Waiter carriers serving food to passengers on a train passing through Gordonsville.
It’s a scorching afternoon at the Gordonsville, Virginia, fairgrounds. Inside Vincent Seal’s mobile kitchen, it’s easily 10 degrees hotter. That’s not just because it’s a steel box on wheels; it’s mainly because Seal’s wife, Stephanie Terrell, has been frying up her chicken since early that morning.
“This is the secret recipe here. It’s a dry batter,” Seal explained. “We take the chicken straight out the pack, batter it, put it in the fryer. We put all our secret spices in. As you see I think people are enjoying it.”
Seal and Terrell are competing in the annual Gordonsville Fried Chicken Festival’s fried chicken cook-off. It should be noted that the town, just north of Charlottesville, is known as the "Fried Chicken Capital of the World."
Terrell’s closely guarded recipe won the competition the past two years and they have every intention of making this year a three-peat.
“I just like chicken,” she said. “It’s my favorite.”
“Gordonsville has a heritage of chicken history,” Seal said. “So we just thought it would be a good thing for us to do and we beat around the bushes and found some good recipes here from Gordonsville, some of the elders. And it’s worked out.”
So it’s not just that Stephanie Terrell is a good home cook; it’s that she comes from a long line of Gordonsville women who made fried chicken for a living — a line stretching back more than 150 years.
Stephanie Terrell preparing chicken to be fried. (WAMU/Lauren Ober)
During the Civil War, Gordonsville was hoping. Its current mayor, Bob Coiner, says at the time, the town was a main stop on two train lines. And it had three new turnpikes, making it a regional transportation hub.
“So all the produce from the western part of Virginia came by wagon to Gordonsville to get on the trains to then go to eastern ports and cities and what not,” Coiner said. “So it was very important.”
Those trains also carried passengers. But unlike our modern rail system, those trains didn’t have dining cars or climate control.
Naturally, train passengers would get a little peckish during their journeys. So a group of entrepreneurial African American women in Gordonsville came up with a solution — they would sell food to passengers from the train platform. In particular, they would make fried chicken.
These women were the waiter carriers — so called because they were basically waiters, who had to carry food a long ways, explains Psyche Williams-Forson, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland.
“They were also harassed. A couple of times they had their food stolen.
People would take the food when they gave it through the train window and the train would pull off,” she said. “There is also a local folklorist and historian in Gordonsville who talked about at least one of the waiter carriers tracking down a customer in the neighboring county because the train had taken off and he hadn’t paid for his food.”
Williams-Forson is the author of “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power.” The title of her book comes from an article written by a third generation waiter carrier who explained that her mother had built her house using the profits made from selling fried chicken.
Gordonsville, Virginia is known as the "Fried Chicken Capital of the World." (WAMU/Lauren Ober)
Mayor Coiner, whose family goes back many generations in Gordonsville, says that degree of financial independence was rare post-Emancipation.
“At the end of the Civil War, when we have new freedoms for people, they’re put in a position where they need jobs,” Coiner said. “The situation was bad before, but you could count on the situation. Now it was a big unknown.”
For her book, Prof. Williams-Forson combed through old newspaper articles and other historical documents to find detailed histories of these women. But it was tough. There just aren’t many records that illustrate what these women’s lives were like.
But what is known is that the waiter carriers and their fried chicken were sought after.
“Some people would deliberately chart their way through Gordonsville because they knew they would encounter these woman and those particular foodstuffs,” Williams-Forson said.
After the Civil War, northern journalists traveled the South by train on goodwill tours. They documented their trip through Gordonsville in an 1873 book called The Pine and the Palm Meeting. Here’s how they described their visit to the town:
Upon the arrival of our special train, we were surrounded with a swarm of old and young negroes of both sexes, carrying large servers upon their heads containing pies, cakes, chickens, boiled eggs, strawberries and cream, ripe cherries, oranges, tea and coffee, biscuit, sandwiches, fried ham and eggs, and other edibles, which they offered for sale.
Given what we know, or think we know, about slavery and its devastating effects, the waiter carriers’ entrepreneurship after Emancipation seems unbelievable. These previously enslaved women had the business acumen and cooking skills to support their families through this work.
“I think it’s important to talk about it because it reflects some level of agency that some African Americans were able to exhibit during that horrible institution,” Williams-Forson said.
The Gordonsville waiter carriers continued selling fried chicken to incoming trains until the 1920s or 30s. Their disappearance was the result of a number of factors. The main one? Modernity.
But as Stephanie Terrell and her award-winning fried chicken show, the waiter carrier’s legacy lives on.
A longer version of this story aired on the Gravy podcast.
Music: "A Chicken Ain't Nothin' But a Bird" by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five from Let The Good Times Roll