2017 Ultimate Chicken Challenge8/2/2017
Which local restaurant will be named king of the oldest, most revered and complicated food in world history?
Each year CITYVIEW opens a contest to let our readers select the ultimate local version of a popular food. Sandwich lovers picked B&B Grocery Meat & Deli’s pork tenderloin as the ultimate sandwich in 2010. Then steakhouse fans went with Chicago Speakeasy, noodle lovers chose Noodle Zoo, and barbecue aficionados selected Woody’s. Twice we held pizza runoffs with Gusto yielding its title two years ago to Taste of New York. Last year, we decided it was time to let readers pick the ultimate burger in town. In a huge voter turnout, Prairie Meadows Café won by a neck.
This year, we turn our attention to one of the oldest, most revered and complicated foods in world history — the creature best known in America as the chicken. A subspecies of the red junglefowl (its scientific name is gallus gallus), they owe their yellow skin tone to cross breeding with the grey junglefowl. Genetics is not beholden to the color wheel.
These birds have many other names. Young males are known as cockerels, older males as roosters, except in Ireland and the U.K. where they are cocks. Young females are pullets, and older ones are hens, except in Australia and New Zealand where young birds of both sexes are chicks and older ones are chooks. Castrated roosters are capons. In the American South, and in British rock, chickens are known as yard birds. They have also given the English language some new terms such as “ruling the roost,” “flying the coop” and “pecking order.” They earned the nickname “the animal who gives birth every day,” though hens rarely lay more than 300 eggs a year.
And yet these fowls originated far from the English-speaking world, probably in southeast Asia, though the type of chicken known in the western world today came from India. Today they are the most populous non-insect animal walking the earth with about 20 billion. For comparison sake, there are less than one billion pigs and about nine billion humans.
For most of their history, chickens were a food for the rich and royal. On the Indian subcontinent, where they originated in the wild, they gave birth to two dishes known to this day as luxuries of the sultans, maharajahs and nizams — chicken biryani and tandoori chicken. They are still considered luxuries and can be found in most local Indian restaurants.
Chicken would become a special dish in the most sophisticated cuisines of the world — Chinese, Turkish and, much later, French. It remained one of the most expensive proteins in the world into the 20th century. Then American chicken revolutionized the food world. Because of domestic shortages of beef, pork and lamb during World War II, America created incentives for chicken production. Industrial agriculture streamlined the business, quickly shortening the time it took to raise a market-sized bird and reducing feeding expenses.
Believing white meat was more valuable, breeders, much like Hollywood producers of the day, created flightless creatures with huge breasts and skinny legs. In less than a decade, chicken went from being a luxury food, usually only served on Sundays, to the cheapest protein available. When Kentucky Fried Chicken launched its first national advertising campaign in the 1950s, its tagline was “It’s not just for Sundays anymore.”
Cheap frozen American chicken became the rage in post war Europe, too. German and French chicken farmers feared for their livelihoods. France’s legislature banned American chicken, and the European Common Market enacted a 25 percent tariff on U.S. poultry. America reacted. President Lyndon Johnson inspired a 25 percent tax on imported brandy, dextrin, potato starch and pickup trucks.
If you ever wondered why American companies control the pickup truck business in the U.S., thank the chicken tax. The tariffs on brandy, potato starch and dextrin were repealed, but the chicken tax on foreign trucks still applies. (It was later revealed that Johnson was making good on an election year promise to UAW head Walter Reuther. Reuther agreed not to strike before the 1964 election, and LBJ promised to stop Volkswagen from bringing their pickup trucks into the U.S.) European and Asian car makers virtually dropped out of the light truck export business.
