Indiana’s Fried Chicken Is A Whole Different Bird

Just across the state line lies a classic taste of American cuisine—and you can experience it almost any night of the week.
2254

When writer Michael Ruhlman covered southeastern Indiana’s fried chicken tradition for The New York Times in 2019, he quoted a local aphorism: “If the Colonel had been born in southern Indiana, he’d have been a general.” Thing is, he was. Colonel Sanders, the world’s most famous Kentuckian, was a born-and-raised Hoosier, from Henryville, in the southern part of the state. You could say that the string tie was misleading, or at least that there is almost certainly some Indiana influence in Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret recipe. In a parallel universe, where a series of odd jobs and a correspondence-course law degree didn’t lead the Colonel to a filling station in Corbin, Kentucky, families in Japan celebrate Christmas with buckets of “Indiana,” not “Kentucky.”

Flattering as that would be for us Midwesterners, who don’t typically get a lot of credit for our culinary ingenuity, maybe it’s for the best that things turned out this way. The chicken that KFC serves all over the world today isn’t the chicken of Sanders’s Indiana childhood. It wasn’t even back in the mid-70s, when Sanders—by then just a brand ambassador, having sold his stake in the fast-food chain—told a journalist that the gravy was like “wallpaper paste” and the crispy bird “nothing but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.”

In Oldenburg, Indiana, Wagner’s Village Inn serves fried chicken that Sanders would recognize. It’s old-fashioned farmhouse chicken, cut into an economical 10 pieces (breast split in two and back included) instead of the usual eight, showered with black pepper, lard-fried in cast-iron skillets, and served with slaw, green beans, and margarine-drizzled mashed potatoes.

Earlier this year, the culinary tastemakers at the James Beard Foundation rewarded the restaurant’s adherence to tradition by naming it an “America’s Classic”—a restaurant with “timeless appeal” and deep roots in its community. It was an honor for Wagner’s, specifically, but also national recognition for a larger regional tradition.

There’s the Brau Haus, also in Oldenburg, a German-accented joint where the sauerkraut balls and breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches (best with pickle and mustard) are as noteworthy as the chicken. In Brookville, the Dairy Cottage—a casual spot that a Cincinnatian might call a “creamy whip”—serves chicken and soft serve, and the nearby Pioneer Restaurant and Lounge has popular homemade pies.

At the Fireside Inn in Enochsburg, many people pair their chicken—batter-fried, with potato chip–crisp skin—with an “Enochsburg Sunset,” the house cocktail made with Maker’s Mark, peach schnapps, amaretto, orange and cranberry juices, and Sprite. Klump’s Tavern in Guilford only serves fried chicken on Fridays and Saturdays after 5 p.m. and Sundays from 12 to 7 (or until sellout), but the throwback bar and grill, in a 19th-century brick building, is worth a special trip. St. Leon Tavern anchors tiny downtown St. Leon, Indiana, with peppery chicken served hot from the fryer.

At many of these restaurants, the chicken is fried to order, so you can expect a wait—and a crackling, fresh-from-the-fat crust. Many also serve a 10-piece bird, and many are heavy-handed with the black pepper.

Photograph courtesy Wagner's

But Wagner’s stands out. I already knew it when the cashier at a gas station in Batesville, next door to Oldenburg, rolled his eyes at my question about other good fried chicken spots in the area. “Wagner’s is the fried chicken place around here,” he said. “That’s where I would go, every time.”

The lard makes a difference. Most of the other joints fry in oil. Lard-fried chicken has a deeply savory flavor—also evident in the gravy, made from pan drippings—and an incomparably crisp crust.

The cooks at Wagner’s really shower on the black pepper, too, to the extent that one Oldenburg local shared a good-natured complaint: “You never know how much of that pepper you’re going to get!”

In the Nashville hot chicken era, you could make a joke about how the chicken at Wagner’s—so peppery that it’s almost hot itself—is our Midwestern equivalent, made for our salt-and-pepper palates. It should be a point of pride for the region. They don’t make chicken like this in Tennessee.

The first time I went to Wagner’s, soon after I moved home to Cincinnati in 2019—and prompted, I’ll admit, by that Times piece—I ended up waiting about 40 minutes for my chicken, sizzling in a cast-iron skillet while I dipped crackers in my slaw, per local tradition. “You could have called ahead and told us you were coming,” former owner Ginger Saccamando said.

The last time I went to Wagner’s, after the James Beard nod, the stovetop was crowded with working skillets, constantly sending chicken out to the dining room, and the menu had been replaced—temporarily, I was told—by a single sheet with limited options. “We’re still getting back on our feet, with all the attention,” our server told us. Fortunately, the fried chicken cooks hadn’t lost their step.

In the last few years, I’ve gotten into the habit of celebrating special occasions with Wagner’s takeout. Oldenburg is about 45 minutes from downtown Cincinnati. It’s far enough that the drive feels like a ritual, but not so far that I can’t go after work. Even if the chicken weren’t some of the best in the country—now, identified as such by two New York–based tastemakers—I’d get a kick out of bringing a taste of small-town Indiana home to friends and family.

And while I was thinking through this piece in April and May, I went back to a few of the other popular fried chicken joints in the area. Three times, I left work around 6 p.m., drove across newly planted farm fields, tracts of suburban sprawl, and one charming covered bridge, and spent my nights in wood-paneled dining rooms that felt like they could as easily have been in the Dakotas or the Delta as in Greater Cincinnati. Even when the chicken wasn’t quite New York Times–worthy, I was getting an experience that I couldn’t get from my favorite places in Cincinnati—or, for that matter, from KFC. And every time, I was home by 10.

Facebook Comments