When we set out to make a documentary about the cultural and culinary history of fried chicken in America, we knew that one of the first places to visit would be Gordonsville, Virginia's Fried Chicken Festival. Though it won't show up on many lists of the country's best fried chicken, this small town's annual festival celebrates a treasured piece of local culture and a demonstrates how this ubiquitous (and often fraught) meal has long been more than just a dish.
As historian Psyche Williams-Forson notes in her excellent book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, by the time Gordonsville was incorporated in 1870, "a group of black women were well into their entrepreneurial ventures as food vendors or 'waiter carriers,' as they dubbed themselves." These vendors met the trains that stopped at Gordonsville's station, selling their famous fried chicken to the hungry passengers. At a time when racism and systemic oppression meant there were limited economic opportunities available to African-Americans, much less African-American women, fried chicken was more than just a delicious lunch–it was a potential livelihood (Williams–Forson, p. 31-32).
Though many details about these entrepreneurs have been lost to history (save for the photo above), the festival claims to have preserved the original recipe for the waiter carriers' fried chicken and serves it alongside many other renditions cooked by local chefs who seek to win its fried chicken contest.
It only seemed appropriate that we kicked off our filming for this documentary at the 2016 Fried Chicken Festival, eating delicious chicken, filming interviews with festival-goers, and reflecting upon the myriad layers of meaning and symbolism woven into this dish's complicated story.
-Daniel Thoennessen, Director, Holy Bird
To learn more about Gordonsville and its Fried Chicken Festival:
- The Southern Foodways Alliance's Gravy Podcast: "Fried Chicken: A Complicated Comfort Food" (Ep. 16)
- Gastropod: "The Fried Chicken Chronicles"
Williams-Forson, Psyche A., Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Print.