Thursday, May 8, 2008

Binghamton Bound with City Chicken

Apparently my story “Recipes from Mom” published in yesterday’s Cape Cod Times struck a chord of nostalgia in many readers and I’ve been hearing from them (both those I know and those I don’t) for the past two days. Even my ex-husband called me to tell me he liked the story.

A really nice lady named Diane emailed me to say that her sister had written a family cookbook and that my story inspired her to think about writing a cookbook for her own 20-something children who also call from the grocery store to get a list of ingredients so they can have some self-created home cooking.

But the part of her email that delighted me the most was that she confessed the biggest reason she wrote to me was because I might be one of the few people on Cape Cod who know about City Chicken. Diane grew up near Vestal, New York, which is close to my original hometown of Binghamton, and her sister still lives in the area and still makes City Chicken once in a while.

“Do you have a recipe to share for City Chicken and, the $24,000 Question is, where do you find the wooden sticks?” Diane asked.

You know what that meant, don’t you? Yep, City Chicken for dinner! I have to confess that even though this was a favorite dinner when I was a child, I haven’t ever tried cooking it myself. So I looked up the recipe in the cookbook my mother made me and found it to be a little vague. Undeterred, I called my Mom to ask her what kind of cracker crumbs she used. Her answer, “I don’t remember. Probably whatever I had.”

As for those sticks, my Mom said they used to come right in the package with the cubed pork in the grocery store. Well that was in Binghamton in the 1970’s, and I was pretty sure that Diane’s question was in fact a good one. I love a challenge, so I went online. I guessed that the sticks were about 6 inches long. I found 6-inch bamboo skewers online, but they were much more slender than the ones needed to make City Chicken.

Plus I didn’t have time to order skewers online. A reader was waiting for a recipe! I went to the Shaw’s Supermarket in Orleans and found 12-inch bamboo skewers that were the perfect diameter. Simple solution - I bought them and cut them in half. Since then I’ve done some more research and discovered that Candy Apple sticks are perfect! They are 5 1/2 inches long and the right thickness. So Diane, you can buy a box of 100 for $5 at the Popcorn Supply Company. And, I’m not holding you to the $24,000.

City Chicken is actually not chicken at all, but cubes of pork. My mother didn’t know why a recipe for pork was called chicken, so I did a little research and found a funny blog called “The City Chicken” that is written by a law student who was a “former country chick” living in a big city of undetermined origin. On her blog, she had a recipe for City Chicken and that post has comments from people from Detroit, Pittsburg, Ohio – and Binghamton, who all remember it fondly.

Here’s "the city chick's" explanation of the name: “Apparently the name ‘city chicken’ originated during the great Depression when poor immigrants would take scraps of meat and skewer them together in order to create a ‘drumstick.’ The skewers were then baked or fried.”

On to the experiment: Since I didn’t know what kind of cracker to use, I decided to try both Ritz and Saltines. I have two daughters who don’t eat red meat or pork, I decided to make half of the City Chicken out of actual chicken and the other half out of the pork called for in the recipe.

The consensus: Nobody, even me, loved this dinner, and my family, quite frankly, was puzzled by it. But they ate it and my lame photo is the evidence. I forgot to take a photo before dinner and that one piece was all that was leftover. In taste tests, Ritz won out over saltines and the chicken ones were much, much too dry, so stick with pork. But for those who want to give these a try for the sake of nostalgia (and for Diane), I’m including the recipe.

City Chicken

2 pounds pork, cut into 1 inch cubes
2 eggs, beaten
1 sleeve Ritz Crackers
5 1/2 – 6 inch long wooden skewers (like those for Candy Apples)

Crush the Ritz Crackers in a food processor and pour onto a plate. Beat the eggs in a wide shallow bowl. Thread about five cubes of pork on each skewer. Dip into the egg first, then the cracker crumbs. Place in baking pan and bake for one hour at 350 degrees.


Anonymous said...

