Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why City Chicken has no chicken: A new look at a century-old recipe by Cleo Coyle

Like "Chicken Fried" Steak, "City Chicken" is a delicious comfort food that makes use of the word chicken in the title but not in the recipe. So exactly what is City Chicken?

Well, if you take a six-inch wooden skewer, load it up with scraps of pork and/or veal, and dip it in flour, egg, and breading, you're on the right track. A good pan gravy should be made during the process, and in the recipe below, I’ll show you how I and my husband (and partner in crime writing) do ours. 
There are many variations, based on region. We do ours Pittsburgh style.

But first a bit of fun...

Do you remember the scene below 
in the biopic JULIE AND JULIA?

Julia Child is excited to meet the famous cookbook author Irma Rombauer, who wrote Joy of Cooking, and Irma tells Julia about her horrific publishing experience...

Here's an even greater calamity (in my opinion): My 7th edition (1997) JOY OF COOKING did not include the recipe! As noted above, City Chicken was included in earlier versions, and I'm happy to prove it from a photo of the page in my own well-worn copy of the 5th edition (the comb-ring bound version, which is over 40 years old now). If any of you have the 8th edition, you can check for the recipe in your index of "Joy Classics," to see if it's made a reappearance there!

How do "mock drumsticks" taste?

Incredibly good. City Chicken is a delicious way to cook pork. It's a relatively healthy entree, too, because pork is a white meat, and (in our Pittsburgh-style version) it's baked and not deep fried. 

Growing up just outside of Pittsburgh, Marc and I ate City Chicken regularly. Marc's mother actually made Wednesdays City Chicken night and served her hearty mock drumsticks with string beans and mashed potatoes—to soak up all that good pan gravy. Now if that's not a down-home comfort-food dinner, I don't know what is.

City Chicken is such a popular dish in the Pittsburgh area that some groceries sell "City Chicken" packs of pork pieces with skewers included. Wikipedia has an entry on City Chicken that actually features a picture of one of these Pittsburgh packs. (See Wiki photo at right.)

Ironically, though I now live in New York, the biggest city in the country, I cannot find "City Chicken" packs. Hey, that's okay. Marc and I don’t need them. And neither do you. Just look for packages of boneless pork and/or veal pieces (usually marked for stew), follow our recipe, and you’re all set to…

Cook with joy! 

Cleo Coyle's
City Chicken Recipe

To download a PDF copy of this recipe that you can print, save, or share, click here. 

Cleo Coyle, maker of mock
drumsticks, is author of
The Coffeehouse Mysteries
So why do we call it "chicken," 
when no chicken is in it?

Short answer: When you couldn't afford real chicken, City Chicken was an alternative--a way to enjoy mock fried chicken drumsticks using scraps from the butcher. 

Where does the "city" part come in?

Although published recipes for "mock chicken," were found as far back as one hundred years ago, City Chicken really took off during the Depression, when fatty trimmings and meat scraps of pork, beef, and veal were less expensive than chicken, especially in urban areas that were far from poultry farms. 

And there you have it--the name explained.

As I noted above, there are many regional variations of the dish. Some are deep fried, others have no breading. The recipe we’re sharing today was how Marc's mother prepared it, and therefore made "Pittsburgh style," which means it will be breaded, sautéed, and baked. We just love it this way, and hope you will, too...

Makes six servings

- 6 six-inch wooden skewers (in a pinch, simply cut down longer skewers)

- 3 pounds of meat cubes (we use):
    1-½ pounds boneless pork pieces (or "stew meat") +
    1-½ pounds veal pieces (or "stew meat")

- 1 cup all-purpose flour

- 1 cup seasoned bread crumbs (we use Italian seasoned)

- 2 large eggs (beaten with fork)

- 1 tablespoon milk (or water) to thin the beaten eggs, making an "egg wash" for breading

- 1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped 

- ¼ cup vegetable oil 

- 2 Tablespoons butter 

- 2/3 cup chicken or veg stock

- Salt and pepper to taste

- 1 tablespoon (or so) Wondra flour or cornstarch


Note: If you bought "stew meat" packages as shown above, you should be ready to go. If you can't find stew meat, purchase pork loin chops and/or veal steaks and cut them into small pieces ( about 1- to 1-1/2 inches in size). 

Step 1: Prepare the Meat - Arrange the meat pieces on each of the six skewers. If using more than one type, alternate them (pork, veal, pork, veal, etc...) Fit the pieces together tightly to create a mock chicken drumstick. Dredge each of the mock drumsticks in flour, then in egg wash (2 eggs beaten with 1 T. milk or water), and finally coat generously with the seasoned bread crumbs.

