Barberton Chicken is a style of fried chicken native to the city of Barberton in Summit County, Ohio. It is a distinctive style served in several restaurants in Barberton and nearby Norton and increasingly in other surrounding communities. The style of chicken has given the town national recognition, with some proclaiming Barberton to be the "Chicken Capital of the World" or the "Fried Chicken Capital of America."
Barberton chicken began with Milchael and Smilka Topalsky, immigrants from Serbia. Like many during the Great Depression, they became burdened with debt and were forced to sell their family farm. They opened a restaurant called Belgrade Gardens in 1933 in which they sold a distinctive style of fried chicken, along with a vinegar-based cole slaw, a rice and tomato sauce side dish seasoned with hot peppers; Usually referred to as "Hot Sauce" (can also be eaten as a dipping sauce vs a side dish), and freshly cut French fries. Barberton lore holds that these were exact replicas of what the Topalskys had known back in Serbia as pohovana piletina, kupus salata, djuvec and pomfrit.
Soon other restaurants emerged which copied the distinctive style. Helen DeVore, who had worked for Belgrade Gardens, opened up Hopocan Gardens in 1946. White House Chicken Dinners was founded in 1950 by the Pavkov family, who owned the restaurant until the late 80's when they sold it to the DeVore family. The Milich family opened Milich's Village Inn, in 1955. Other restaurants have come and gone in the area, but only the original four are still in operation.
Note that the article referenced below, while getting the ideas of the chicken correct, errs greatly in the history of the chicken houses. Hopocan Gardens, as founded by Helen DeVore and her husband (who was a barber at the time), was given in part to the Milich family to manage. When Bob DeVore (current owner) came back from the armed forces, he took control of the restaurant. The Milich family then opened Milich's Village Inn a couple of streets away.
While Hopocan Gardens is still currently owned by Bob DeVore (son of Helen), it is now managed by his step son, Brian Canale, who also owns and manages the original White House Chicken and licenses its franchises.
Today, the four chicken houses serve over seven and a half tons of chicken per week. The chicken has become so popular that it is often shipped around the United States, usually to transplanted Ohioans. White House Chicken has recently expanded into several locations in northeastern Ohio, dropping the traditional sit-down style in favor of a fast food model.
In August 2010, the Food Network recorded a segment of the show Food Feuds in Barberton. In that segment, scheduled to air Nov. 4, Iron Chef Michael Symon declared Belgrade Gardens the winner over White House.
The basic tenets of Barberton chicken are simple, yet strictly adhered to by the competing restaurants. They are as follows:
- "True" Barberton chicken is fresh, never frozen.
- Neither the chicken nor the breading is seasoned with anything.
- The birds are fried in lard. This gives the chicken a uniformly brown crust that is crisp, yet slightly chewy, while the meat is very juicy. This has also given Barberton chicken a reputation for being particularly unhealthy.
- The cut of the bird is different than usual. Birds are cut into many pieces, including breasts, thighs, legs, wings, drummets and backs. This is probably rooted in the Great Depression, when creating the most pieces per chicken without yielding any waste was necessary. The backs actually yield little meat, and are sometimes marketed as "chicken ribs" for their passing resemblance to beef or pork ribs.