Pittsburgh sticks with loving 'City Chicken'

I wasn't born in Pittsburgh, but I've lived here long enough to almost be a Pittsburgher.

My credentials sometimes surprise even me.

For instance, I actually have fond memories of eating "City Chicken."

Real Pittsburghers, especially older Pittsburghers, know what I'm talking about.

City Chicken is a dish that dates back at least to the Depression days of the 1930s. My experience goes back only to the late 1980s. I'd just moved here to work at The Pittsburgh Press, where, with many of my colleagues, I used to lunch at a tiny tavern tucked away on nearby Market Street called Zeuger's. There, working my way through the daily specials recommended by a waitress straight out of Pixsburgh Central Casting, I was referred to as "Hon" and first experienced local favorite dishes such as Virginia Spots, which turned out to be fish.

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City Chicken turned out to be ... not chicken.

Rather, it was -- it is -- chunks of meat on a stick. I believe Zeuger's served the classic combination of pork and veal, but just pork and even beef can be City Chicken, too.

The idea and the name went back to a time when chicken was more expensive than other meats, especially in the city, and so these other meats were substituted. Sometimes the skewers were referred to as Mock Chicken Drumsticks. That chicken would be scarce and expensive is hard to imagine now, but plenty of people of a certain age remember when chicken was an only-on-Sunday special dinner.

City Chicken is known in other cities, including Detroit and Cleveland, but Pittsburgh passionately claims it (the recipe on epicurious.com is titled "Pittsburgh City Chicken"). Especially many of the many who've moved to other places (everything but their hearts) wax nostalgic over it in the same breath as they miss Chipped-Chopped Ham and Wedding Soup.

City Chicken may not be as well known as those iconic Pittsburgh foods, but like them, it lives on, showing up here and there on menus at restaurants and senior centers, even kebabbed and wrapped up, ready to cook, at butcher shops and grocery stores in the region. I bought a pound of it -- classic pork and veal cubes, already on the sticks -- for about $6 at the Giant Eagle Market District store in Bethel Park.

I mentioned the dish to a friend from my Press days, Susan, who matter-of-factly said she still cooks it, with City Chicken she buys from renowned butcher Tom Friday on California Avenue in Brighton Heights.

Another colleague, Patt, overheard us and says she buys hers at Friday's, too, and makes it for her kids when they return to town.

My friend Steve smiled remembering his mom making what he's also heard called Veal Birds.

Mention City Chicken aloud and you'll get an earful about it.

I was reminded of this quirky delicacy when I came across a recipe for it in the new "I Grew Up in Southwestern Pennsylvania Cookbook," self-published by Douglas Robinson of Bentleyville. His recipe calls for dredging pork loin cubes in flour and simmering in chicken broth, but some Pittsburghers fry and even bake their City Chicken, if only in their memories.

Mr. Robinson says the dish was one of his inspirations for writing the book and is the one most likely to draw a response from people when he sells it at fairs and farmers markets. "I'll ask, 'How long since you've had City Chicken?' They'll turn around and smile: 'Oh my God ...' "

He had to track down and include that recipe, which he hadn't even thought of in decades since his mother made it for him, and he loved it. "When we had City Chicken, it was like having pizza!"

This ain't no haute cuisine. I showed my colleague Patt Mr. Robinson's recipe, and she recoiled at the use of a bay leaf, saying her mother would never try anything so flavorful. Certainly nothing as fancy as the recipe from Tom Friday's Market accompanying this story.

Rather, Patt's mother's method is to simply dip the meat in an mixture of egg and milk, dredge in cracker crumbs, then simmer -- preferably in an electric skillet -- with a little water and salt and pepper.

I tried the recipe below because it has a little more zip.

And you gotta love that it calls for poultry spice.


PG tested

This is one of the "Tracy's Treasured Recipes" posted on the website of Tom Friday's Market, tomfridaysmarket.com. Tracy Fornauf, who is the store's cashier, notes that you could use all pork and veal and beef (the store sells City Chicken that way, too), or just pork, if you prefer. I adapted it a bit, substituting panko for cracker meal and chicken broth for the bouillon.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

  • 1 pound pork, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 pound veal, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 cup cracker meal
  • 1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika (I used hot)
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 2 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons lite soy sauce
  • 2 onions, sliced into rings
  • Fresh or dry parsley

Thread pork and veal cubes onto skewers. Mix crumbs, paprika, poultry seasoning and onion powder. Combine eggs and milk. Dip meat in egg mixture, then in seasoned cracker meal. Brown on all sides in hot oil.

