Culinary Racism

Trying to explain the “Obama Fried Chicken” incident and others like it.

Obama Fried Chicken in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Obama Fried Chicken in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama has found himself embroiled in one fried-chicken row after another. First there was the “Obama Fried Chicken” incident of 2009, in which a Bangladeshi immigrant who claimed to be naïve to the racist stereotype of African-Americans’ consumption of fried chicken decided to rebrand his poultry restaurant in homage to our nation’s commander in chief. He couldn’t have asked for a more effective advertising campaign, once the media caught wind of this fowl scandal. Even the Rev. Al Sharpton got involved in the street protests outside the Brooklyn eatery, pressuring for a return to the restaurant’s original name, Royal Fried Chicken. The owner refused to budge, and Obama Fried Chicken is still serving (apparently mediocre) hot wings and biscuits in Remsen Village today.

Then, this year, Kentucky Fried Chicken, that fulsome, ubiquitous goliath of fast-food chains, took considerable heat when its Chinese subsidiary aired a television commercial in Hong Kong featuring an Obama look-alike. The ad showed the Obama doppelgänger campaigning that “change is good” for the KFC menu. (He then gets inexplicably flattened on the podium by a gigantic fish sandwich.) In the face of racism allegations, the company yanked the ad and said that it wasn’t meant to offend anyone.

And just last month, a 21-year-old Chinese student opened his own carryout on the outskirts of Beijing, christened it “OFC” (short for “Obama Fried Chicken”), and above the door proudly erected a sign identical to the red-and-white KFC logo, except with Colonel Sanders’ iconic face replaced by that of a grinning Obama. “It’s insulting, offensive, and plays to racist stereotypes,” Al Sharpton told the New York Post. Much like his Brooklyn Bangladeshi compatriot, the young Beijing owner alleged that he was just a harmless Obama fan unfamiliar with the fried-chicken racist stereotype. Yet fearing a legal injunction by KFC—which failed to see any Obama chicken-related humor this time around—he eventually caved, removing the image and renaming the restaurant to “UFO.” (I’m not sure where the “chicken” part fits into this abbreviation, but presumably it’s a more innocent nod to yet another quirky Americanism.)

In any event, all this suggests that informed citizens of our own country may be the only ones who understand that mentioning “fried chicken” in the same sentence as “black people” is a major no-no. Yet I’m guessing that the issue of why, exactly, the juxtaposition is so verboten isn’t entirely clear, even to most of us. The most obvious explanation derives from the historical fact that fried chicken dishes were popular in slave homes on Southern plantations. In many cases, chickens were the only livestock animals that slaves were permitted to raise on their own, and—given that Scots founded much of the American South—there’s speculation that African-Americans tweaked and perfected their masters’ imported tradition of frying birds. (That centuries-old habit was one way the Scots distinguished themselves from their staid English neighbors.) So given fried chicken’s powerful symbolic association with oppression, it’s entirely reasonable for African-Americans to be suspicious of any efforts to pair a black president and a classic slave dish for commercial purposes.

There’s more to the story, however. The consumption of “fast foods” tends to elicit a host of negative reactions from those around us, since our eating habits broadcast our social identity. That’s according to the “impression-management theory” of food consumption, as summarized by Cornell University’s Lenny Vartanian and his colleagues in a 2007 issue of the journal Appetite. Although social psychologists haven’t explored people’s perceptions of those who scarf down heavily battered drumsticks, per se, data in this area imply that people who shrug off dietary concerns by eating fried chicken are tarred with the unattractive attributes of the product itself. A bucket of fried chicken may suggest nasty racial stereotypes by virtue of its unwholesome image (one that is entirely unbecoming of our country’s leader) as much as by its particular history as a plantation staple. “Food choice is a means by which one expresses one’s philosophy of life,” argue Vartarian and his co-authors. “What one eats has important consequences for social judgements.”

