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!