Just a heads up on finding the sticks for City Chicken...Just ask your butcher for them. He will gladly give you a handful. I have learned to stock up on each visit to the meat counter. Now I have an on hand supply at home when I need them.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Cleveland Ohio. For us City Chicken was always a treat. Our Butcher always made them for us. We would just tell him how many we needed. Back then Mom would serve them with mached potatoes and (new on the market) Birdseye frozen peas. Yum, I get so hungry for them. Now I can make them in my old age. Thanks for the hint on buying the skewers. Double thanks for the recipe.

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Anonymous said...

My girlfriend and I were in the Binghamton area for a spiedie quest, but tried the City Chicken at Sharkey's and it was fantastic. We look forward to a return trip. Do you know any other places in the Binghamton area that serve City Chicken?

Anonymous said...

Stu's Place in West Endicott has the best city chicken I have ever tasted. I think the owner makes it Tuesday and Friday.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I had the best City Chicken ever from PMP Deli in Johnson City, NY.

Anonymous said...

after reading your blog on City Chicken I can see that you have love for food but I think you should have done a little more research and then your meal would have turned out different and perhaps appreciated more. next time first fry the legs in oil and butter then cover with broth and bake in oven..and I don't really think the meat knows or cares how long the sticks are u could easily just add more meat to the longer stick, whatever fits in the pan..

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Cleveland OH and we ate City Chicken as kids(1960 era) I live in the south now and even my sisters are looking for the sticks for City Chicken. I found some that are similar at Walmart yesterday. They are called Corn Skewers. The package says Gourmet Club by Best Brands Consumer Products, Inc. in NY. We tried these and they serve the purpose of making City Chicken!

Vanessa said...

You should brown it first before you bake it. The taste with dramatically change.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Wheeling, West Virginia. I've eaten city chicken all my life, yet my wife, who is from Moundsville, a mere 12 miles south, had never heard of it.

First off, I've *never* heard of baked city chicken. They will be dry & terrible. I rinse them off, dip in an egg wash, then shake them in a bag with seasoned bread crumbs or Lipton soup mix.

Then, you *braise* them: brown them on all sides in a little olive oil, then add water or chicken broth and simmer them, covered for about 45 minutes. If the water boils down, add some more.

They are melt-in-your-mouth moist & tender. Serve with mashed potatoes.

Anonymous said...

My mother who lives in Endicott, NY has been making it for years the same way, but she uses pork AND veal cubes which are alternated on the wooden stick. It is then coated with spices and breaded. Then, fried in a pan with oil until lightly browned. It then finally goes into the oven for final baking. And the end result with the pork and veal is absolutely heaven on a plate!

Anonymous said...

I am originally from Endicott, NY and make City Chicken a lot here in NC. Originally it was pork and veal, but now that veal is too expensive, we use a pork loin and marinate it. Cut into cubes and put on the sticks. Use bread crumbs. I dip mine in egg/milk mixture and then into the bread crumbs, brown in hot oil or deep fry just long enough to keep crumbs on, then bake in the oven at 350* for 35 min. I buy my sticks when I go back home or have my son bring me a bunch every time he comes to visit. Mine are a little thinner than a candy apple stick, but thicker than bamboo sticks (they tend to sliver when you use them) Most butchers in the Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City area have them.

Anonymous said...

My butcher didn't know what the sticks were and tried to point me to the bamboo kebab sticks (too thin!).

As for the city chicken itself, my mother-in-law makes hers this way: dip in egg wash, dredge in cracker meal, dip in egg wash again, re-dredge in cracker meal. (We LOVE the thick coating!) Fry in hot oil until browned. Place in roasting pan with a little water (so they don't burn/stick) and bake, covered, at 350F for 2 hours (uncover for last hour or so). Tender and delicious! We always have them with chicken rice-a-roni, mashed potatoes, and creamed corn on the potatoes (and on the "chicken" and rice, too, if you're my husband). :D