~ City Chicken: Literally, "The Other White Meat." ~
City chicken. It could be said, "it's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key" -- A wartime Winston Churchill quote. In The Joy of Cooking, if you go the index intentionally looking for "city chicken", and look under "chicken", you'll not find it. That said, if you're looking for a pork or veal recipe in the same cookbook, and look under "pork or veal", you will stumble upon "mock chicken drumsticks or city chicken" on page 469. That's because:
Even though it looks like a chicken leg & tastes like chicken...
A bit about chicken "sans volaille", which is French for chicken "without poultry": City chicken is a depression era meal born out of necessity. During the Presidential campaign of 1928, Herbert Hoover claimed that if he won, there would be "a chicken in every pot (and a car in every garage)" -- it was a promise of prosperity. During that time period, unless you lived on a rural farm where you had the space to raise a few chickens, chicken was very expensive to purchase, especially in the urban cities (chickens weren't raised in volume until the 1950's). It was a wealthy man's family and guests that sat down to a well-appointed chicken dinner on a Sunday.
Said to have originated in the city of Pittsburgh, butchers began placing inexpensive cubes of pork and veal along with a few wooden skewers in a package, so housewives could thread and fashion what (once dipped in an egg wash, dredged in breadcrumbs and baked or fried) mocked a chicken leg. It was quite inventive. Gravy was made from the pan drippings, mashed potatoes and a vegetable were served, and, the family enjoyed a very tasty, faux-chicken dinner.
In Eastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, my grandmother called it "chicken-on-a-stick", and she, in fact, did skewer cubes of pork and veal to make it. In my lifetime, the cost of veal sky-rocketed, so I stopped including veal a while ago.
Back in the 1980's I became friends with a meat-cutter here in Happy Valley who managed a popular mom and pop butcher shop. While they didn't sell city chicken "in the case", if you ordered it ahead, he and his wife would "make it up", and, a lot of caterers ordered large quantities to serve at big events. Theirs was made from very coarsely ground pork (and veal too if you requested it and paid extra for it), and, it was formed in one of these nifty cast-aluminum gadgets (mine is pictured), with "chicken sans volaille" stamped on the side of it.
I love this low-tech retro cast-aluminum gadget, but if you don't have one, don't fret, it's easy to mock using your fingertips:
1/2 teaspoon each: sea salt and coarsely-ground or cracked black pepper
~Step 1. Cube the pork as directed, placing it in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the sea salt and black pepper. Using a series of 30-35 on-off pulses, coarsely-grind the pork. Transfer the ground pork to a large bowl. No need to wash processor bowl yet.
~Step 2. Add 1 cup very coarsely-chopped yellow onion (4 ounces) to work bowl and using a series of 20-25 on-off pulses, finely-dice the onion. Transfer onion to bowl with pork. Using your hands, thoroughly combine. You will have 2 pounds, 4 ounces of city chicken mixture.
Holding the city chicken mold like a pair of scissors...
~ Step 3. To dip, dredge and fry the city chicken, in a shallow 9" pie dish, using a fork, whisk 4 large eggs with 4 tablespoons water and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. In a second 9" pie dish, place 1 cup French-style bread crumbs.
~ Step 4. One-at-a-time, roll each "city chicken leg" around in the egg wash, to thoroughly coat it, then, roll it around in the breadcrumbs, to thoroughly coat it, returning each leg to the parchment lined baking pan as you work.
~ Step 5. In a 16" electric skillet over low heat, melt 4 tablespoons salted butter into 4 tablespoons corn or peanut oil. Increase heat to 250 degrees, add 8 city chicken legs to skillet and gently fry until golden on all sides, for a total of 14-16 minutes. Remove chicken and place on a wire cooling rack that has been placed in the parchment and aluminum foil lined baking pan. Add a second 4 tablespoons of salted butter and 4 tablespoons of corn or peanut oil to skillet (don't remove the previous pan drippings) and repeat the process with the remaining 8 city chicken legs.
Serve hot, warm or at room temp as hors d'oeuvres or snacks, or, ASAP as a meal w/pan gravy, mashed potatoes & a vegetable!
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; food processor; cast-iron "chicken sans volaille" city chicken mold (optional); 16, 6"wooden skewers; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; parchment paper; 2, 9"-round pie plates; 16" electric skillet or a 14" skillet on the stovetop
Cook's Note: To make a quick pan gravy, stir 1/4 cup flour into the hot drippings in skillet along with 1/2-3/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning. Stir until a thick roux forms and cook until bubbly, about 30 seconds. Add 2 cups of canned chicken broth or homemade chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and taste. Add a grinding of sea salt and peppercorn blend -- how much depends on how seasoned the broth or stock was. Adjust heat to simmer gently until nicely-thickend, about 2 minutes. At this point my grandmother added a few drops of Kitchen Bouquet or Gravy Master (both Browning and Seasoning sauces) for color too!
Extra Cook's Note: Two weeks ago I posted my recipe for ~ Herbed Pork Skewers w/Apricot Mustard Sauce ~. My friend Bob commented that it reminded him of city chicken, and, in fact, it is reminiscent of the chicken-on-a-stick he and I grew up eating in our Eastern Pennsylvania, hometown of Tamaqua. You can find the recipe by clicking into Categories 2, 3, 10 or 17. Thanks Bob Richards, for the inspiration for me to write and share my yummy city chicken recipe!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)