Virginia fried chicken

Fried Chicken is a very hard food to write about – as I am sure there have been fights, feuds and who knows what other entanglements that have come from who’s is better and how to prepare this staple. All I know is what works for me, I will not even venture into the how and why and who’s. Living in Charlottesville, owning a restaurant and being a lover of fried chicken I am going to dive in head first and tell but a small portion of this history. Now we use Lodge cast iron at l’étoile and even the techniques used in these old recipes to bring these ideas to your plate.
Is there any food more representative of American cuisine than fried chicken? It has deep and meaningful roots in the nation’s history, distinct regional preparations across the country (from skillet-fried to cornmeal-crusted), and it has inspired food lovers emigrating here from other nations to create their own versions of it (Korean fried chicken is particularly popular right now, but there are plenty of other varieties to speak of).
Fried chicken has its roots in country kitchens of the South, soaked in buttermilk, shaken in a brown paper bag with seasoned flour, and prepared in a cast-iron skillet filled with bubbling liquid lard. The oldest fried chicken recipe on record is published in The Virginia House-Wife, written by Mary Randolph in 1828. Since then the American classic has been prepared in countless ways — from soaked in a spicy vinegar-based marinade and deep-fried, Peruvian-style to served upscale in four-star restaurants with maple-honey butter or other accoutrements.
Now as there are as many stars in the sky, there are as many ways to prepare this backbone of southern cooking. In our own backyard of Charlottesville is the town of Gordonsville – once considered the Fried Chicken Capital of the country, and the term boxed lunch came from. Keep reading.
Early trains had no dining cars and passengers had to eat at trackside establishments. The African-American women of Gordonsville would become Orange County’s first female entrepreneurs. The “Chicken Vendors” greeted the waiting railroad cars with trays of fried chicken expertly balanced on their heads and baskets of rolls hanging from their arms, selling fried chicken to passengers through the open windows. No one knows the exact date the custom began–perhaps with that first train.
Trains carrying soldiers during the Civil War were greeted at the depot by thongs of chicken vendors. Chicken legs and breast cost fifteen cents; backs and wings, five and ten cents. By 1879, the Gordonsville Town Council required a “snack vendor’s” license and payment of a license tax by these thriving entrepreneurs!
In1869, newsman George W. Bagby called Gordonsville “the chicken center of the universe”. In 1871, the C&O Railroad provided northern newspaper editors the opportunity to visit the south. In the book detailing this journey entitled “The Pine and the Palm Greeting; or The Trip of the Northern Editors to the South in1871”, published in Baltimore in 1873, the chicken vendors were described in detail.
The “Chicken Vendors” came to characterize Gordonsville in the minds of travelers for decades. Gordonsville Fried Chicken and the story of the ‘chicken vendors’, has been featured on restaurant menus as far away as California. The practice continued until the mid-1900s when regulations finally forced them to close down.
“Southern fried chicken
Chicken parts that are floured or battered and then fried in hot fat. The term southern fried’ first appeared in print in 1925…Southerners were not the first people in the world to fry chickens, of course. Almost every country has its own version, from Vietnam’s Ga Xao to Italy’s pollo fritto and Austria’s Weiner Backhendl, and numerous fricassees fill the cookbooks of Europe. And fried chicken did not become particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century…The Scottish, who enjoyed frying their chickens rather than boiling or baking them as the English did, may have brought the method with them when they settled the South. The efficient and simple cooking process was very well adapted to the plantation life of the southern African-American slaves, who were often allowed to raise their own chickens. The idea of making a sauce to go with fried chicken must have occurred early on, at least in Maryland, where such a match came to be known as “Maryland fried chicken.” By 1878 a dish by this name was listed on the menu of the Grand Union hotel in Saratoga, New York…”
—The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman: New York] 1999 (p. 305-6)
Fried Chickens
Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown, fry them a light brown, fry small pieces of mush and a quantity of parsley nicely picked to be served in the dish with the chickens, take half a pint of rich milk, add to it a small bit of butter with pepper, salt, and chopped parsley, stew it a little, and pour it over the chickens, and then garnish with the fried parsley.”
—The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randolph, Facsimile 1824 edition with historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess [University of South Carolina: Columbia] 1984 (p. 252-3)
“Fried Chicken
Cut the chicken up, separating every joint, and wash clean. Salt and pepper it, and roll into flour well. Have your fat very hot, and drop the pieces into it, and let them cook brown. The chicken is done when the fork passes easily into it. After the chicken is all cooked, leave a little of the hot fat in the skillet; then take a tablespoonful of dry flour and brown it in the fat, stirring it around, then pour water in and stir till the gravy is as thin as soup.”
—What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Abby Fisher, In Facsimile (1881) with historical notes by Karen Hess [Applewood Books: Bedford MA] 1995 (p. 20)
[NOTE: This book is considered to be the first published cook book written by an African American.]
Maybe next I could look a little deeper into cast iron cooking in Virginia, stay tuned. Here is a link to Lodge cast iron: A great American company making a product that stands the test of time and makes the best chicken anywhere in the world.