Experiments suggest that we react very differently to other people on the basis of the type and amount of food that they consume. In one study, a few hundred undergrads were told of a fictional character named “Pat.” In some cases, she was described as eating “oatmeal with fresh fruit and nuts on top for breakfast;” in others, the researchers said she eats “pie for breakfast.” Then the students were asked to describe Pat’s character. The pie-eating version of Pat was deemed more likely to be aggressive, lazy, selfish, and immoral than the oatmeal-eating version. In another experiment, participants who were shown images or video clips of someone eating fast food tended to judge that person as being less physically attractive, less intelligent, less moral, and less conscientious than participants who saw the very same individual eating healthier food. There are some perks to eating poorly, though. Studies also show that those who consume high-fat diets are perceived by onlookers as being significantly more fun-loving, happy, and sociable than their more high-strung, healthy-eating peers. That may be why Bill Clinton’s notorious McDonald’s diet helped him to get elected in two presidential campaigns, even as it threatened his health.

As an unhealthy and inexpensive food, fried chicken invokes images of poverty, ignorance, sloth, and other racist associations. Add to that its slavery-related heritage, and the Obama-chicken scandals make quite a bit of sense. Once the dust had settled in Beijing after the latest incident, Obama hosted the Chinese delegation at a special White House dinner. The guests were treated to D’Anjou pear salad, poached Maine lobster, and dry aged ribeye with buttermilk crisp onions, flanked by vegetables harvested from the first lady’s garden. Even if you’re not a culinary snob, you’d probably agree that’s a bit more presidential-sounding than Extra Crispy Wings (even if those wings are made with 11 secret herbs and spices).

Still, it’s worth noting that African-Americans, particularly in the Deep South, have no problem acknowledging the centrality of fried chicken to soul food cuisine. In a 2010 study led by Wendy Jefferson of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama, young, educated black men and women from the Birmingham area were asked, “What are the foods you associate with being African-American?” The top 10 responses, in the order of number of votes received from these participants, were: chitterlings (pig intestines), fried chicken, pig parts (feet, ears, tail), collard greens with ham hock, ribs, macaroni and cheese, souse meat, sweet potato pie, cabbage, and BBQ.

While these participants understood that many of these foods are terribly bad for you when prepared in the traditional way (presumably, the original soul food diet helped sustain the gruelling physical demands of slave labor), the fact that they remain a core part of the African-American cultural identity, reason the authors, provides some insight into why the rates of major dietary-related health problems are especially high among blacks. “These foods often provide a sense of familiarity and comfort,” the authors point out. “Omitting [them] from the diet completely is often less than desirable and can lead to a feeling of abandoning one’s cultural heritage.” (The researchers focused on African-American nutrition in the Southeast, yet a similar argument can probably be made regarding the traditional foods of many other ethnic groups.) 

In fact, the social and emotional factors that promote the consumption of culturally familiar foods like those mentioned above lurk very deep in human cognition. In a study published this year in Psychological Science, SUNY Buffalo researchers Jordan Troisi and Shira Gabriel found that, for many people, simply thinking about “comfort foods”—let alone eating them—actually reduces feelings of loneliness.* People who were asked to write an essay about getting into a fight with someone very close to them, and then a follow-up essay about eating their favorite “comfort food,” said they felt less lonely than did those who followed up the fight essay with one about simply trying a new food.

Troisi and Gabriel explain these effects by arguing that comfort foods become comfort foods because we are repeatedly exposed to them in the presence of family and friends. “In other words,” they explain, “because comfort foods are typically initially eaten with primary relationship partners, the perceptual experience of eating these foods is encoded along with the higher-order experience of social cognition.” Thus, food literally becomes a sort of social surrogate eaten to recapture those positive feelings. I experienced this when my partner, Juan, made matzoh ball soup for me a few weeks ago, and I was immediately flooded by warm memories of my dearly departed Jewish grandmother. (If only she’d known at the Seder of 1981 that 30 years later my gay Mexican partner would be borrowing the family recipe.)

I hesitated to even write about this subject because it elicits such raw feelings—and justifiably so, given the above. Still, leaving the issue unexamined for so long obviously hasn’t done much good, either. At least we can all agree that when it comes to fried chicken, Dave Chappelle is on to something. There’s no denying that fried chicken became a global phenomenon because it just tastes delicious to our color-homogenized human taste buds. I, for one, am a European-American mongrel with extremely pasty skin, and I’ll readily confess that there’s something wonderful about the Colonel’s original recipe even if it makes you think that I’m slovenly, dumb, and immoral.

Correction, May 23, 2013: This article originally misspelled researcher Jordan Troisi’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)