Everyone who visits Baltimore always wants to try the seafood. My parents always want to have a Maryland crab feast when they visit town, and they always ask for the crabcakes and the Old Bay everything. But anyone on a budget who wants an equally iconic taste of Baltimore should go for a chicken box.
What is the chicken box?
The chicken box’s history has its roots in the darker days of slave-trading America. It is not known where exactly the tradition of fried chicken originated, as frying chicken has been historically noted across Europe, West Africa and Asia, but the modern American form most likely evolved from slave plantations in the South.
Enslaved Africans were not allowed to keep much besides chicken and scraps, and the way they spiced their foods played a heavy influence on the development of soul food. Fried chicken has become a staple of the Southern (and American) kitchen since.
Eventually, the item made itself into the Styrofoam takeout containers that we know and love today. The first known appearance of the chicken box was in a 1933 ad in The Baltimore Sun advertising for Rail Grill’s “sanitary box containing two whole fried spring chickens and a loaf of toasted bread — enough for four people.”
It was a food that was served at places that accommodated African Americans in the Jim Crow era. According to Psyche Williams-Forson, author of “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power,” restaurants and gas stations were “harbingers of hostility for black people.” Chicken boxes remained a delicious option available to black motorists that traveled well.
The attachment and nostalgia as well as the appeal of a cheap indulgence has lasted long beyond Jim Crow. According to 92Q, “a chicken box is as synonymous to Baltimore as cheesesteaks are to Philly.”
Anthony Bourdain came to Baltimore to enjoy a chicken box on the “Rust Belt” episode of No Reservations. D’Angelo Barksdale’s mother brings him a box from his favorite carry-out restaurant on The Wire, and many other characters are seen to be eating chicken and fries. It is an item intimately tied to this city’s identity.
So last week, I went out to Hip Hop Fish & Chicken for a chicken box, commonly regarded as one of the best in Baltimore. I ordered the three-piece value meal with fries and coleslaw but unfortunately left out the half-and-half (equal parts iced tea and lemonade) that it is most commonly enjoyed with. Also unfortunate was the fact that my meal was too small to warrant an actual box, as it was packaged in a paper bag instead.
It’s fucking good. The chicken is breaded and fried, seasoned simply with salt. I tried one as I was leaving the store as well as a fry. The fry was not the crispiest, but the inconsistent breading made it an enjoyable bite anyway. The chicken was golden brown and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. It’s exactly what I want to eat when sitting back and enjoying the day.
After I caught the JHMI back to campus, I had another go at the food. It’s still good cold! This time, I broke out the hot sauce, a classic tangy buffalo-style sauce that came in an eight-ounce container and the ketchup. Need that in my life! Especially on a sunny day.
The coleslaw was pretty nice too. Nothing super eventful, but at least it was seasoned well and pretty damn delicious.
The total for me came to $5.24 for a decent amount of chicken, fries and coleslaw. If one of these were near campus, it would be the end of my cardiovascular health. Every single person who lives in or goes to school in Baltimore needs to have a chicken box at least once in their lifetime. It’s an iconic item that, unlike many city-specific items, can be enjoyed time and time again.
If you have a free couple of hours over the weekend, I would suggest trying out the chicken box. Sunny’s Subs is also renowned for their chicken box, but Hip Hop is also available via Uber Eats, so you don’t even have to leave your apartment to sample a piece of this city.
All said, I hope you can try this iconic item at least once during your Hopkins career or stint in Baltimore.