Unpacking the chicken box: The story behind Baltimore's carryout staple

After fried chicken came Baltimore's chicken box, but it's no secret that its history goes beyond the city.

On a recent afternoon at Sunny's Subs, Dion and Alfred Allen dug fingers-first into Styrofoam clamshells filled with Western fries and chicken wings covered in ketchup.

The brothers and Morgan State University students come to the carryout, just a short walk from campus, as often as they can, and this $5.99 combo — the "chicken box" — is their meal of choice.

"They got the best chicken in the state right now," said Alfred Allen, 21, adding that his family will make the 30-minute drive to Northeast Baltimore for Sunny's well-seasoned wings.

Dion Allen, 18, agreed through bites of fries. "There's so many places selling in it the area. It makes you want it more."

When it comes to fast-food culture, the chicken box is Baltimore's staple. The meal, which typically includes fried chicken wings, a generous portion of French fries (often a wedge-shaped, "Western" variety) and bread or a dinner roll, is packaged into a signature to-go box made of cardboard or Styrofoam. The delicacy can be doused in sauces — often "salt-pepper-ketchup" or hot sauce — and is best served, according to most Baltimoreans, with a "half-and-half," a sweet mixture of lemonade and iced tea. Carryouts like Sunny's Subs and local chains like Royal Farms have sold chicken boxes for years, keeping the term hyperlocal, even as international franchises serve their own versions.

Yet the origin story of the chicken box extends far beyond Baltimore. With ties to slavery and black migration in the Jim Crow era, its history lends cultural significance to the city's go-to fast food.

The first documented fried chicken recipe came from an 18th-century British cookbook, according to Adrian E. Miller, soul food scholar and author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." Only later was the recipe adopted by Americans, first by white Southerners who prepared it for indulgent feasts, and then by African-Americans, many of whom memorized the recipes from their days as enslaved cooks. They, too, transformed the recipes into their own, passing them on to future generations, often reserving the "Gospel Bird" for special and spiritual occasions like church functions, Miller said.

"It was cherished, and then the miracle of our food system was that these celebration foods, that could only be eaten on certain occasions, could now be eaten on a regular basis," Miller said.

An early form of the chicken box likely arrived on the restaurant scene in the 1930s, when it began to appear in local newspaper ads. The first reference to the fast-food delicacy in The Baltimore Sun was a 1933 ad for the Rail Grill promoting its $1 "sanitary box containing two whole fried spring chickens and a loaf of toasted bread — enough for four people."

Though evidence is scant on how chicken boxes evolved, some scholars suggest a link to "shoebox specials" — packed lunches that became a necessity during black migration in the early to mid-20th century.

"When [African-Americans] traveled, they had to pack their food," said Psyche Williams-Forson, an author and associate professor and chair of the American studies department at University of Maryland, College Park.

In her book, "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power," she explains that restaurants, rest areas and gas stations "were harbingers of hostility for black people." "The Negro Motorist Green Book," a guide that included service stops that would accommodate African-Americans, was helpful, but the shoebox specials, containing items that were cheap and "traveled well" without refrigeration or reheating, were often the only surefire method to keep black migrants sustained during long drives, bus rides or train trips, Williams-Forson said.

The lunches, packed in old shoeboxes, pails and bags, almost always contained fried chicken, and often boiled eggs, a biscuit and a "sweet," or dessert.

"Fried chicken is perfect for this because fried chicken is good hot, room temperature and cold," Miller added.

Long after Jim Crow was outlawed, fried chicken in a box, for some African-Americans, remained a form of nostalgia and tradition, Williams-Forson said.

"Very rarely do [people] want to relinquish the cultural behaviors that bring them comfort and familiarity," Williams-Forson wrote in her book, adding that while Gladware "and other plastic carryalls have replaced shoeboxes in most cases, the concept still remains."

Decades later, Baltimore's chicken box functions in the same vein — as an affordable, easily transported, on-the-go meal for many locals, and for some, as a tradition.

" Throughout the generations, my mom, my mom's mom — we always came to Lexington Market to get chicken boxes. It's like a Baltimore culture," said Khari Parker, 36, co-owner of Connie's Chicken & Waffles in Lexington Market, which opened in June.

Today, Parker, along with his brother Shawn Parker, 31, and their mother, Connie Parker, serve chicken boxes, incorporating fried chicken wings or chicken tenders, with the customer's choice of various styles of waffles, french fries or "sweet fries" — sweet potato fries sprinkled with cinnamon.

