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Chicken Sisters, Chicken Wars, and Harvey Girls… What on earth could these three things have in common?

I recently read Chicken Sisters by Kj Dell’antonia. In the prologue to the story, two sisters who had started out as Harvey Girls left the Harvey House restaurant to start their own restaurants, both serving fried chicken.

The Chicken Sisters book cover, yellow background with two hands pulling the wishbone
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Three generations, two chicken shacks, and one never-ending feud

Years pass and the Chicken Sisters have evolved into a Hatfields-and-McCoys/Romeo-and-Juliet flavored fried chicken war. Neither family speaks to the other and one daughter who dared to marry into the competing chicken family has been disowned.

One fateful day, Amanda decides to submit her family’s restaurants as competitors in an episode of Food Wars, a reality tv show.

They are chosen for an episode and the reality of reality tv as well as many years of family secrets and dysfunctional relationships come crashing together.

Kj Dell’antonia Introduces Her Book, Chicken Sisters

Hear the author talk a little bit about her book.

Who wins? Will the town survive? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

In the meantime, let’s dig a little deeper into some real-life facts that go along with the book. Let’s start at the beginning with the Harvey Girls.

Fred Harvey – Entrepreneur and Innovative Restaurateur

Fred Harvey was an English immigrant who arrived in America at the age of 17. His first job was in New York City working as a pot scrubber and a busboy at the popular Smith and McNell’s Restaurant. This is where he learned all about the restaurant business including the importance of fresh ingredients and quality service.

Harvey worked his way up in the restaurant then after 18 months, he moved on to other jobs and places. Eventually he married and started a cafe but when the Civil War began, his partner left with all their money to support the Confederacy and Harvey needed a new job. He soon found a position working for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.

Combining His Restaurant Experience with the Railroads

Fred Harvey traveled extensively while working for the railroad and hated the poor food available to travelers along the rail line. At that time, there were no dining cars on trains so they would stop along the route at trackside restaurants where the passengers could eat. He partnered with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in 1876 to open two dining houses along the route.

Harvey perfected the standards of cleanliness, consistency, and quick service at his restaurants. He used the trains to deliver his restaurant supplies so he didn’t have to pay for shipping. He staffed his restaurants with young, single women who met his high standards and who were required to sign a contract stating they would work for a minimum of one year before they would be allowed to marry. Fred Harvey’s desire to employ young people with no strong ties reminds me of the Pony Express ads that stated “orphans preferred”.

These waitresses became known as Harvey Girls and when they first started, were sent to a 30-day “boot camp” to learn the Harvey way. Their uniforms must always be clean and they would change mid-shift if they spilled anything on their clothes while working. It is said that the Harvey Girls civilized the west – they brought the feminine touch to the frontier.

This Smithsonian article does a great job telling the story of Fred Harvey, his restaurants, and the Harvey Girls – How the West Was Won By Waitresses .

interior page of The Harvey Girls book shows text and picture of waitresses in the restaurant
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One of only a few books written about the Harvey Girls. I love all the pictures!

The History Chicks Podcast Episode of The Harvey Girls

One of my favorite ways to learn more about a topic is to listen to a podcast while walking the dog. If audio is your jam too, then maybe you’ll enjoy this podcast episode!

The Harvey Girls Musical

The Harvey Girls were such a well-known phenomenon that they were featured in a 1946 musical starring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury. Here’s a trailer for the movie.

Harvey Girls Fiction – Diary of a Waitress

I found this book online while researching the Harvey Girls. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but it looks good!

Chicken Sisters Food War

In the Chicken Sisters book, there are two competing chicken shacks – Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s – that become part of a reality tv show called Food Wars. It turns out that there actually was an episode of a reality tv show called Food Wars that featured competing chicken restaurants in Kansas.

Chicken Annie and Chicken Mary – plus 4 other chicken restaurants in Crawford county (SE Kansas) were on a Food Wars episode. One interesting fact from the episode is that bread for all 6 restaurants comes from the same bakery. I haven’t been there yet but it’s definitely going on the list for a future trek across Kansas.

So it’s true that there are “competing” chicken restaurants though in real-life it’s much friendlier than in the Chicken Sisters book. It’s also true that they appeared on an episode of Food Wars in 2010.

What a fun little rabbit hole the Chicken Sisters have sent me down! I hope you enjoyed the trip as well. 

looking down at plate of fried chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy
I recently enjoyed Fried Chicken Night at the local diner in my Grandma’s midwestern town.

Read More…

In a Six Degrees of Separation fashion, here are a few other posts tangentially related to this one!

Judy Garland starred in the Wizard of Oz. You can read about the Oz Museum in Kansas, about a fun Oz-themed park in Illinois (coming soon), and about the backstory behind author of Oz, L. Frank Baum and the making of the MGM film starring Judy Garland.

The Chicken Ladies of post-Civil War America served fried chicken to railroad passengers in Richmond. You can read about them in my story about the Civil War Medicine Museum.

Fred Harvey was looking for “intelligent girls of strong character between the ages of 18 and 30” and the Pony Express was looking for “young, skinny, wiry fellows… not over 18… orphans preferred.” They were both looking for young people who wanted an adventure and who wanted to work hard.

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Chicken Sisters Book with Title Box What Do Fried Chicken, Food Wars, and Harvey Girl Waitresses Have in Common?
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The chickens would love for you to cluck about this to all your friends!

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Buy Chicken Sisters Online!

If you can’t find a copy at the library (or don’t want to wait forever on the holds list like I did!) you can get a copy at Bookshop and support local small book businesses. (affiliate link)

Chicken Sisters by Kj Dell'antonia is a fun story about fried chicken and family with some real-life connections to the famous Harvey Girls and to the reality tv show, Food Wars. via @behindeveryday
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