Forget Kentucky. The fried chicken capital of world is in fact a small town in Virginia called Gordonsville. That’s just one of the foodie facts that Dave Myers and Si King discovered when they visited the USA for their latest culinary odyssey Hairy Bikers: Chicken and Egg (Tuesdays BBC2).
Gordonsville earned the title at the end of the 19th century when the town was a railway crossroads. There were no dining cars on trains back then and some shrewd African-American women spotted a business opportunity.
“At that time chicken was frowned upon as being cheap, which is why the slaves were allowed to keep and cook them,” explains Myers.
“When the women heard the train coming, they would run out carrying platters of fried chicken on their heads and sell to the people on the train. The chicken was so good that passengers would wait until Gordonsville to eat and the route became known as the Chicken Bone Express.” Gordonsville still has a fried chicken festival every May, when connoisseurs battle it out over deep-fat fryers.
At the Truck Yard, Dallas, Texas
Of course, you can now buy fried chicken anywhere and everywhere, but the good stuff bears scant resemblance to the greasy snack served up in British fast-food joints. “It’s got to be beautifully crisp on the outside and the chicken’s obviously got to be tender and succulent,” says King. “My favourite way to eat it is with with coleslaw and a cold beer. It’s heaven.”
However, if you happen to order fried chicken in the city of Gainesville in Georgia, be sure to eat it with your hands. “There was a law passed there in 1961 saying that you couldn’t eat chicken with a knife and fork,” laughs King.
“They even put a statue in the middle of the town — a massive chicken, of course — that keeps a watchful eye over proceedings.”
The law was a publicity stunt to promote Gainesville’s reputation as America’s poultry capital (yes, another one) because it has so many chicken factories. It’s rarely enforced, although a few years ago a baffled Louisiana resident was arrested on her 91st birthday as a practical joke.
King has one more extraordinary chicken-based fact to share: “Chicken wings are America’s favourite bar and ball-game snack,” he says. “On Super Bowl Sunday, an incredible 1.25 billion chicken wings get eaten in one day. In the 1980s, people wanted the convenience of boneless, skinless chicken breast and so the wings went down in price and almost became a by-product. That’s why bars began to serve buffalo wings — chicken coated in hot sauce.”
There’s another Southern staple that King is even more fond of than fried chicken, however — but this one’s harder to export. “Southern hospitality is fantastic. We had such a blast on our travels — like when we tried our fried chicken and waffles out on this gospel choir and they let us join in. I’m not saying who was the better singer; I’ll let you draw your own conclusions!”
What was the highlight for Myers? “It was a great road trip. We had two massive Harley-Davidsons and they were fabulous.”
“We like to play a game,” says Myers. “You go into a diner and see if you can order breakfast without having to reply to a question. It’s impossible. There’s a huge amount of choice in how you’d like your eggs, your coffee, even how toasted you’d like your toast to be!
Dave and Si try their hand at serving at The Diner of Dallas
I’m partial to American pancakes – they’re thick and as big as a dinner plate. I’m a savoury soul and like breakfast sausage, which is slightly sweet – nothing like a British sausage.”
Taste of Orleans
“Wherever you’ve got a migrant culture, the food evolves and in New Orleans it’s that French and Spanish influence,” says Myers. “So you get gumbo, which came out of French bouillabaisse, jambalaya – a version of paella – and the boudin sausage, which is like the French boudin.”
“We met a family who have made Brunswick stew for decades,” says Myers. “They cook down chicken and beans in a huge pot for about 12 hours, stirring continuously with a maplewood paddle. It’s a big, hearty stew that would feed 300 or 400 people at festivals. Traditionally, you’d buy a quart to take home. Residents of Brunswick, Georgia and Brunswick County, Virginia both claim it as theirs.”
Dishing up Brunswick Stew with the Proclamation Stew Crew in Richmond, Virginia
“You’ve got to try a pit barbecue in Texas. They see barbecue as an art and the amount of eat they eat is mind-blowing,” says King. “It’s phenomenal food, but it’s not something you could eat every day. I mean, obviously, the lads in Texas do.”
“We had wonderful wood-fired chicken in Dallas,” adds Myers. “We asked if they had a vegetarian option and the guy just said, ‘We have chicken…'”
Hairy Bikers: Chicken and Egg continues on Tuesdays on BBC2 at 8pm
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