Southerners have taken fried chicken more seriously than ever over the past several years, as authors have devoted whole books to the dish and home cooks have sought out freshly rendered lard and genuine buttermilk to recreate the best of the restaurant recipes. Still, at least one regional fried chicken tradition has yet to get its due: dipped chicken.
Salisbury, North Carolina’s answer to Nashville hot chicken is fried chicken tossed with the same sort of ketchup-tinged vinegar-pepper sauce that locals eat over pork shoulder. Benjamin Franklin Cureton might have dipped the first batch at the fondly remembered Frankie’s Chicken Shack, but at least a half dozen more area restaurants serve it today.
“It’s got a certain smell to it, and it’s just undeniable” says Linda Cureton Dillard of the famous chicken that her father pioneered more than half a century ago. “We had one customer—I don’t want to be risqué—but he said it was like good loving.”
It all started in 1942 with a soft-spoken former janitor who wanted to make something of himself. Cureton was from Chester, South Carolina. He only had a third grade education, and family lore holds that he walked the hundred-some miles to Salisbury as a young man. After a failed attempt to raise chickens and a stint selling burgers and shakes, he prayed for a recipe that would bring crowds to his restaurant and struck gold with a marriage of barbecue and soul food traditions that fed both black and white regulars at the height of segregation.
Cureton’s prayer was answered, and Frankie’s supplied lunch to many hungry locals as well as area textile mills and fabrication plants for the better part of its sixty-two years. But factories began to shut down and workers lost their disposable income. Then a robbery left the family shaken. Frankie’s closed for good in 2004. The local newspaper ran a eulogy.
“I don’t know why the place went out of business when it was always so crowded,” says Paul Woodson, the outgoing mayor of Salisbury. “That dipped chicken was really good.”
Today, Ted’s Famous Chicken, a four-location mini-chain based in Winston-Salem, makes one of the best versions. The dressing there is the fieriest of the bunch, a prickly blend of vinegar and hot sauce. Reid’s Chicken closed a few years ago, but owners Maggie and Lovie Reid and their family still make their rosemary-scented sauce for loyal customers in Granite Quarry. Keaton’s Barbecue in Cleveland sells a darker, sweeter sauce in area grocery stores. At Bar-B-Q King in Charlotte, carhops deliver fried chicken dipped in a thick red glaze that resembles the ketchup-heavy sauce at Thelma’s Down Home Cooking in Salisbury and the sticky varnish at Lancaster’s BBQ in Mooresville and Huntersville.
Some devoted fans have tried to recreate the original recipe at home, too. Jay Hall is a home cook, born and raised in Salisbury. He was a regular at Frankie’s as a teenager and a college student, and earlier this year he decided to crack the recipe for a church cook-off, with a little help from a high school friend who once worked at the restaurant. “You have a lot of that vinegary influence from barbecue,” he says. “And a little bit of sugar. But I always sweated when I ate it, too, because there is heat—from a specific brand of hot sauce.” He has a pretty good sense of the ingredients now, but he hasn’t figured out the formula.
Dillard and her brother, Benjamin Franklin Cureton, Jr., held on to their family’s sauce recipe. Corporations have offered to buy it for tens of thousands of dollars, they say, but they won’t give their father’s signature recipe away to anyone, for any amount of money.
Cureton, Jr., still sells his family’s fried chicken from a food truck occasionally, and he and his sister are hoping to open a new brick-and-mortar location by the end of this year. Just in time to serve a world newly crazy for both fried chicken and barbecue, where the right regional favorite can sweep the nation like white barbecue sauce or smoked brisket.
“Our recipe is gold,” Dillard says. “And the response people have is still unbelievable.”