A Bird in the Hand

Fried chicken feeds our hearts and heritage.

Before noon in Gordonsville, if the air is crisp and you cock your head just right, you can still hear the long cry of Amtrak’s Crescent, traversing the iron arc bound for New Orleans. But the train no longer stops here, as it did more than a century ago when this Orange County town stood at a bustling junction and built its reputation as the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.”

Early trains lacked dining cars, so the enterprising Black women of Gordonsville clamored to the tracks when they heard the whistle, balancing platters of fried chicken, biscuits, boiled eggs, cakes, and pies on their heads. Passengers paid 15 cents for legs and breasts, a nickel or dime for backs and wings as the waiter carriers and chicken vendors—as they were called—served them through the open windows of the wooden train cars.  

These delicacies provided financial stability for the women who sold them. “My mother paid for this place with chicken legs,” Isabella “Bella” Windston of Gordonsville says of her house in Psyche Williams-Forson’s book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (University of North Carolina Press). 

As magazines of the day extolled the women’s entrepreneurial spirit and raved about their delicious chicken, rail passengers began choosing the Gordonsville route, just to taste it. The tradition continued until dining cars were added to trains and government regulations forbade track-side food sales. 

But the town of Gordonsville honors the women’s legacy with an annual Fried Chicken Festival—this year on Oct. 1—with fried chicken and pie contests, a wine garden, and a chicken run. 


Cold Beer! Hot Chicken! Good Friends! 

“I’ve always loved food that has a soul,” says chef Craig Hartman, owner of two Gordonsville restaurants, The Barbeque Exchange and Champion Ice House. 

The latter is a partnership between the classically trained fine dining chef and Champion Brewing Company’s owner Hunter Smith. Their motto is “Cold Beer! Hot Chicken! Good Friends!”

Champion Ice House serves up fried chicken with soul in a nod to Gordonsville’s past. “History has always been super, super important to people, and I’ve always been proud of weaving the history and culture of an area into venues,” says Hartman. 

“So my wife and I were wondering, how can we get a fried chicken restaurant together here? I’ve talked to the ladies I know who are descendants of the Chicken Ladies of Gordonsville,” Hartman says. “We have a ton of respect for that and wanted to make sure, first of all, that whatever we did honored them and did not try to capitalize on them or their culture.”

Hartman’s menu is enough to make even the most genteel Virginian hoot and holler, with an assortment of boats, platters, and family meals that showcase Gordonsville’s claim to fame: golden-brown delicious chicken.

And then there’s the remarkable statement on the bill of fare, “Our chicken is fried Old World style in lard.” Also offered: biscuits, Southern sides, and seafood.

The result is pure edible art. The chicken pieces are large, plump, and succulent. The golden nooks and crannies of the crispy fried skin fold around the meat, like a topographical map on the road to goodness. Each piece has a shine and sheen to it, begging to be eaten. Break into a piece, and the waft of steam floats skyward, perfuming the room.

But Hartman says fried chicken this good can be done at home, too. You don’t even need to evoke the spirit of your great-grandmother with that old Ouija board you keep meaning to put out at the next yard sale. “I like when the skin is kind of tight and dry,” he says. “It has a nice look and color to it. I don’t like it when the skin looks droopy and wet.” 

Cut up a whole chicken if you want. To learn how, Hartman recommends Julia Child videos on YouTube—or just use chicken pieces. Hartman also likes a simple salt brine to help hold on the seasonings and flour when frying the bird, and for him, it all comes back to using lots of good ole’ lard.

“You can’t eat fried foods all the time. But, you know, you have to have things in your diet that are going to satisfy you from time to time,” he says.  “So you might not eat the fried chicken every day, but once a week or once a month, it’s just part of a diet,” Hartman says, adding, “It might even be a good last meal.”


Recipe: Virginia Fried Chicken
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 
  • 1 cup buttermilk 
  • 3 tablespoons hot sauce
  • 1 4–5 pound chicken, cut into pieces 
  • Peanut oil or lard

Whisk the flour, salt, black pepper, cayenne, and garlic powder together in a medium bowl. Stir the buttermilk and hot sauce together in another medium bowl. 

Dip the chicken pieces in the buttermilk mixture and dredge in the flour mixture, shaking to remove excess. Lay the chicken on a baking sheet and refrigerate for about 30 minutes or until the flour dries slightly and forms a pasty crust. 

Preheat the oven to 225°F. 

Fill a large skillet with 1/2-3/4 inch of the peanut oil and heat over medium-high heat. Alternatively, add 1 cup lard and heat over medium-high heat to fill skillet 1/2-3/4 full.

The oil or lard is hot enough when a pinch of flour sizzles in it; the oil should not be smoking. Place half of the chicken pieces in the skillet and cook until golden, 13-15 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces and cook until golden on the other side, 10-12 minutes.

Place the chicken on a wire rack set over a baking sheet and place in the oven to drain and keep warm while cooking the second batch.

Cucumber Salad
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Dried dill 
  • 3 large cucumbers, thinly sliced
  • 1 small white or sweet onion,
  • thinly sliced in rings
  • Fresh dill

In a medium saucepan over medium heat add white vinegar, water, sugar, a dash of salt, a dash of black pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper, and a dash of dried dill. Heat and stir and heat until sugar and salt are dissolved, about 5–7 minutes.

