Much has been written about how quickly the parents of the Baby Boom Generation embraced frozen TV dinners and other prepared frozen foods like pot pies and fried chicken. However, it was Mister Boomer’s experience that the day-to-day dinners of working class families were simple and economical, especially in the 1950s and early ’60s. Officially, the national data famously stated the average household family had “2.5 children,” but every family Mister B knew had a minimum of three — often four, and up to seven — kids. That was a lot of mouths to feed. Casseroles, stews and soups made good use of leftovers while feeding growing families.
For Mister Boomer’s family, one oft-made economical dish was “City Chicken,” known by some as “Mock Chicken.” Origin stories and recipes for this dish vary widely, but it is generally written that the first mention of a “mock chicken” dish occurred in the early 1900s. Recipes for the dish began circulating in newspapers and cookbooks immediately before and during the Great Depression. It was a working class dish since, at least in its early incarnations, leftover scraps of meat — especially veal and pork — were cut into cubes and skewered on wooden sticks, breaded, fried then baked. The name came from the resemblance of the skewered meat to chicken drumsticks. During the Great Depression and WWII, fresh chicken was harder to obtain than veal or pork, which were cheaper and more readily available.
Many ethnic groups claim variations of the dish as their own, but it is generally agreed that the invention of the recipe came about in the U.S., and did not come over with other treasured family recipes when boomers’ ancestors made their way here. A regional dish, it was especially popular during the boomer years in Appalachia, Pennsylvania, the Rust Belt and Midwest states. Generally speaking, wherever there are people of German, Slavic or Polish origin, you’ll find a “City Chicken” variation.
Midwest boomers will recall seeing packages in supermarkets labelled as “City Chicken” that contained pork cubes and wooden skewers. In some areas, boomer moms battered the meat before frying then baking, giving it a real fried chicken look. Other areas, particularly in Canada and the Upper Midwest, ground meat was used instead of cubes.
In Mister Boomer’s house, his mom had her own version, which was tantamount to meat loaf on a stick. His mom reused the wooden skewers, which were kept in the housewares drawer along with serving utensils and specialty tools. When Mister Boomer’s mom wanted to make her “City Chicken,” she’d ask Mister B or his sister to take out the sticks and soak them in a bowl of water for a few minutes. This would keep the sticks from burning in the cooking process and allow them to be reused another day. Her meat of choice was the same mixture used for her meatballs when she made spaghetti; that is, an inexpensive ground mixture of veal, pork and beef that was a weekly staple in the fridge.
It may have been sacrilege to some “City Chicken” aficionados, but Mister Boomer’s mom favored expediency over tradition. She’d crack an egg and toss in some cracker crumbs, which would help bind the ground meat, but also help extend the pound package to feed the family. Next his mom would shape the meat around a skewer in a teardrop shape to mimic a chicken drumstick, dredge it in flour and brown the meat in a cast iron skillet before transferring the “legs” to the oven for finishing. When the meat was put into the oven, she’d open a small can of mushrooms and toss them over the “legs.” Drippings and fat from the meat would collect in the pan, so when removed from the oven, a little flour was added to the drippings and mushrooms to make a brown sauce. Once she got an electric frying pan (with trading stamps, of course), that was it for the oven. She completed the all the cooking in the one electric pan.
Each member of the family got one “leg” along with mashed potatoes and canned string beans. His father got two. The “gravy” was spooned over the meat and potatoes. Mister B places the word in quotes because sauces were not his mother’s strong point. Generally, lumps of flour and patches of grease shared space with what other people might recognize as “gravy.” Mister Boomer’s father, a true child of the Depression, loved grease of any kind, often sopping it up with slices of Wonder bread. It wasn’t Mister B’s favorite meal, but it was dinner. His sister especially liked it, before she became a super-picky eater in her pre-teens.
Did your family eat “City Chicken,” boomers? If so, which version was popular in your household?