The classic American picnic dish really is classical.
Fried chicken has a rigorous simplicity, without gimmicks and enrichments. It's just the appetizingly browned essence of chicken. It doesn't even have to be kept hot — in fact, it's better at room temperature.
Frying is an idea that could occur to anybody anywhere with a chicken and a pan. During the 18th century, the English thought of it as a French dish. (Bizarrely, the French word for the egg dip you use if you bread chicken happens to be anglaise, which sounds as if they're trying to avoid credit for the concept.) But nobody is more devoted to fried chicken than Americans.
Actually, until about 60 years ago, chicken was a luxury food. The problem was all those feathers. Skinning a pig or a cow yields a much bigger payoff, in terms of meat per unit of labor and aggravation.
These days, the problem with chicken is not expense or inconvenience; it's getting the ideal kind of chicken. That would be a young bird weighing 2 to 2 1/2 pounds. Just try to find one. The average supermarket fryer is inching over 4 pounds. What larger chickens lose in delicacy and tenderness, they gain in meatiness, at least.
Use a 10-inch frying pan, the heavier the better, so the temperature doesn't drop too much when you throw in the pieces of meat — a stable temperature makes for browner, juicier chicken. The "chicken fryer," 12 pounds of solid cast iron, is perfect for the job. If you use a lighter pan, you can compensate by frying no more than three pieces at once.
American fried chicken is shallow-fried, not deep-fried. The fat should be only a quarter of an inch deep, which works out to 1 cup in a 10-inch pan.
Some people tenderize the meat by marinating it in buttermilk (unflavored yogurt works just as well). You can dip it in batter, or in anglaise and breadcrumbs, or just in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and maybe cayenne or dry mustard. When the fat is sizzling hot, the meat goes in and a cover goes on, and you check it every few minutes to see whether it's good and brown on the bottom. When it is, turn it over and do the other side. A whole chicken should be done in about half an hour.
You might make the traditional accompaniment, crisp miniature French fries called shoestring potatoes. But hey, it's a holiday. Maybe you've done enough frying.
Charles Perry is a food historian and former Times staff writer.