Step 2: Brown the meat – Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. While oven is heating, place the vegetable oil in a large oven-proof skillet over medium high heat. When this shallow oil is hot enough to ripple, add 1 tablespoon of butter and allow it to melt. Sauté the mock drumsticks about five minutes in the hot oil, turning often, until the outsides are golden brown. Remove the mock drumsticks from the pan and set them aside on a holding plate. Turn the heat to low.

Step 3: Sauté the onions – Add the chopped onion to the hot oil, along with about 1 tablespoon butter. Cook and stir over the low heat until the onions are brown, about five minutes. Now return the mock drumsticks to the pan (along with any drippings that may have accumulated on the holding plate). Cook them only for another minute or two.

Step 4: Bake in the oven – Add ½ cup chicken or vegetable stock to the skillet, cover with a lid, and bake in the preheated oven for about 50 minutes, or until the meat is tender. 

Step 5: Make the gravy - The onions and stock create a nice gravy as the meat cooks. While you can spoon this thin gravy over the mock drumsticks as is, we prefer to thicken it. To do this, you'll need to remove all of the mock drumsticks from the pan while leaving the liquid in there...

Over low heat, whisk the Wondra flour (or cornstarch) into the liquid. If you like, you can stir a bit of butter into the gravy for richness, as well, although it's not a necessity. Simmer for a minute or two, whisking in more flour or cornstarch until the gravy thickens to your liking. Then plate the mock drumsticks, spoon the gravy over them, as shown, and...

Eat with joy!
~ Cleo Coyle

New York Times bestselling author of
The Coffeehouse Mysteries

Yes, this is me, Cleo (aka Alice). 
Friend me on facebook here.
Follow me on twitter here
Visit my online coffeehouse here.

The Coffeehouse Mysteries are bestselling
works of amateur sleuth fiction set in a landmark
Greenwich Village coffeehouse, and each of the
12 titles includes the added bonus of recipes. 
To learn more, click here. 

The Ghost and
Mrs. McClure

Book #1 of 

The Haunted Bookshop
, which Cleo writes
under the name
Alice Kimberly

To learn more, click here


  1. I used to see this recipe in my mother's big old cookbook when I'd spend hours reading it, learning, dreaming of knowing how to make such things. I never tasted it though, and you two have made it look not only delectable, but achievable. Thanks again!

    1. Laine - You're a sweetheart. Thank you for dropping by today, and I hope you enjoy the recipe. It's not only flavorful, it's fun to make--and watch people's faces when you serve it up.

      "City Chicken? Excuse me, where's the chicken?" :)

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  2. Us modern kids (how often do I get to say that?) don't know that once chicken was a luxury item for some (hence "a chicken in every pot" as an optimistc campaign promise). This sounds like a fun recipe--and shame on Joy of Cooking for retiring it.

    1. Sheila - Our grandparents had some great ideas, didn't they? City Chicken certainly was one. In their case, it was economical. In our case, I have to admit, it's a reaction to modern pork.

      Today’s pork has much less fat, and is less juicy and flavorful, than the meat our grandparents ate. We modern cooks have developed all kinds of methods to prevent our pork dinners from ending up dry and flavorless--we brine, marinate, rub, and sauce the stuff to improve the flavor and texture.

      Marc and I discovered that even ultra-lean pork makes great City Chicken--and without any brining or bother really. Seasoned bread crumbs and sautéing adds the flavor; baking the pork in the onion and broth plumps up the lean meat with moisture while tenderizing it at the same time.

      Just one of many reasons we found this old recipe worth dusting off.

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  3. Oh boy does that look good! and I think Mark's mom had the right idea, serving it with mashed potatoes.

    Going off to check my JOC

    1. Lucy - Yes! Marc's mom was right: Mashed potatoes are the perfect side for City Chicken. I didn't have any extra at the time I took the photos, so I made do with baked, but mashed is most definitely the way to go to take advantage of that good pan gravy.

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  4. I must have led a sheltered life--I never ran across this before. Thanks for the introduction. This goes on the TBC (to be cooked0 pile, next to the TBR pile of books!
    I have a March 1971 JOC. Bought it used for $3.50. It does have the recipe

    1. Libby - I'm not surprised you never heard of this dish. It's regional and pretty old, gone but not forgotten in some areas of the country--and this blog. :)

      On Joy of Cooking, the edition that deleted the recipe was published in 1997 (Seventh Edition). Editions before that should have the recipe. (I have yet to check the very latest edition, which may have put it back--I hope! The 75th anniversary edition, which came out in 2006 is supposed to have a "Joy Classics" section with some very old recipes. This may or may not be one.)

