Why Do Upstate New Yorkers Call It City Chicken if It’s Not Even Made of Chicken?
Do you remember the very first time that you had city chicken and then found out that it’s not even made with chicken?
I’ll never forget my first experience with city chicken. The adorable little restaurant has since closed, but there was a place on Robinson Street in Binghamton called Czech Pleez and I first visited during Binghamton Restaurant Week many years ago.
While I love spice and flavor, I’m not very adventurous when it comes to meat. If it’s not chicken, pork, beef, or turkey, it’s not on my plate. I looked over the menu and decided I couldn’t go wrong with city chicken.
I was right. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted and I couldn’t stop raving about it. In the middle of my blabbering about how good it was, my friend looked at me and said, “you know that’s not chicken, right?”
My jaw dropped and all of the possibilities of what kind of meat I'd just shoved into my mouth be ran through my head as I repressed a gag. The restaurant owner told me it was pork and the look of relief on my face must have been something else because he promptly belly laughed.
Most people outside of Upstate New York as well as Cleveland and Pittsburg have never even heard of city chicken. Which leads to a lot of "outsiders" asking why in the world city chicken called city chicken if it’s not made of chicken? Where did it come from and what kinds of meat are used to make it?
According to the National Chicken Council, through the early 1900s, people didn’t eat chicken the way that we do today. As a matter of fact, back then, chickens were raised mostly just for their eggs.
It really wasn’t until the 1920s when people started to eat chicken for its meat and even then, the concept didn’t really gain traction until the 1940s when people realized that chicken is a perfectly good meat that anyone can consume. Chicken went from being a meat very few ate to being one that only the wealthy could afford to being a meat that is part of the diet of every level of modern day society.
City chicken is a dish that came to life thanks to Polish and Ukrainian communities who settled in the Great Lakes region at the start of the Great Depression. Traditional city chicken was made of cubes of pork, veal, or a combination of both which are threaded onto skewers, battered with flour and breadcrumbs, and then either baked or deep-fried until they’re perfectly tender. Often, the meat is shaped into the form of a chicken leg.
The reason city chicken was made with pork or veal had to do with which type of meat was available at a more affordable price and more often than not, it was one of those two choices. Barbara Johnstone, a professor of rhetoric and linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University explained to Eater, “It was called ‘chicken’ because chicken was once more expensive and more desirable; families would have a chicken for Sunday dinner."
Fun fact - it was actually Binghamton that gave city chicken it’s name. A 1926 Binghamton newspaper article called the dish “city chicken” and it stuck and has been called that ever since (although your Polish or Ukrainian grandmother who called it patyczki or patychky would probably roll her eyes).
So there you have it. Now you know how city chicken got its name and why it isn't actually made with chicken.