Robert E. Lee Cake

Sitting and thinking about Memorial Day and what it means to us and in particular – central Virginians, I am humble when I say thank you to our Veterans and those who fell in the line of duty. I have been looking deeper into Virginia foods and have found many recipes for a Robert E. Lee cake. Which seems to be done well – a personal twist almost always had to be put into the making of this cake. It is not for the faint of heart to tackle such a wonderful cake.
General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), one of the South’s most venerated heroes, was affectionately known to Southerners as Marse Robert. He was respected by leaders on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, and many historians believe that had he accepted Lincoln’s offer of command over the Union Army, the Civil War would have been over much more quickly. Others, however, have called into question his skill as a strategist. We will never know because ultimately Lee decided to resign from the Union army.
Lee surprised almost everyone by his resignation in 1861. In a letter earlier that year he had denounced secession as a betrayal of the Founding Fathers and thought a peaceful compromise was the best solution. Torn between competing allegiances, Lee asked commanding Union general Winfield Scott if he could stay home and not participate in the war. The general replied “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” Shortly thereafter, Lee made the difficult decision to take up arms in defense of his home state of Virginia.
Like General Lee, this cake prevaricates – it straddles the flavors of orange and lemon, trying not to choose one side over the other. Traditionally, the cake itself has lemon zest and juice and the filling is luscious “lemon jelly,” aka lemon curd. Finally, orange, with a touch of lemon, perfumes the icing. Many tasters had difficulty pinpointing the flavors
This sponge cake has the unusual additions of baking powder and cream of tartar. I’m not sure if the cream of tartar was added because the baking powder was supposed to be single-acting, or if the recipe writer intended to use both double-acting baking powder and cream of tartar. I erred on the side of the latter, although I expect the recipe would turn out fine without the cream of tartar.
Sponge cake purists might scoff at the idea of chemical leavening, since highly whipped egg yolks and whites usually suffice as the leavening for this type of cake. However, I appreciate the help because I have baker’s block regarding sponge cakes – they often turn out really flat for me. I haven’t decided if I over-beat or under-beat the eggs to cause that problem. But add baking powder, and problem solved!
As for the icing, I feel this recipe, like most American buttercreams, has far too much sugar. It’s a simple recipe: butter, powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, a bit of liquid, and a flavoring agent (the liquid can double as the flavoring agent, as in this case). I used three times as much butter as the recipe directs to tame the sweetness, but even then I didn’t approach the ratio in my traditional easy buttercream: 1 ounce of butter to each ounce of powdered sugar. Use more butter to suit your taste – this is an extremely flexible recipe. For this cake, lemon and orange juice add a bright citrus flavor in addition to making a spreadable consistency.
Back to General Lee3: cake plays a role in Lee’s history. Allegedly Lee proposed to Mary Custis (granddaughter of Martha Washington) as she knelt to serve him a piece of cake. It is unlikely that Lee ever tasted his namesake cake, as no recipes for it were published until years after his death. However, legend has it that his wife passed down a favorite “receipt” (recipe) for a lemon cake to their daughter, so it can be deduced that Marse Robert would have enjoyed this cake.
1879 – In the cookbook, Housekeeping In Old Virginia; Contributions from Two Hundred and fifty of Virginia’s Noted Housewives, Distinguished For Their Skill In The Culinary Art And Other Branches of Domestic Economy, Edited by Marion Cabell Tyree:

“Robert E. Lee” Cake
Twelve eggs, their full weight in sugar, a half-weight in flour. Bake it in pans the thickness of jelly cakes. Take two pounds of nice “A” sugar, squeeze into it the juice of five oranges and three lemons together with the pulp; stir it in the sugar until perfectly smooth; then spread it on the cakes, as you would do jelly, putting one above another till the whole of the sugar is used up. spread a layer of it on top and on sides. – Mrs. G.
“Gen. Robert Lee” Cake
10 eggs.
1 pound sugar.
1/2 pound flour.
Rind of 1 lemon, and juice of 1/2 lemon.
Make exactly like sponge cake, and bake in jelly-cake tins. Then take the whites of two eggs beat to a froth, and add one pound sugar, the grated rind and juice of one orange, or juice of half a lemon. Spread it on the cakes before they are perfectly cold, and place one layer on another. This quantity makes two cakes.
– Mrs. I. H.