Des Moines’ chicken history reflected the international intrigue. A look through a pre-WWII phone book’s yellow pages and menus reveals that fried chicken was the most expensive entrée served, more expensive than the highest priced steaks. This was the case at Davey’s Supper Club, Curly’s Dinner Club and The Chickadee, all Highland Park legends before the 1950s. Fried chicken remained more expensive than T-bones or New York cuts at those places into the 1950s. Des Moines restaurants began democratizing fried chicken at The Silhouette on Douglas. They advertised “Yes, chicken every day.” The same year, The Chicken Shack on East 17th featured what was likely the first all-chicken menu in town. Harry Hood’s Palm Cafeteria, Jiggs Shelly’s The Question Mark at East 14th and Hoffman, and Tony’s at Fifth and Keo led their advertisements with fried chicken.
In the early 1950s, fried chicken became the main home delivery dinner. Chicken-In-Flight and Chicken Delight both operated a fleet of three-wheeled vehicles bringing inexpensive fried chicken to houses around the city. That was several years before anyone delivered pizza. Those were successful because chicken was time consuming and messy to fry at home.
Until the middle of the 1960s, pan fried chicken remained a luxury dinner in Des Moines. Then a character from Corbin, Kentucky, created methods that cut the cooking time. Broasting, pressure cooking, deep fat frying and “shake and bake” replaced pan frying. Zealous feedlot operators like Bo Pilgrim and Frank Perdue quickened the pace of chicken processing, and suddenly birds became the stars of fast food joints and cheap buffets. Today, the only local places that still advertise pan fried chicken are Christopher’s, The Radish, Gateway Market, Bubba’s, Machine Shed and the Park Avenue Pub. Tursi’s Latin King, High Life Lounge, Butler Café, Chicago Speakeasy, Triple Crown Buffet, Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse, Americana, and Crouse Café in Indianola all serve fried chicken that has cult followings. The fried chicken at Gateway Market’s deli is made the old way, in real lard.
Beyond the frying pan
But other forms of cooking chicken made pan frying less significant. Broiled chickens began appearing on Des Moines restaurant menus in the 1950s. Babe’s and Vic’s Tally Ho both advertised that in addition to fried chicken. At that time, a University of Minnesota doctor named Ancel Benjamin Keys was revolutionizing the chicken business with an invisible hand of good intentions and unexpected consequences. Through the 1950s, Keys relentlessly preached that cholesterol was responsible for heart attacks.
Keys’ “studies” were dubious at best. A report in Annals of Internal Medicine three years ago debunked them. However, in 1960 Keys won a seat on the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee and persuaded them to endorse his theories. Chicken and fish were in, beef and pork were out of American minds. Unfortunately, when people cut their fats, they compensated with increased carbohydrates. As Keys’ opponents predicted in the 1950s, that led to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
Rotisserie chicken suddenly appeared in supermarkets like Dahl’s, filling the aisles with enticing aromas. They are still popular at La Tapatia, Gateway Market (which brines and dry rubs its rotisserie birds and uses Amish chickens), Price Chopper, Fareway and Hy-Vee. Firecreek Inn and Trostel’s Greenbriar also do whole rotisserie birds. Whole birds are also smoked here more frequently than at any time since before refrigeration. Flying Mango, Price Chopper, Cactus Bob’s, Jethro’s and Woody’s smoke them for the menu year-round. Smokey D’s does on Thursdays. Guru BBQ does them daily in two versions — jerk and crispy. Most other BBQs offer them for catering and by request but don’t keep them on menus.
Otherwise, whole chickens are rare birds these days. Even when one buys them at a supermarket, they seldom include hearts, livers and gizzards. Old school Italian restaurants are by far the most likely places to find those things on menus. The Hilltop, Chuck’s, Eddie’s Eastside Bar and Grill, Machine Shed, Baratta’s and Cracker Barrel still have livers or gizzards on the menu. Wong’s Chopsticks and C Fresh Market sell a surprising number of chicken feet. The latter place also sells balut — chicken embryos popular with Filipinos.
White meat has become so much more popular than dark meat in the U.S. that most exports to Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are all dark meat. Unpopular parts end up in cheap hot dogs, which are increasingly made more with chicken than pork or beef. Dr. Keys is likely still to blame. Many of the best chefs in town admit they prefer dark meat, but their customers like those little heart symbols on the menu. Ironically, most breast meat sold in restaurants now is in the form of “strips,” “tenders” and “fingers,” all of which are usually fried. El Fogon even has a “Fit” menu that advertises, perhaps ironically, foods fried in coconut oil, which has the highest concentration of saturated fat of all foods.
