Growing up in greater Cleveland, one of our mainstay weeknight meals was city chicken. My mom coated cubes of pork and veal, already threaded together at the grocery store, with a mixture of canned breadcrumbs and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (a go-to in our family). She’d pan-fry the skewers and bake them in the oven for at least an hour — with no gravy, though I’d later find out that’s often the standard accompaniment. The dish was something my mom made regularly, and served in our rotation alongside tacos, baked chicken, and stuffed peppers.

It never occurred to me that this was an unusual (or at least regional) experience, until I never saw city chicken again outside of my hometown pocket of Ohio for another 15 years. I’d describe it to friends, and they’d have no idea what I was talking about. My description probably wasn’t helping matters: “You know, it’s breaded, kind of a meat-on-a-stick thing. Oh — and it isn’t actually chicken.”

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Bring it up to a Clevelander, though, and odds are they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. “The interesting thing about city chicken to me was that growing up in Cleveland, it didn’t matter what nationality you were, everybody made city chicken,” says Michael Symon, Cleveland’s most famous chef. “My [Italian] mom made Sunday sauce, and not everyone made that. But everyone made city chicken.”

With roots in both Pittsburgh and Cleveland, where Polish and Ukrainian immigrant communities have strong presences (and found more scarcely in other Great Lakes-area cities like Detroit and Buffalo), city chicken got its start in the Depression era, when chicken was scarce and more expensive. Made then with pork, veal, or a combination of the two, the meats were cubed and then threaded onto skewers, then breaded to create a drumstick-like shape to better resemble chicken.

Preparations then and now vary slightly in style. Usually the meat is breaded with flour and breadcrumbs (traditional rather than panko, as Mike Sokolowski of Cleveland institution Sokolowski’s University Inn, which has been open since 1923, stresses). Some restaurants deep-fry the skewers, while others pan-fry them, before placing them in a hot oven and cooking them for 60 to 90 minutes. Brown gravy is an optional topping.

So how did the pork or veal dish get its misleading name? “It was called ‘chicken’ because chicken was once more expensive and more desirable; families would have a chicken for Sunday dinner,” says Barbara Johnstone, a professor of rhetoric and linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the book Speaking Pittsburghese. City chicken was one of many mock-chicken products that came into vogue during the Depression (others, for example, may have been fashioned out of ground meat). “It’s hard to imagine anybody was actually fooled,” Johnstone says. “Pork producers now sell their product as ‘the other white meat,’ also an allusion to chicken. But now, that’s because chicken is thought to be healthier than pork, rather than because it is more expensive.”

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City chicken remained relatively popular the longer veal prices stayed in in today’s era of high veal prices, it’s hard to imagine a time when veal was cheaper than omnipresent chicken. Catherine Lambrecht of the Greater Midwestern Foodways Alliance notes that years ago, butchering veal was often a way to thin a herd of bulls. “Once animal husbandry practices allowed sorting the sperm to elevate the chances of females over males, veal increased in price and no longer was an economical food,” she says.

Since veal prices have soared over the past few decades, city chicken made with veal or a mixture of meats can be tough to track down — and city chicken itself has sadly declined in popularity and presence. Sokolowski’s, Cleveland’s oldest family restaurant, is known for its cafeteria-style Polish, American, and Eastern European specialties, and it has served city chicken for more than 20 years — but now only offers its version made with pork.

Cooks who want to make the dish at home now have to turn to speciality butchers to find it sold pre-cubed and threaded onto sticks — and even then it’s usually the all-pork version. “Years ago, the chain stores used to sell it, but it’s become a slow item for them, and it doesn’t move, so they quit carrying it,” says Tom Friday, owner of Pittsburgh’s Tom Friday’s Market. “So it’s kind of rare to see it in a [traditional grocery] store.” All-pork city chicken retails at Friday’s for $3.99 per pound. Special-order it with the veal/pork mixture, and that raises the price to $7.99 per pound, he says.

While Great Lakes Region natives might remember city chicken as a household staple growing up, it doesn’t always draw the kind of reverence that some other regional dishes seem to capture. Symon tends to celebrate just about any Cleveland-specific food (just get him started on kielbasa or pierogi). But ask him about city chicken? He knows it, but it doesn’t elicit passion. “When my mom made lasagna, I was excited. Sunday sauce, I was very excited. City chicken — ‘Oh, I guess we’re having city chicken.’ I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t get me quite as excited as other dishes.”

sokowloski lwb 0252
sokowloski lwb 0252

That didn’t stop Symon from trying to put upscale versions of city chicken on his restaurant menus. Symon has built up a reputation in Cleveland for putting his own spin on regional dishes (the popular beef cheek pierogi at his restaurant Lola is one example). But city chicken, which Symon offered at Lola 20 years ago, was one of his early failures. He tried everything to make the dish work: using heritage pork, experimenting with different cuts. “We did it with butts, we did it with loins, we did it with belly. It couldn’t sell,” he says, noting that diners seemed uninterested in paying restaurant premiums for such a humble dish. “People were like, ‘What are you, insane?’ If I ever opened up a cool diner, I bet I could sell it by the bushel.”

Symon isn’t the only chef to flirt with a high-end version of the dish. Several years ago, Pittsburgh’s Tender Bar + Kitchen served herb-breaded city chicken as a Restaurant Week appetizer (owner Jeff Catalina remembers it as “ridiculously good,” but never brought it back after that — and the restaurant recently closed its doors). The Summit in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington neighborhood currently offers it on the menu prepared with grilled pork loin, served with accents like butternut squash, pierogi, braised cabbage, and peach mustardo. Twenty years after Lola couldn’t sell the dish for $15, that’s what it retails for at the Summit.

But most restaurants who count city chicken as a top seller tend to be more homestyle, casual joints, like Sokolowski’s or Erie, Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh Inn. At the Pittsburgh Inn, it’s a Tuesday night special that has been on the menu for more than 20 years; each week, they make 25 to 30 orders and usually sell out.

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“So many people have never heard of it — they’re surprised when we tell them it’s not even chicken,” says Pittsburgh Inn owner Robin Weunski. “When out of town people come in here, they’re just blown away when we tell them the story.” Even those who grew up with the dish don’t always know exactly what they’re eating. Symon himself admits he didn’t find out the dish wasn’t chicken until much later in life. But it’s nostalgia that keeps people coming back to city chicken. “It reminds them of their childhood,” Weunski says. “I think that’s the big thing.”

Now that, years later, I’ve finally found a random, suburban Virginia butcher who carries city chicken (all pork, no veal, sadly), I’m able to introduce my own friends to this homey, slightly strange menu item from childhood. It’s a built-in conversation piece to tell them: “You know, this isn’t actually chicken we’re eating.” The history spills out from there.

Where to find city chicken:

Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh Inn (Erie, Pa.) | Social at Bakery Square (Pittsburgh, Pa.) | The Summit (Pittsburgh, Pa.) | Tom Fridays Market (Pittsburgh_

Greater Cleveland: Sokolowski’s University Inn | Fast Eddie’s | Bogey’s Bar & Grill | Pinzone’s

Detroit: Polonia Restaurant | Polish Village Cafe

Missy Frederick is Eater’s associate cities editor and a fried pickle enthusiast. Laura Watilo Blake is an internationally published, award-winning photographer and journalist; she is also the photo editor for Edible Cleveland magazine and chief exploration officer for the website

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