Thoughts on Virginia Peanuts

I have been craving Virginia peanuts for many days now, and if I bring them into l’etoile – they do not last long at all. Of course I love out culinary heritage here in Charlottesville and the rest of the state, but the peanut named after our commonwealth are hard to beat.
The peanut plant probably originated in Brazil or Peru, although no fossil records exist to prove this. But for as long as people have been making pottery in South America (3,500 years or so) they have been making jars shaped like peanuts and decorated with peanuts. Graves of ancient Incas found along the dry western coast of South America often contain jars filled with peanuts and left with the dead to provide food in the afterlife.

Peanuts were grown as far north as Mexico by the time the Spanish began their exploration of the New World. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, where they are still grown. From Spain, traders and explorers took peanuts to Africa and Asia. In Africa the plant became common in the western tropical region. The peanut was regarded by many Africans as one of several plants possessing a soul.

When Africans were brought to North America as slaves, peanuts came with them. Slaves planted peanuts throughout the southern United States (the word goober comes from the Congo name for peanuts – nguba). In the 1700’s, peanuts, then called groundnuts or ground peas, were studied by botanists and regarded as an excellent food for pigs. Records show that peanuts were grown commercially in South Carolina around 1800 and used for oil, food and a substitute for cocoa. However, until 1900 peanuts were not extensively grown, partially because they were regarded as food for the poor, and because growing and harvesting were slow and difficult until labor-saving equipment was invented around the turn of the century.

The first notable increase in U.S. peanut consumption came in 1860 with the outbreak of the Civil War. Northern soldiers, as well as Southern, used the peanut as a food. During the last half of the 19th century, peanuts were eaten as a snack, sold freshly roasted by street vendors and at baseball games and circuses. While peanut production rose during this time, peanuts were harvested by hand which left stems and trash in the peanuts. Thus, poor quality and lack of uniformity kept down the demand for peanuts.
In the U.S., peanuts are used in candies, cakes, cookies, and other sweets. They are also enjoyed roasted and salted. Peanut butter is one of the most popular peanut-based foods in the U.S., and for four hundred years, recipes for peanut soup have been present in the South, Virginia in particular. In some southern portions of the U.S., peanuts are boiled for several hours until soft and moist. Peanuts are also deep fried, shell and all.

Around 1900, equipment was invented for planting, cultivating, harvesting and picking peanuts from the plants, and for shelling and cleaning the kernels. With these mechanical aids, peanuts rapidly came into demand for oil, roasted and salted nuts, peanut butter and candy. George Washington Carver began his research into peanuts in 1903 at Tuskeegee Institute. Research that would lead him to discover improvements in horticulture and the development of more than 300 uses for peanuts (including shoe polish and shaving cream).
Peanuts have many uses. They can be eaten raw, used in recipes, made into solvents and oils, used in make-up, medicines, textile materials, peanut butter, as well as many other uses. Popular confections made from peanuts include salted peanuts, peanut butter (sandwiches, peanut candy bars, peanut butter cookies, and cups), peanut brittle, and shelled nuts (plain/roasted). Salted peanuts are usually roasted in oil and packed in retail-size plastic bags or hermetically sealed cans. Dry roasted salted peanuts are also marketed in significant quantities. Peanuts are often a major ingredient in mixed nuts because of their inexpensiveness compared to Brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, and so on. Although peanut butter has been a tradition on camping trips and the like because of its high protein content and the fact that it resists spoiling for long periods of time, the primary use of peanut butter is in the home, but large quantities are also used in the commercial manufacture of sandwiches, candy, and bakery products. Boiled peanuts are a preparation of raw, unshelled green peanuts boiled in brine and often eaten as a snack. More recently, fried peanut recipes have emerged – allowing both shell and nut to be eaten. Peanuts are also used in a wide variety of other areas, such as cosmetics, nitroglycerin, plastics, dyes and paints.

The talented botanist recognized the value of the peanut as a cash crop and proposed that peanuts be planted as a rotation crop in the Southeast cotton-growing areas where the boll weevil insect threatened the regions’ agricultural base. Farmers listened and the face of southern farming was changed forever. For his work in promoting its cultivation and consumption, Carver is considered the father of the peanut industry.

Peanut production rose rapidly during and after World Wars I and II as a result of the peanut’s popularity with Allied forces, and as a result of the post-war baby boom.

Today, peanuts contribute over four billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year.