After meat is all browned, pour off any excess oil, arrange City Chicken neatly in pan.

Dissolve bouillon cube or cubes in boiling water; add soy sauce to mixture and pour all around meat. Cover meat with sliced onion rings and parsley.

Bake covered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover, bake 30 minutes more.

-- Tracy Fornauf, tomfridaysmarket.com


This simpler version was published in the new "I Grew Up in Southwestern Pennsylvania Cookbook."

  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 pounds pork loin, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • Pinch dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf

Mix salt, pepper and flour in a bowl. Coat pork cubes with flour mixture. Slide pork onto skewers.

In a skillet, brown pork skewers on all sides in a small amount of vegetable oil. Drain off any excess oil.

Add chicken broth, thyme and bay leaf to skillet. Scrape up any brown bits. Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour or until meat is tender and sauce has thickened.

-- "I Grew Up in Southwestern Pennsylvania Cookbook: From Rolling Hills to Steel Mills: The Recipes You Grew Up With" by Douglas Robinson (Enjoy Life, May 2011, $15)


Here's another simple but baked version from the igrewupinswpa.com website, which shares several other recipes.

  • 1/2 pound pork
  • 1/2 pound veal
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Bread crumbs (seasoned if you want)
  • 1 cup milk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut pork and veal into 1-inch cubes. Thread on bamboo or wooden skewers, alternating chunks of pork and veal. Dip the skewers in the egg, then the bread crumbs, to coat. Saute until browned. Put skewers in a baking pan and add milk. Cover in foil and bake about 1 hour.

-- igrewupinswpa.com


Detroit Free Press food writer Susan M. Selasky, in a story about City Chicken last year, suggested that you first "dredge the meat in unseasoned or seasoned flour (I always use seasoned) and shake off the excess.

"Then have ready beaten eggs mixed with a little water or milk. Be sure to use one hand for dredging the meat in the flour (dry) mixture and rolling it in the breading. Use the other hand for dipping the meat in the egg mixture. Doing so will keep your fingertips free of clumps of bread crumbs.

"Dip the floured meat in the egg, letting the excess drip off, and then roll it in the bread crumbs. The egg mixture is the glue that holds together the crumbs, which can be plain or seasoned bread, panko crumbs, cracker crumbs or even crushed cereal such as Corn Flakes.

"Once breaded, let the meat rest for at least 20 minutes before frying to allow the coating to set."

Still, in her City Chicken recipe, "the flour step is omitted because the flour is mixed with the bread crumbs. You can bread it whichever way you prefer and season as you like."

Her recipe also offers the optional addition of a baking sauce made with a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup.


City Chicken is great with or without the sauce and is just as good the next day. It also pairs well with other comfort food classics such as mashed potatoes.

-- Susan M. Selasky

  • 24 wooden skewers about 6 inches long
  • 1 to 1 1/2 pounds lean pork, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 to 1 1/2 pounds lean veal, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon parsley or basil flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 cup Italian-style bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
Baking sauce (optional)
  • 10 1/2-ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 cup of milk (any variety)
  • 1 cup water

Alternate the pork and veal cubes on the wooden skewers, leaving enough space at the blunt end to pick up the skewer with your fingers. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, salt, onion powder, parsley or basil, garlic powder and pepper. Beat until well mixed. In another shallow dish or pie plate, combine the flour and baking powder.

On a shallow dish or pie plate, place the bread crumbs. Dip the skewers into the egg mixture until thoroughly coated and roll in the flour mixture and then in the bread crumbs. Place on a tray and refrigerate one hour before pan-frying to set the coating.

Heat enough oil, about 1/2 cup, to cover the bottom of a large skillet. Cook the skewered meat over medium heat, turning often, until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes.

Remove and drain on paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the skewered meat at the bottom of a large baking or roasting pan. If baking it in the sauce, mix together the mushroom soup, milk and water and pour over the meat.

Cover and bake for about one hour and 15 minutes or until tender. Remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of baking.

Serves 8.

-- Susan M. Selasky, Detroit Free Press

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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