Abdul Malik, 59, of downtown Baltimore, comes for the tenders with a double stack of waffles topped with strawberries and powdered sugar.

"This is the best one," said Malik, comparing the newer fixture of Lexington Market to other places in the area that serve chicken boxes.

The Sun polled readers in February, inquiring about the best chicken boxes in the city. Royal Farms, the Baltimore-owned convenience store and gas station chain, was voted third place. Connie's Chicken and Waffles came in at second, with Hip Hop Fish & Chicken and Sunny's Subs tied for first.

"You can go anywhere and go grab a burger and fries, but you can't go anywhere for fried chicken. … It's just different," said Sunny's owner Steve Hwang, whose family has sold chicken boxes in the Baltimore area since the 1980s. "It's such a nice finger food."

The convenience of the chicken box is a pull factor for many locals.

The box is "the serving dish and transportation dish. It's a lot easier to eat on the go," said Brittany Eldredge, a spokeswoman for Royal Farms, which started serving fried chicken around 20 years ago after mastering a "top secret recipe" that could be mass-produced. Today, the company serves fried chicken 24 hours a day, seven days a week at many of its 170 locations spread throughout Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware, making it arguably the largest locally based fried chicken distributor.

"We have a lot of people who come to our stores who are going back to a job site or working out on the road somewhere, so they don't have a break room or an office where they can sit and eat with utensils. This is an easy way. You can eat it with your hands and out of the box," Eldredge said.

While she doesn't deny that Royal Farms has had a hand in the chicken box's modern-day popularity, Eldredge gives credit to Baltimoreans, who have taken on the chicken box as their own.

"They've got Maryland crabcakes and Old Bay, but we also have our chicken boxes and fried chicken," Eldredge said. "These are things people have grown up eating."

And let's face it, she said, "it's really damn good."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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Baltimore's favorite chicken boxes

The Baltimore Sun polled readers on their go-to spots for chicken boxes. Here are the results:

1. It's a tie!

Sunny's Subs:

For more than a decade, Sunny's Subs has kept to tradition, offering up combos with three to six wings, more Western fries than one could comfortably eat in one sitting and a variety of condiments. Popular sauces include Sunny's Sauce, owner Steve Hwang's take on Washington's mumbo sauce, and honey sauce, a sweet sauce with a spicy kick that pairs well with the robust and crispy potato wedges, all for between $4.99-$7.99. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Northwood Plaza, 1518 Havenwood Road. 410-889-2055.

Hip Hop Fish & Chicken:

With locations across the area, Hip Hop Fish & Chicken sells myriad fried foods, including an affordable and filling chicken combo with three wings, three legs, and a side of fries and coleslaw for $6.49. Other chicken dinners range from $3.99-$9.99. 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m.- 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. 8615 Liberty Road, Randallstown, and other locations. hiphopfc.com.

2. Connie's Chicken & Waffles:

A newer fixture in Lexington Market, this family-owned business serves up a combination of sweet and savory, pairing fluffy waffles with the customer's choice of two well-seasoned fried wings or two juicy chicken tenders (starting at $12). But if you're going for a chicken box, try the tenders and sweet fries — that's Connie's spin on the standard chicken box ($7-$8). Wash it all down with a half-and-half, or opt for a little adventure with Connie's triple mix drink, consisting of lemonade, kiwi strawberry and blue raspberry. 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Lexington Market, 400 W. Lexington St. connieschickenandwaffles.com.

3. Royal Farms:

With more than 170 locations throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware, the gas station, convenience store and restaurant hybrid serves fried chicken 24 hours a day, seven days a week in most stores, with quick and easy chicken boxes accompanied by a dinner roll and Western fries ($4.89-$7.99). The most popular is the dark meat, bone-in chicken box, according to Royal Farms spokeswoman Brittany Eldredge. 1440 Key Highway, and other locations. royalfarms.com.

4. Stoko's:

The carryout, which has been in business for more than a decade, serves a variety of chicken wings, tenders and sides, but the best and most filling bang for your buck is the four-piece fried chicken wing meal, which comes with French fries and a canned drink for $6.75. But don't be afraid to splurge on the triple mix — regular and pink lemonades combined with iced tea. 4 p.m.-3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; 4 p.m.-4 a.m. Friday through Saturday. 5503 York Road, and other locations. stokoscarryout.net.

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