In the years following the Civil War, Gordonsville, Virginia was known as the "Fried Chicken Capital of the World." Though the town only boasted around 900 residents, it was a hub for produce transported from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, a major source of grain for the entire country, once known as "The Breadbasket of the South." The town provided a junction for the state's north/south and east/west rail lines. Even though the trains passing through Gordonsville supplied grain to much of America, they didn't have dining cars then, meaning passengers were usually starving by the time their trains stopped off in Gordonsville.
Seeing opportunity in all those hungry bellies, African-American women, many of whom were newly freed slaves, carried trays laden with homemade biscuits, pies, and, most memorably, fried chicken. They hoisted their wares right up to the windows of passing trains, trading handkerchiefs full of chicken for handfuls of money, becoming some of the Reconstruction era's first African-American entrepreneurs and earning financial independence in the process. In 1970, Bella Winston, the daughter of one of Gordonsville's famous chicken vendors, said of her home, "My mother paid for this place with chicken legs."
And while the chicken-to-train trade is a thing of the past in Gordonsville, its legacy lives on in gas station fried chicken. "A dozen fully functioning gas stations in Gordonsville still serve the best fried chicken you'll find in the world," said Michael Stern, the James Beard Award-winning author and co-founder of Roadfood.com. "They don't make a big deal of that history, but in most cases, fried chicken is all that's on the menu in those stations."
As Southern food and soul food became au courant in urban hotspots across the country, there has been an impulse to dress it up in bone marrow butter. But the places serving such nouvelle variations miss the point of truly great Southern food: It's not supposed to be fussy. The granddaddy of Southern gas station food, the store lunch, was as far from fork-and-tablecloth dining as possible, but provided comfort food to generations of Southerners from all sorts of backgrounds.
From the late 19th century to as recently as the 1950s, the store lunch was typically available at rural Southern general stores to anyone who had business in the country, from farmers to hunters, surveyors, and fishermen. Just like the snacks available in modern-day gas stations, the store lunch consisted primarily of salted meat followed by sugar. A store lunch might contain an 8oz can of pork and beans, homemade sausages sprinkled with hot sauce, a pig's foot or egg pickled in beet juice and vinegar, plus a cellophane-wrapped oatmeal cookie for dessert. The food was simple, meant to be eaten off a knife blade, but it was hearty, affordable, and readily available to anyone who was hungry.
And while the pink jars of pigs feet or pickled eggs are increasingly rare at your standard Southern Shell station, I remember them well from my childhood. Many a high school bet was hedged on eating those eggs, much to the confusion of our grandparents, members of the Greatest Generation and children of the Depression, to whom pickled eggs were not just sustenance, but a delicacy. I can remember reacting with surprise to the fact that my grandmother had eaten those pink eggs, floating in their mystery liquid, not once, but many times. "They're not bad," she told me, which, coming from my grandmother, meant they were very good.
The store lunch also lives on in bags of homemade cracklins soaking grease through parchment paper, baskets of hard-boiled eggs, and kettle warmers full of spicy boiled peanuts, which are always stacked by the register at any gas station worth its salt alongside I-10. For Southerners, these finger foods are impulse buys; to our northern friends, they're abominations. "You're going to eat that?" they ask us.
"They're not bad," we tell them.
But the appeal of Southern gas station meals lies not just in the quality of the food, but also in the place itself. Southern Foodways Alliance filmmaker Kate Medley recently spent weeks documenting gas station food culture in the Mississippi Delta, and what impressed her most were the people who came together at their local gas stations for hot food and cold beer and, above all, the company.
"One thing that was really interesting was the diverse cross section of people hanging out at these places," Medley said. "It was unparalleled to any other space in the community. Parents in minivans buy after-school snacks with farmers coming through to pick up supplies. You've got college kids looking for beer right next to the mayor, poor people, rich people, and everyone in between from every different ethnicity. You just don't find that anywhere else."