      On facebook, a reader (Lillian) commented on JOC's many editions: "They've taken a lot of 'classic' recipes out of that book. I have an old 1950's copy which still tells you how to skin a squirrel for cooking & make your own cheese."

      Squirrel. Yes, thing do change...

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

    2. I have southern influences (Georgia), metro NY, central Penn, and southern Florida. You'd think out of all that, plus a family curiosity with foods, I'd have at least heard of it.
      Well, thanks to you, I now have!

  5. I have not had City Chicken for years. Growing up we also had it often. Ours was made like yours except they alternated beef and pork pieces. I am going to have to make this soon.
    thanks for reminding me of this yummy dish.

  6. Well, who knew? I loved that movie and loved Frances Sternhagen in it. She's a class act! Thanks, Cleo, for sharing such a fun history of a meal everybody assumed was...well, you know.


    Daryl / Avery

    1. Avery/Daryl - Isn't Frances Sternhagen a treasure? I just love her. Her part in JULIE AND JULIA may have been small, but it was wonderfully memorable--and not just because it involved the mention of City Chicken, lol.

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  7. I'd like to invite you again to the CookEatShare Author Network. I don’t want the over 1 million unique monthly visitors to CookEatShare.com to miss out on your wonderful food.

    By joining our Author Network, your blog posts will be indexed and users will be guided to your actual blog when searching your recipes or profile.

    The service is free and easy to sign up for. Simply visit www.cookeatshare.com/blogs/apply or contact me at Kyra@cookeatshare.com. You'll get a unique link to claim and customize your profile. We look forward having you in our network!

    If you’re not interested simply put “No Thanks” in the subject and e-mail Kyra.

    1. Kyra - Thank you again for the kind invitation. I'm under the gun with writing deadlines, but I hope to take you up on your offer in the coming year. Until then, may you...

      Cook with love and eat with joy,

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  8. Growing up I never had City Chicken however my husband who grew up a scant 25 miles away had it weekly. Going to show that the Detroit suburbs were and are a wide ranging conrcucopia of ethnicity. Roseville (Les' burg)is predominantly Polish and Italian immigrant families...I guess I lived in a pretty boring spot!

    Imagine his thrill when I found it premade at our local butcher sseveral years ago...I thought it would be a one shot meal, nope! The kids love it and ask for it as often as he does :-) Now I guess I don't have areason to rely on Joe, the butcher any longer. I can make our own!! City Chicken here I come...Joe, I'm still coming to you for the pierogi...this English/Irish mama isn't even going to try those!!

  9. This looks so yummy! Thanks Cleo for another wonderful recipe!

  10. Another terrific recipe, Cleo! Looking forward to trying it because it looks like fun to make as well as delish.


  11. This is a totally new dish to me. It's not surprising that it would taste good, especially when made with pork. Fascinating how recipes evolve. I'll have to try this sometime.


  12. We grew up eating City Chicken at least once a week.....it was a pork and beef mix-we'd go to the butchers on Sat and get several orders made up-we had a large family!!! I have not seen it around in any shape or form...in about..oh....25yrs....it is very regional..very common among the Germans, Penn. Dutch....I'm thinking I should be making this again!!!! Thanks for the history and cooking lesson!

  13. I have had this every Christmas for 43 years and my mother had it her whole life! Ultime family favorite!!!

  14. I had this as a child at my grandparents and ooh was it good. I'd forgotten about it and it occurred to me recently to make it. Your pic is the closest I've seen to what they looked like and I'm excited to make it. I'll let you know how it turns out. Thanks for the blog.

  15. One question, your recipe called for tbls of milk or water but I did not see where it fit in your recipe instructions . Either way , I am in the middle of trying your recipe ( omit the tbls milk ) and its in the oven . I can't wait to try it!

    1. Hi, Kimber - Cooks who bread and flour often know to thin the egg a bit with some liquid. That's why we listed it under the egg. It's not vital to the recipe. I'll make it clearer in the recipe for those who don't have much (or any!) experience with breading things, and I hope you enjoy your City Chicken!

      ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
      “Where coffee and crime are always brewing…”
      Cleo Coyle on Twitter