eventual combination of cultures in the newly formed union; America. True, the Scottish/English settlers brought the breaded chicken, but the West African slaves made it taste good.
Let's extrapolate a little here. The West African slaves in the southern states of the US were not allowed many possessions and had restrictions on what they could grow or raise. Chicken was commonly the only livestock allowed by many slave owners, so the slaves combined their West African spice routes along with the breaded coating of the Scottish/English settlers and came up with a spiced fried chicken. See the images below - left is the OG Scottish style and right the West African Style.
Sidebar - It is known that stewed chicken originated China, West Africa and the Middle East between 7500 - 5000 BCE but the West Africans were the first known to cook the chicken in hot oil. You can see what's happening here.
For a general rundown on how "How African American Cuisine Transformed America" check out High on the Hog on Netflix.
There is, however, little debate that fried chicken as we know it today, originated in the south. It's first written appearance is in Mary Randolph's (tidbit - her brother was married to Thomas Jefferson's daughter) "The Virginia Housewife, Or Methodical Cook" which first came out way back in 1825.
Ok, ok, there is some debate from over the pond with a recipe appearing in Hannah Glasse's "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy" published in Britain in 1747. Here's a section from 'how to marinate chickens''...
“Cut two chickens into quarters, lay them in vinegar, for three or four hours, with pepper, salt, a bay leaf, and a few cloves, make a very thick batter, first with half a pint of wine and flour, then the yolks of two eggs, a little melted butter, some grated nutmeg and chopped parsley; beat very well together, dip your fowls in the batter, and fry them in a good deal of hog’s lard, which must first boil before you put your chickens in.”
Well. Still not quite spiced hey.
Go further on your fried chicken discovery - See our article on Nashville hot chicken here. - https://denverandliely.com/blogs/journal/true-religion-nashville-hot-chicken
So now we have the history and ingredients, let’s once and for all address the naming convention.
What is a sandwich and what is a burger? After doing much research in the area, it appears that this will be a discussion for the ages.
If you want to get into it here are some debates to sink your teeth into:
Basically, it appears the only thing punters can agree upon is that it comes down to the bread.
Sandwiches require 2 slices of bread (as Montagu had done).
Burgers require a sliced bun.
That’s settled. There’s no real good reason as to why it’s called a chicken sandwich, therefore, for the rest of this article and for the rest of time, we will call it a chicken burger. It appears the current US naming convention is a quirk in the development of the American English language inline with the commercial rise of the beef burger...oh boy that’s a rabbit hole we're not going to touch.
Now back to the chicken sandwich. Haha. There’s no doubt that the chicken burger originated in the United States, however, again, it’s date and inventor is much debated.
The very popular Christian fast food chain of Chick-fil-A (Originally the Dwarf House) founded by Truett Cathy is the self proclaimed inventor of the “Chicken Sandwich” in 1964. As the story goes, a poultry supplier to the Airlines ended up with a lot of extra chicken breast leftover from an order and approached Cathy. Seeing an opportunity, Cathy decided to pressure cook the breast as his mother had done and could get the breasts out in 4 minutes. Perfect for the FIFO (fly in fly out) lunch workers.
Problem for ol' Truett is that this story just doesn’t stack up considering the area he was in and it’s history of fried chicken dating back to the 1830’s.
Here are a few of the rebuttals.
[A recipe from 1956: barbecued Barnyard burgers ]
"Chicken burgers. One cup cooked chicken, chopped, 1 egg slightly beaten, 1 cup soft bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons minced parsley, 1 tablespoon minced onion, 1/4 teaspoon salt; dash of pepper. Combine all ingredients and form into 4 patties. Broil until brown on both sides. Serve hot in toasted enriched buns. Garnish with stuffed olive."---"Tuna and Chicken Burgers Add Variety to Barbecue," The Bee [Danville VA], June 7, 1956 (p. 8)
Waffle House (in Avondale) taken in 1955 - note the sign
[An advertisement from Kraft Food from 1938]
We have been struggling to find a photo of the ad but there was a fried chicken sandwich advertised in Topeka’s Kansas Whip newspaper way back in 1936 at the Booker T’s Cafe and is referenced in many articles.
The history is murky to say the least but it’s hard ignore the most likely inception was gradual, combining the new trend from ol’ mate Montagu through the new English/Scottish settlers with the cuisine of the West African slaves as mentioned previously. If sliced bread and buns were around along with fried chicken well ummm...
