Fried chicken was an important part of my childhood growing up in a small low Midwestern town in Missouri; of course all of the women in town could put a pretty scald on a chicken thigh, but the collective favorite didn’t come from a home kitchen, but rather from a slew of small restaurants that aligned across the Kansas state line. The thirty minute drive was always filled with anticipation, often traveling in the car with my grandpa Skippy and granny, country music barely audible as he drove nearly silent while she cackled and smoked a long Winston non-stop through a hairline crack at the top of the passenger window. Chicken Annie’s or Chicken Mary’s were the two destinations, both resting side by side, only a gravel parking lot separating them.
The ultimate choice was defined by whomever had suggested we make that particular edible pilgrimage, but I never cared, because both had identical virtues….fried chicken, onion rings, and Frontenac bread. I can fondly recall countless times when someone would say, “Well, Uncle Deano is coming to supper, so I guess we’re all going to Chicken Mary’s…” and it went back and forth like this throughout my childhood and even continues today. The parking lots were always teeming with cars and trucks on a Friday or Saturday night, harkening diners from just about every socio-economic background in the area, but mostly the blue collar, small town, farming community. An excursion to Chicken Mary’s or Annie’s wasn’t necessarily a special occasion, but my granny would always take care to apply pouty red lipstick and a splash of flowery perfume behind her neck….and my grandpa Skippy always wore pressed trousers or jeans with a western shirt tucked in, and his jet black duck-tail perfectly formed.
There was always a wait on the weekends, but nobody lamented catching up outside with family and friends; the women gossiping in the crowded vestibule while the men smoked cigarettes outside, swapping jokes and stories about the previous week. Perhaps there’s not a more idyllic memory from my childhood then the fragrances of fried chicken intermingled with cigarette smoke and fresh cut hay from the surrounding prairies. Although the cigarette smoke has tapered off over the years, to this day when I visit I perform the same important ritual of closing my eyes, head slightly tilted, breathing in my childhood ravenously like a man eating his last supper.
I don’t want you to think that everything on the menu is worthy of a trip to either of these iconic chicken eateries, because frankly, it’s not. And although I’ve dined at both destinations hundreds of times, I haven’t had everything on the menu…in fact, like most regular guests, I’ve only had (maybe) ten percent of everything that is offered. But that’s okay, because that small proportion is nothing short of culinary nirvana.
The chicken is fried dark and thick, stylized in a way like no other on the planet; and even though both have slight nuances on their recipes, they’re similar enough to place in a single category. I think that Chicken Annie’s is slightly greasier, but given your position and preference, it might be precisely what you’re looking and eating for…as it occasionally is for me.
The crust is actually crunchy rather than crispy, allowing large chunks to crack and snap under the pressure of incisors, yielding the most perfectly tender, steaming hot and delicious meat of all time. And I mean that, sincerely, it is the best style of chicken to ever cross these lips. And although this fried chicken is still delicious in the middle of the night, cold from the fridge, alternating between bites of bird and long pulls of beer (if I’m just getting home) or iced cold milk (if I can’t sleep) in the glow of the interior light; its best right out of the fryer nestled against vinegar based cole-slaw and German potato salad.
The German cole-slaw and potato salad that is available at both are important staples that hail from the German miners that inhabited the region during the turn of the 20th century. Miraculously, the tart and sour vinegar in both sides work as a beautiful accompaniment to the fat laden fried chicken, similar to how a pickle works with rich, meaty foods like pate or rillettes. These are the only two sides that my family will order with the chicken, and for good reason, they’re incredibly delicious…and nostalgic.
In addition to the afore mentioned chicken and sides, there are also two necessary components to complete the Southeast Kansas Chicken experience that include fresh baked bread and fried onion rings. The bread is served complimentary at every table, and is made at a bakery in Frontenac, a quaint Italian community just a few short miles from Pittsburgh. (The food happenings in Frontenac deserve their own soon to come feature) The Frontenac bread is a specimen of local culture and beauty…country loaf in design, with thin dark crust that opens up to pillow soft, slightly sour white bread. I love it slathered in butter, then embellished with a generous sprinkle of garlic salt, almost as a bread course unto itself. The onion rings are served in a plastic basket with parchment, thin sliced Spanish onions dredged in flour and fried to a masterful golden brown. Be sure to load up on napkins because they are as greasy and enjoyable as the day is long in August.
But what about the service? What about the ambience? If you’re looking for those things to complete your experience at either of these destinations, don’t waste your time. The service staff, albeit friendly, are mostly students from nearby Pittsburgh State University and local farm kids. It’s rather refreshing, because the staff are authentic without being folksy…they’re just real people with real jobs living real lives. The ambience of both Chicken Mary’s and Annie’s look and feel pretty much like they did in the seventies and eighties, clean but not new, with large portraits of old people adorning the walls next to kitschy emblems of chickens and farm life. Nothing groundbreaking, but rather a heathy reminder that we’re here to focus on the grub and the people around us. And honestly, what’s more important than family, friends, and the edible culture of our childhood?