How fried chicken became a symbol of financial freedom for black women

Of all the foods the South has given to the American culinary landscape, fried chicken is one of the most impactful. And for good reason. In the more than 300 years since the dish was first recorded in the southern United States, it has garnered international acclaim for the distinctive combination of textures, techniques and flavors found in it. come together: crispy, crunchy skin hides juicy, tender meat inside, and if done right, the seasonings can be tasted down to the bone.

But where does one of America’s most popular foods come from? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the legacy of the enslaved and later freed black women who perfected this inherently southern food? Signs point to Virginia, where there are still black women cooking traditional Southern dishes and seeing the importance of having fried chicken on their menus.

When Virginia was still a colony, chicken was already a regular staple on wealthy dining tables. In 1634, when Captain Thomas Young visited Jamestown, he noted“We found tables laden with pork, kids [young goats], chickens, turkeys, young geese, caponetts and other fowl which the seas of the year offered. In the 1700s, fried chicken was a favorite dish of Virginia Governor William Byrd, who wrote about it in his diary, which is the first written account in America. Its popularity grew, and in 1828fried chicken was firmly immortalized in the third edition of America’s first cookbook, Virginia’s Housewife. The recipe asks the reader to cut the chicken “as for the fricassee [a thick white stew often made with chicken], dust well with flour, sprinkle with salt” before frying with lard until the pieces are “light brown”. In nearly 200 years, the recipe has remained almost unchanged.

Enslaved black women were considered experts in preparing everything that was now thought to be Southern food, including fried chicken. After the Civil War, they understood that their freedom meant they could fully control their lives while creating and maintaining economic freedom for themselves through their culinary skills.

“Food serves more than its intended function to nourish and satiate. … But, trading and selling these foods for trade has also provided relative self-reliance, social power, and economic freedom,” writing Psyche A. Williams-Forson in her book Building houses with chicken legs.

Although Williams-Forson published her book in 2006, she still believes little has changed since the dish was first introduced to the American South. “Africans fried food before they came to America,” she says. “When this mechanism came to the South, it was over-honed by black women. As evidenced by the work i did and found it was part of a tradition associated with black women. What interests me the most is what black people did with this food we were made fun of. I’m more concerned about our resilience.

Perhaps the most notable women who embodied this tenacity were the “server porters” in Gordonsville, Virginia, which were the reason the city was named the Fried Chicken Capital of the World in 1869 by writer George W. Bagby. In March 1862, during the Civil War, the Army of Northern Virginia turned the Exchange Hotel near the train stop into the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital, and during that time the server porters served thousands of soldiers who stopped in the city.

A chef's gloved hand holds out a plate of fried chicken, greens and cornbread to an unseen customer as he reaches out to offer cash in exchange.

Gordonsville is about 20 miles outside of Charlottesville, and with the advent of the Louisa Railroad in 1840 it became a major stop on two train lines. When a train pulled into the station to drop off or pick up passengers, they were greeted by the smells that wafted through the train’s open windows of fried chicken and other baked goods that black women carried in baskets on their heads. . Because few jobs were readily available or accessible to black women at the time, many used their culinary talents to support their families after the Civil War.

In 1871, C&0 Railroad sent northern newspaper editors to the south, and the scene was described thus: “We were surrounded by a swarm of old and young negroes…carrying large servers on their heads, containing pies, cakes, chickens, strawberries and cream, ripe cherries, oranges, tea and coffee, cookie sandwiches, fried ham and eggs, and other edibles, which they offered for sale.

Unfortunately, with the introduction of dining cars and air conditioning which required permanently closed windows, as well as license taxes imposed by 1879, waiter transporters were phased out. What remains in Gordonsville is a plaque honoring the town’s “first black female entrepreneurs”. The plaque reads: “With the introduction of railroad service, enterprising African American women began a tradition that was to forever symbolize Gordonsville as the ‘Fried Chicken Capital of the World.’ ”

“It wasn’t just in Gordonsville, it was all around the South,” Williams-Forson says. “You can look at the census, and there are a lot of black women who were noted as caterers.”

To this day, the city still holds a annual fried chicken festival, although the town’s focus has shifted away from the celebration of women the town once boasted. But, as black people began to use their talents to become entrepreneurs by selling chicken, stereotypes arose that turned their empowerment into mockery and were used to justify racism and discrimination. This led to the establishment of restaurants with names such as Coon Chicken Inn and Mammy’s Cupboard, which addressed black stereotypes while selling foods they made popular.

Fast forward a few decades, and the legacy of black women in Virginia using their culinary talents to support their families and communities lives on, regardless of outside opinions or baggage. Michele Wilson is the chef at Ma Michele’s in Richmond, Virginia, and although she was born in Philadelphia, she has deep roots in Virginia.

“I did some research and found that my grandmother was born in Petersburg in 1901 and my grandfather was born in Lynchburg in 1903,” Wilson says. Wilson cooked with her family from an early age as she grew up. Even now, she says she still uses her mother and grandmother’s fried chicken recipe. “I knew something about what black women had to do to support themselves [through cooking] and felt a kinship,” Wilson says.

When Wilson’s siblings moved to Virginia, she followed suit in 1989. While working as a mortgage specialist at Bank of America, she prepared food for her office potlucks and quickly started organizing office events. Soon after, she worked full-time for catering companies before opening Ma Michele’s in 2015. Since then, Wilson has accumulated a lot of experience in preparing varied cuisines, but she chose to focus on Southern cuisine to showcase dishes that reflect her identity and the work she’s seen family members put into their kitchens, rather than worrying about tired stereotypes or tropes mocking what it means to do the basic dish.

“I will not separate myself from my culture,” she says. “Black leaders are rare and can tell the story now and can change the narrative.”

Like Wilson, Shane Roberts-Thomas, chef-owner of Southern cuisine in Richmond, quit his job in sales and marketing to open a restaurant. She learned to cook from her grandmother and Big Mama’s Fried Chicken is the restaurant’s bestseller.

“I’ve cooked all my life,” says Roberts-Thomas. “In the black community, cooking is a way of life. Most women my age had been cooking since they were young…there were no Chick-Fil-A’s. The Virginia born and raised chef says she feels a connection to the black cooks who came before her and believes those women created a foundation for her to run a successful restaurant.

“I have a fine dining restaurant that makes money off of collard greens, cornbread, fried chicken, fried fish, and the food we ate growing up every day,” says Roberts-Thomas. “The people before me who paid their dues to allow me to do this…their spirit lives in me. I want to do them justice when I cook.

Even though black women are the reason you can look at menus all over the country and see fried chicken, the impact of black women in the culinary space extends far beyond this single dish and needs to be recognized. Clearly, their hands have touched almost every facet of what we think of as American food, but their accomplishments are rarely talked about or celebrated, let alone celebrated to the same degree as many others in the food space. The skills born of necessity during slavery later became the tools to sustain their families and communities, and due to their skill and culinary innovation, the recipes spread across the land, leaving dishes that still persist.

We can’t be certain of the first person to fry chicken in America, but everyone who appreciates the Gospel Bird owes a debt to the black women who cooked under unimaginable conditions to create a better life for themselves and their families. Without their ingenuity, talent, and knowledge, our nation would be far less delightful.

Debra Freeman is a food and cultural anthropologist and writer who focuses on black culinary history.
Keisha Okafor is a Nigerian-American artist and designer whose work depicts joy and celebrates people.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein

James V. Hayes