From left to right: Women selling fried chicken and coffee to rail passengers at a train station in Virginia, a chicken hatchery in Jacksonville in 1950, and a Chick ‘N Pig Restaurant in Jacksonville in 1948. (Library of Congress and State Archives of Florida)
Fried chicken is a soul food dish that has always played an important social role in the history of Jacksonville. Prior to slavery, chicken was considered to be a luxury food reserved for special occasions. Nevertheless, jerking, barbecuing, grilling and frying chickens were cooking techniques Africans practiced prior to their arrival in the region. With few predators, chickens rapidly reproduced during the antebellum period, leading to fried chicken emerging as the most notable way to prepare chicken in the South. Although not uniquely African, enslaved cooks enriched the flavor by incorporating seasonings and spices into the dish.
Here, the enslaved raised chickens and what they did not use to supplement their rations, they sold in the local markets on their day off, a practice that originated in Africa. Offering a way to start a business with little expense, enslaved entrepreneurs could possibly save enough money to purchase freedom for them and their loved ones. By the late 19th century, preparing and selling fried chicken became a popular way for African-Americans to launch businesses locally because it required little in terms of language skills, licenses or formal training. By selling their product at congested local markets, train stations and busy street corners, a vendor could save enough money to open a tavern, restaurant or boardinghouse.
A plate of fried chicken at The Cookbook restaurant in Springfield.
According to Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food Recipes, Remedies & Simple Pleasures by Fred Opie, vendors sold wings, backs, gizzards and other organ meats for five cents and the better cuts of the bird for ten cents. Fried chicken had become so popular in Black community, it was the go to dish for festivals, weddings, funerals, cookouts, used by men as a treat to attract women and known as a “Gospel bird” due to its connection to Sunday church culture. Visiting a rural Georgia community as a boarder in 1900, James Weldon Johnson even had this to say about fried chicken in his autobiography Along This Way:
“I was gratefully surprised by the fare the landlady set before me; the main course being fried chicken twice a day, for breakfast and supper. However, at the end of two or three weeks it appeared that I had eaten every chewable chicken on the place. At first, this was something of a relief, for I had made the astounding discovery that man can not live by chicken alone.”
A popular window where fried chicken is served on the sidewalk along Myrtle Avenue in Durkeeville.
In areas such as the Eastside, there were social organizations like the Owl Social Club, that would organize rent parties selling chicken, in order to help families avoid eviction. In addition, since fried chicken traveled well before refrigeration was common, it became an important part of African-American travel during an era where most restaurants refused to serve the Black community. On long road trips, fried chicken and cake would be prepared the night before, enabling the weary traveler to eat on the road trip in peace, avoiding potential humiliation in unfamiliar environments.
Today, fried chicken remains an important part of Jacksonville’s historic culinary culture with street vendors, restaurants and hole-in-the-walls serving up big helpings of the dish all across the city.
A meal featuring fried chicken from Norwood’s Blu Diner restaurant.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com.