What Is City Chicken, and Why Isn't It Made With Chicken?

Don't mistake this retro recipe for mystery meat.

skewers of breaded pork on a rack
Photo: Steve

If you're from Cleveland or Pittsburgh, you likely grew up on city chicken. If you're from the Great Lakes region, we'll bet you're at least familiar with city chicken, even if your mom or grandma didn't serve it. And if you're from anywhere else, you're here wondering what the deal is with a "chicken" recipe that contains no poultry at all.

So, what is city chicken actually made of? And why is it called city chicken? Here's the history behind this vintage regional recipe.

What Is City Chicken?

Traditionally, city chicken consists of cubes of pork, veal, or both, which are threaded onto skewers, battered with flour and breadcrumbs, and baked or deep-fried to tender perfection. Cooks often shape the skewered meat to mimic chicken drumsticks, and the dish indeed tastes like chicken.

Early versions of city chicken date back to the turn of the century, when Midwestern newspapers and cookbooks published recipes for mock chicken (made with veal) and mock duck, often consisting of flank or round steak and lamb kidneys.

Why Not Use Chicken?

Choosing beef, veal, or pork over poultry came down to cost, and mock poultry recipes allowed people to use more affordable meats (and repurpose scraps) to achieve the coveted taste of chicken or duck.

Believe it or not, people used to reserve chicken for special occasions. Through the early 1900s, families raised chickens primarily for eggs, according to the National Chicken Council.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the chicken industry began to develop with the invention of the broiler. Still, packaging and selling ready-to-cook chicken meat only began in the 1940s. Once this became industrialized, chicken became more available and affordable.

The cost of veal also factored in. Veal used to rank among the cheapest and most readily available meats, as cattle farmers butchered calves to reduce the size of their herds. Furthermore, a surplus of crops and livestock during the Great Depression prompted the government to buy from farmers and donate goods to local relief organizations, which would distribute the commodities to the unemployed.

This included more than 3,600 cattle (for beef and veal) in 1937 alone, according to an annual report from the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation.

In short, people were finding ways to cook with the ingredients that were most accessible.

City Chicken Origins

City chicken came out of the Polish and Ukrainian communities who settled in the Great Lakes region prior to the Great Depression. With many of these immigrants concentrated in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the dish is tied to the two cities, though it cropped up in places like Detroit and Buffalo as well. By 1926, the dish had earned the moniker city chicken, as recorded in a newspaper from Binghamton, N.Y.

In Cleveland, the dish caught on among people of all nationalities, Cleveland native and Iron Chef Michael Symon told Eater. Symon, born of a Greek-Sicilian mother and father of Eastern European descent, says his mom served city chicken with Sunday sauce (an Italian red sauce). Traditionally, it's served with brown gravy.

Listen to Allrecipes Homemade podcast to hear more from Michael Symon!

Episode Transcript

Those with Polish or Ukranian grandmothers may know city chicken as patyczki or patychky, respectively, which both mean "stick." People in the Canadian province of Ontario also refer to it as patyczki or patychky, not city chicken.

While city chicken resembles the skewered meats of the old world, you won't find patyczki or patychky in Poland or the Ukraine.

How to Make City Chicken

Today, many home cooks and even old-school restaurants known for city chicken make the skewers with pork only due to the cost of veal. Still, this skewered meat continues to "stick" around, especially in communities with Polish and Ukrainian heritage. It's a tasty alternative to comfort food favorites like chicken fried steak, fried pork chops, and, yes, fried chicken.

To make it at home, check out our Best City Chicken Recipe, this easy recipe for City Chicken, Chef John's City Chicken, or our Mock Chicken Legs, which call for both ground pork and ground veal.


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