What Is City Chicken?
Don't let looks fool you–it's not really chicken, y'all.
If you grew up in the North or Midwest regions of the country, you may be familiar with a dish called City Chicken, either as a mainstay in your weeknight supper rotations or a favorite comfort food. In the South, however, this is one dish that just isn’t very well known. We are famous for our fried chicken, and can fill a notebook with chicken casserole recipes alone, but not many have heard of City Chicken. My Tennessee-born mother-in-law used to make this dish for her family but it was always a mystery to me, never really understanding what it was, why it had that name, and why I couldn't find any recipes for it in my Southern cookbooks. After a little research, however, I was able to piece together the story of this recipe, and how it came to travel all the way from a kitchen in Detroit to a dining room table in Alabama. Read on for a little history lesson on City Chicken.
You won’t find a recipe for City Chicken in the poultry section of a cookbook because, well, it isn’t poultry. Known as a Depression Era recipe, cubes of veal and pork are threaded onto a skewer in order to create a faux drumstick. Seasoned and breaded, then fried or baked, this was a popular and delicious way to “fake” a poultry dinner. But why would you have to fake chicken? Prior to the 1940’s, everyone wanted a chicken on the dinner table, yet surprisingly it was very expensive, even more so than pork and veal. As Cynthia Graubart writes in Chicken – A Savor the South Cookbook, “Families with chickens in the yard were reluctant to kill their egg-laying hens, though by the time those hens finished their usefulness as layers, they were tough old birds, fit only for stew.” Since chicken farming had not yet become industrialized (thus making chicken readily available and cheap), cooks around the country saved their chickens for a special meal. On the other hand, beef producers were butchering veal in order to thin their herds, making veal more common and less expensive than chicken. Today, veal is the more expensive cut of meat and chicken is no longer reserved for Sunday dinner with the preacher.
Popular in cities throughout the eastern regions of Ohio and Michigan, and portions of the northeastern Appalachian regions, City Chicken doesn’t seem to have made any inroads into the major Southern culinary scene. Ask your friend, who was raised in the South, if she has ever heard of City Chicken. The answer is probably “no.” Check the veal and pork sections of old Southern spiral-bound community cookbooks and see if you find a recipe for City Chicken – you may find one or two. But yet there are Southern cooks who make this recipe, so how did this popular northern recipe make its way South?
The story of this recipe is just another byproduct of the Southern Diaspora, a time when millions of Southerners flocked to the North and Midwest for jobs in the railroad and auto industries. They shared their favorite Southern recipes with their new neighbors and friends and, conversely, when those homesick for the South made their way back, they brought with them the new recipes they had learned to love, such as City Chicken. Though born in Tennessee, my mother-in-law moved with her family to Detroit when her father found work in the railroad industry. She married, raised a family of her own, and served them City Chicken along with Southern cornbread (no sugar added!), and then brought the recipe with her when my father-in-law was transferred down South.
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In 1980 Southern Living published Cooking Across the South, a cookbook honoring the many diverse regions, cultures, and foodways that all make up this wonderful jambalaya we call the South. This recipe for City Chicken was included in the book.
1/2 lb. beef steak, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 lb. veal steak, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 lb. lean pork, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
11/2 cups fine dry breadcrumbs
1 Tablespoon water
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup water
1. Alternate cubes of beef, veal, and pork on 5-inch wooden skewers. Combine salt, pepper, and breadcrumbs. Beat egg with water. Roll skewered meat in seasoned breadcrumbs; dip in egg, and roll in breadcrumbs again.
2. Heat shortening in heavy skillet; brown meat on all sides in hot shortening. Add water; cover tightly and simmer for 45 minutes, or until meat is tender. Yield: 4 to 6 servings