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.
ABOUT SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN
“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)
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)
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: http://www.lodgemfg.com/. A great American company making a product that stands the test of time and makes the best chicken anywhere in the world.
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