Food & Drink

An Ode to Gas-Station Fried Chicken

…from a place that might surprise you

photo: Courtesy of Royal Farms

Many people who identify as Southern don’t consider Maryland to be. Technically speaking, they’re wrong: Maryland sits just below the Mason-Dixon Line. Culturally speaking, they have a point: Maryland is as mixed as my own family.

My mother’s father, who was born in Virginia and spent his sixty-five-year career at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wore a seersucker suit to summer cocktail parties. The house I grew up in, purchased by my father, who comes from a long line of Manhattanites, had a wraparound porch and columns on either side of the front entryway. I never noticed these things until my freshman year at college in Boston. When I returned home for Thanksgiving, I looked at the garnet leaves dropping from the dogwood tree in our front yard and thought, “Huh. It’s sort of kind of Southern here.”

I’m on my twelfth year of life in New York City, with a two-year stint in Georgia, but I feel like raising my fists to my chest and thumping against it every time I say I’m from Maryland. Being from Maryland means I grew up eating crab cakes made with Old Bay seasoning. Being from Baltimore, specifically, means I grew up toting chicken boxes.

photo: Courtesy of Royal Farms

A two-piece Royal Farms meal.

The chicken box is a go-to to-go meal in Baltimore consisting of fried chicken, wedge-shaped fried potatoes, and sometimes a dinner roll. How it came to be, it’s hard to say, exactly, since the written history is lacking, but according to the Baltimore Sun, some scholars link it to the Great Migration. These affordable, travel-friendly suppers helped sustain African Americans during their journeys to the north, and they remain a culinary tradition in Charm City today.

You can pick up a chicken box at mom-and-pop shops like Sunny’s Subs and Connie’s Chicken & Waffles, which now has four locations, or one of the two-hundred-sixteen Royal Farms convenience stores in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. 

In Baltimore, where Royal Farms is headquartered, we say RoFo. “Students from Loyola College just started calling it that, and the shortcut caught on,” says John Kemp, president and CEO of Royal Farms. “We’d like to say it was some sort of very intelligent thought process that we deliberated over for months and months, but, really, it just happened.”

Kemp’s grandfather, Maynard Kemp, started Cloverland Farms Dairy in 1919. After World War II, the family added some dairy stores, selling milk, bread, ice cream, and a few convenience items. By the late sixties, the list of items grew to put Royal Farms, as the stores were eventually called, in competition with 7-Eleven. Then came prepared foods such as fresh coffee and deli sandwiches and finally, in the eighties, the Kemps added fuel and fried chicken. Cloverland remains today, as a dairy processing plant in east Baltimore, and Royal Farms stores have expanded to other states.

Courtesy of Royal Farms

If Kemp is honest, the fried chicken thing “happened,” just like the nickname. He was aware of the Baltimore chicken box, but made the decision to sell it after a visit from a fryer salesman. Using a recipe from the equipment supplier, the chicken was only a modest success, so Kemp’s team made some tweaks. Somewhere in between then and now, they settled on a recipe that has garnered national media attention, as well as Garden & Gun’s own. It’s been talked about on The Howard Stern Show. In 2017, on his way to the airport after a performance at Delaware’s Freeman Stage, Jay Leno picked up two breasts and two wings at a Royal Farms in Salisbury, Maryland.

 

Kemp would not reveal the recipe, though I’m pretty sure there’s a high ratio of black pepper in the batter. He wouldn’t reveal the exact kind of pressure fryer RoFo uses, either, or the Idaho farmer from whom he directly buys potatoes. What Kemp would say is that the same batter is used on both the chicken and the “Western” wedge-shaped fries, and that both the chicken and the potatoes are shipped to each Royal Farms location, where they are cut and fried by hand. Employee training is serious business. 

I don’t really care whether Maryland is considered part of the North or the South. (It’s neither! It’s both!) I do care that fried chicken is part of the Maryland story, and I would venture to say that Royal Farms’ fried chicken is better than that chain headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, or that other one with “Louisiana Kitchen” in its name. Try it, the next time you’re in Maryland. Southerners love gas-station foods, and, like any good sort-of Southerner, so do I.


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