During the Great Depression, back-alley gamblers popularized the phrase “winner, winner, chicken dinner!” At the time, chicken was such a delicacy, it was reserved for the victors. For everyone else, there was mock poultry, such as the Midwestern mimic known as City Chicken. This skewer of veal or pork cubes was breaded to resemble a drumstick, then baked or fried. The impostor dinner was sometimes topped with gravy, then served with sides such as potatoes and vegetables.
But why was chicken so revered? Before the 1940s, poultry was more expensive than pork or veal. In fact, pork farmers originally advertised their product as “the other white meat” not as a health claim, but because chicken was considered a luxury good. In the days before the poultry industry, it was a costly move to butcher your own chickens: No one would kill their backyard hen until it stopped laying eggs, at which point the bird was tough and fit only for stew. On the other hand, farmers looking to thin their herds would first look to male calves.
Polish and Ukrainian immigrant communities helped establish City Chicken in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit. Its popularity spread when Southerners working in the Midwest—primarily in the auto and railroad industries—brought home the hearty meal they’d learned to love. However, this dish has been fading from relevance since industrial farming made chicken the most readily available, inexpensive, and widely consumed meat in the entire country.
Need to Know
Some traditional restaurants (primarily in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit) still offer City Chicken on their menus. Most will serve the pork variety, as veal has grown more expensive.
Where to Try It
This traditional Polish restaurant outside Detroit serves City Chicken with potatoes. Cheddar potato pierogies cost extra.
While city chicken isn't listed on the regular menu, it's a frequent daily special at this Cleveland restaurant.