We would be amiss if we didn’t pay at least a passing nod to the American Chicken Burger wars. It all went down in the summer of 2019. Popeyes fired the first shot by effectively taking the chick-fil-a recipe and putting their own flavour on it. Behold, the basic components for a modern day chicken burger;
Hand Breaded White Chicken Breast
So popular was the Popeyes burger that it sold out for an entire summer in 2 weeks causing such strain to the business that they only returned to menus 2 months later. In the meantime, the other chains stood up and took notice along with the chicken burger giant, Chick-fil-A.
Basically every chain from McDonalds to Outback restaurants brought up their premium chicken burger game. Yes that’s right. The local mighty beef bowed to chicken.
Parallel to the chain chicken burgers has been the evolution of premium chicken burgers worldwide with cross cultural influences along with high end gastronomy techniques taking a stab at the American staple.
Here's a few of our picks from around the world. Some simple and some not so.
Mexico - Belmundo
The low down - The chicken is juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside with just the right amount of seasoning - cabbage/carrot and beetroot salad in a dijon and tabasco dressing. My gawd. It’s a masterpiece. Easily the best burger available on Uber eats.
USA - Pikunico
The low down - Turmeric-tinged bun with pickled daikon, watercress, alfalfa sprouts, lemon aioli, and miso jam. The jalapeno’s heat is a pleasant surprise.
Want to know how to make this gluten free dream boat? Click here
USA - Chick-fil-A
The low down - This is a chain burger if ever we saw one but it's certainly a good one. However, the thing with chain burgers is they need to fill a whole bunch of other requirements that the one-off shops don't. Long shelf life, consistent flavour, low skill preparation and quick turnaround for orders. Check this out for an ingredient list - Chicken (boneless skinless chicken breast filet, seasoning [salt, monosodium glutamate, sugar, spices, paprika], enriched bleached wheat flour [with malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate, nonfat milk, leavening [baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate], spice, soybean oil, color [paprika], water, nonfat milk, egg, fully refined peanut oil, with Dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foam agent added), bun (flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], water, sugar, yeast, wheat gluten, contains 2% or less of each of the following: soybean oil, salt, cultured wheat flour, vinegar, calcium sulfate, ascorbic acid, enzymes, wheat starch, monoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, DATEM, soy lecithin, potassium iodate, soybean oil, palm kernel oil, soy lecithin, natural flavor and beta carotene), pickle (cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, potassium sorbate [preservative], natural flavors [dill emulsion], polysorbate 80, yellow 5, blue 1)
UK - Chick’n’Sours
One from one of the new gang mini local chains. Properly made. Think a fried thigh, gochujang mayo, chilli vinegar, Asian ‘slaw & sriracha sour cream. A salivating sensation especially when you've taken the tube to get there and walked through the cold London streets to get there. Nothing better.
Australia - Palette
The low down - Korean style fried chicken fillet, kimchi-slaw, salad leaves, pickles, gochujang aioli on toasted brioche bun. Again the Asian influence breathes new life into the fried chicken burger.
So where are we at with the chicken burger? It has been interesting to see the introduction of kimchi and the like for an acidity replacement as well as variation in bun styles including the bao as pictured below from Lazy Su.
There will, no doubt, be the rise of 'alternative' chicken made from vegetarian/sustainable sources. These products will only get better over time. As a matter of fact, there are a bunch of plant based chicken burgers that are bomb right now! You just need to hunt them out. Here's one featured on Fresh, Fried and Crispy on Netflix. Skip through on the first episode to 10:20 for one hell of a burger from Sweet Art in St Louis, USA.
We'd also love to see further experimentation into the batter and frying methods. Back in the day, Truett supposedly revolutionized the industry by effectively using a pressure fryer to reduce cooking times and maintain flavour. Not all that much has changed in the method of making the burger since. Someone will come up with something!
Can't say I didn't thoroughly enjoy writing this story. All of it through from research to sampling near 90 different chicken burgers worldwide. From humble beginnings, an unlikely combination of cultures, through to the absolute gastronomic delights we've tasted, the chicken burger is alive and well. The recent resurgence, in part due to the chicken burger wars, hasn't quite slowed down demand or it's infiltration to all corners of the globe. And that's a good thing. A brilliant thing. Especially with a good bourbon in hand in a good bourbon glass. Feel me? The continual touch of various cultures on the chicken burger since its inception has made it even more timeless to my eyes. Good things are meant to evolve and gawd damn the chicken burger is a good thing.