In a medium bowl, add sliced cucumbers and onion. Pour hot vinegar mixture over the cucumbers and onions and allow to cool. Refrigerate to chill, about an hour. Garnish with fresh dill to serve.  

Deviled Eggs
  • 6 eggs 
  • 5 anchovy filets, optional
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise 
  • 1 tablespoon capers,
  • drained and chopped 
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 
  • 1/8 tablespoon freshly ground
  • black pepper 
  • 1/2 teaspoon chives, finely chopped 
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika

Place the eggs in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a rapid boil over high heat; as soon as the water boils, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain the water from the saucepan and refill it with cold water; allow the eggs to sit until cool, about 10 minutes. 

Carefully peel the eggs and cut each one in half. Scoop the yolks into a medium bowl. Set aside the whites.

Finely chop the anchovy filets, then mash into a paste using a fork. Add the anchovy paste to the bowl with the yolks, then add the mayonnaise, capers, mustard, and pepper. Mix well. 

Evenly spoon the filling into the reserved egg white halves or use a pastry bag to pipe it in. Sprinkle eggs with the chopped chives and paprika. Refrigerate, covered, for at least an hour or until ready to serve.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
  • 2 cups self-rising flour 
  • 1/2 cup sugar 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening or lard
  • 4 medium sweet potatoes,
  • baked and mashed (about 2 cups) 
  • 2–4 tablespoons whole milk

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Grease a baking sheet and set aside.

Whisk the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a medium bowl. Work the shortening into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter until well mixed.

Fold in the sweet potatoes and knead, adding a little more flour if the dough is too wet. If the dough is too dry, add the milk a little at a time. The mixture should be firm and smooth. 

Roll out the dough on a floured cutting board to about a 1/2-inch thickness and cut with a biscuit cutter. Place the biscuits on a greased baking sheet and brush the melted butter on top. 

Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the tops are light brown; reduce the heat to 400°F if tops are cooking too quickly.


A CHICKEN PRIMER

When is a chicken not a chicken? When it’s a broiler, a capon, a roaster, or a gospel bird. Here, some bird words to know.

Capon: male chickens less than four months of age and surgically neutered. They weigh 4-7 pounds and have generous quantities of tender, light meat. 

Broiler-Fryer: a young, tender chicken; less than 10 weeks old and weighing 2 1/2–4 1/2 pounds. 

Dark and White Meat: the thigh and leg (drumstick) portion of the chicken is usually denser and darker in color than the white meat of the breast and wings.

GBD: abbreviation for golden brown and delicious, what every piece of fried chicken should be.

Gospel Bird: a synonym for fried chicken, since the dish is often served on Sunday following church services.

Roaster: between 8-12 weeks old and weighing five pounds or more, a roaster yields more meat per pound than a broiler-fryer. 

Spring Chicken: a very young chicken, often dispatched within the first 28 days of age. Cornish Game Hens, which are not true chickens, are sometimes called spring chickens. 

Yardbird: Deep South slang for chicken.


Eight Virginia Chicken Joints To Try:

Bobo’s Fine Chicken Restaurant

3139 Shore Dr., Virginia Beach

Enjoy the Two Piece White Meal, and for something different, have the pieces dipped in BoBoQ Sauce. Two seasonal sides come with the deal; we love to start with a cup of Brunswick Stew. BobosFineChicken.com 

Buttermilk and Honey

12246 W. Broad St., Short Pump

With menu items like What the Cluck!!!, collard greens, and fried green tomatoes, this fast-casual concept brings good food and good fun. Vegan and gluten-free options mean, “no one is left out of the chicken party.” ButtermilkAndHoneyRVA.com

Champion Ice House

212 N. Main St., Gordonsville 

Try the Four Piece Platter at Craig Hartman’s homage to the Gordonsville Waiter Carriers, which includes a breast, leg, thigh, and wing along with two sides, roll or biscuit, apple butter, and sauce. ChampionIceHouse.com

Mama J’s

415 N. First St., Richmond

At this classic soul food restaurant, get the White-Piece Fried Chicken Dinner, served with corn muffins or dinner rolls. Sides to love include fresh collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and candied yams. MamaJsKitchen.com

Michie Tavern

683 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., Charlottesville

The prix-fixe bill of fare at this historic tavern on the road to Monticello includes fried chicken and other meats, plus lots of old-fashioned and tasty sides like black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes, green beans, cole slaw, cornbread, and biscuits. MichieTavern.com 

Sting-Ray’s Restaurant

26507 Lankford Hwy., Cape Charles

Open since 1950, this gas station-turned-gourmet eatery fries chicken to order. Grab the Three Piece Basket which comes with hushpuppies and slaw. Stingrays1950.wixsite.com

Queen Mother’s Chicken

918 S. Lincoln St., Arlington

Celebrity Chef Rahman “Rock” Harper offers several upscale chicken sandwiches including La Reina. Between two halves of toasted brioche, the duck fat fried chicken piece is topped with slaw and spicy tomato sauce. QueenMotherCooks.com

Wayside Takeout & Catering

2203 Jefferson Park Ave., Charlottesville

Serving up Ole’ Virginia Fried Chicken for over 40 years, Wayside—named “Best of the South” by Southern Living—also serves up collard greens, potato salad, baked beans, and green beans. WaysideChicken.com


This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

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