The Iowa classics
Arguably Iowa’s greatest contribution to chicken cuisine is now an endangered species. Chicken and noodles, popularized by President Herbert Hoover in the Depression, incorporates three different chicken specialties — bone stock gravy, baked or stewed meat (Hy Vee’s recipe calls for rotisserie meat) and egg noodles. It’s mostly only featured once a week at a few places now — Eddie’s Eastside Bar & Grill, Park Avenue Pub, Home Plate Diner, Hy Vee, Price Chopper, Papa Kern’s and Tursi’s Latin King. The latter place sends out alerts to regulars when it’s going on line. Cracker Barrel has it daily in the dumpling version.
Chicken spiedini is a specialty of Tursi’s Latin King and chicken ammagio of Baratta’s. Most Italian cafés in town offer chicken Parmesan, chicken piccata and chicken cacciatore. Baru 66 and Django have versions of the French classic coq au vin. Tandoori and biryani houses like India Star, Namaste, Spice Pot, Paradise and Persis have popularized some of the grandest chicken specialties in the world. Much of their dinner menus are converting dishes to boneless, skinless breast meat, but dark meat is still a star on lunch buffets. Irina’s serves a divine version of the decadent chicken Kiev, which wraps tenderized chicken around sticks of butter before coating and cooking. The growth of ethnic cafes in town has brought other worldly treats. Tom yum gai might be the world’s most famous chicken soup, and most Thai restaurants here carry it. Pollo con crema is a Mexican version of chicken and noodles, only usually with rice. Chicken de Burgo is almost as popular as steak de Burgo at some fine dining spots like Club Car and Chef’s Kitchen. Jook, probably the world’s most popular chicken soup, attracts crowds to dim sum service at Wong’s Chopsticks. Chicken laap at Lao places like Nut Pob is a fantastic take on chicken salad. Chicken with teff flour bread at Safari is as spicy as Indian curry.
Rise of the wing, return of the yard bird
The once humble wing has become the superstar of chicken parts. The cheapest part of the bird through the mid 1980s, these succulent morsels escaped the confines of Chinese cafés in the 1980s with the popularization of Buffalo wings. Invented as a free food for happy hour customers, these wings were married to hot sauces and now are often the most expensive part of the bird. The sine qua non of sports bars, they have become so popular that Jethro’s now sponsors an annual Wing Ding competition to raise money for charity. In Des Moines, wings are smoked or deep fried, or smoked and deep fried. Every place in town that serves them — including sushi joints, pizza houses and Vietnamese cafes — seemingly has a unique homemade sauce.
Some chicken things have come full cycle. Chef George Formaro recalls growing up in a house that “still has a chicken house in the backyard.” Restaurateur Ralph Compiano recalls raising enough live birds to supply 1,800 chicken dinners a week at his family’s restaurant on Fleur, before it was in the Des Moines city limits. My grandmother killed and dressed her chickens in her yard at 31st and Grand. Backyard chickens are popular again with locals, even in cities. People care about breeds again and, in this era of bird flu and salmonella, about free ranging and clean processing. Farmer Tai Johnson Spratt brought central Iowa dozens of heritage breeds of birds before retiring. She keeps a personal flock of about 40 birds for her family but says that when she buys chickens she goes to Valley View Farm or Hickory Hills Organic Chicken farm.
“Both are in Bloomfield, and Valley View is the cleanest poultry processor I have ever seen anywhere,” she says.
So, it’s up to you now to select a field to whittle down to an ultimate chicken. This year, we have four overlapping categories: fried; ethnic (Italian to Kenyan); appetizers (wings and fingers to soups and salads); and slow, meaning the opposite of fast food — baked or smoked or stewed. ♦