City chicken is an entrée consisting of cubes of meat, which have been placed on a wooden skewer (approximately 4–5 inches long), then fried and/or baked. Depending on the recipe, they may be breaded. Despite the name of the dish, city chicken almost never contains chicken.
A similar dish once known as "mock chicken" was described as early as 1908. The first references to city chicken appeared in newspapers and cookbooks just prior to and during the Depression Era in a few cities such as Pittsburgh. City chicken typically has cooks using meat scraps to fashion a makeshift drumstick from them. It was a working-class food item. During the Depression, cooks used pork or in some cases veal because it was then cheaper than chicken in many parts of the country, especially in those markets far from rural poultry farms. Sometimes cooks would grind the meat and use a drumstick-shaped mold to form the ground meat around a skewer.
The dish is popular in cities throughout the central and eastern Great Lakes region of Ohio and Michigan as well as the northeastern Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania and Upstate New York, and at least as far south and west as Louisville, Kentucky. City chicken is commonly found in the metropolitan areas of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Binghamton, Erie, Pittsburgh, and Scranton, hence, the dish's "urban" title. In Canada, the deli-counter version is popular in the Ottawa Valley and Kitchener area.
While preparations regionally vary, pork is typically the base meat used in most versions of the recipe. Pittsburgh-area City Chicken is almost always breaded and usually baked, while in Binghamton NY, the meat is marinated, battered and then deep fried. The Cleveland version is generally baked without breading and instead the meat is dredged in flour, browned in a pan, then finished in the oven, and served with gravy. Grocery stores in both the Greater Cleveland area as well as those in the Pittsburgh metro area include wooden skewers with pork cubes specifically packaged as city chicken. In Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, at least one variation involves skewers of three kinds of meat: pork, veal, and beef. Another Canadian variation, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was composed entirely of veal.
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