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MARCH 2003

THE BARBERTON BIRDS

Our Southern food guy travels (gasp!) north to find the nation’s best fried chicken.

By JOHN T. EDGE


or a son of the South like myself—reared on the admittedly provincial conclusion that my region has a lock on the art of frying chicken—a recent visit to Barberton, Ohio, was instructive, perhaps even revelatory. This burg of 27,000, located 45 or so miles south of Cleveland and just west of Akron, boasts four celebrated chicken-dinner houses, each offering the same basic meal: hand-floured, breadcrumb-coated, lard-fried chicken served with sweet-and-sour coleslaw, fresh-cut fries, and a distinctive hot sauce that, to the casual observer, looks and tastes like a spicy riff on TV-dinner-style Spanish rice. When natives of Barberton speak of fried chicken, they lay claim to a common frame of reference, for here all birds are created equal.

On the contrary, when a native of my 12,000-person hometown—Oxford, Mississippi—speaks of fried chicken, you can never be sure what they mean. Are they of the Overnight Ice Water Bath School or do they swear allegiance to the Fortnight Buttermilk Marinade School? Some cooks call for a quick dip in flour, while others swear by a bit of cornmeal. And we’re just getting started. We haven’t even dealt with the question of frying medium or whether the chicken should be cooked in a covered or uncovered skillet. It’s enough to make you call up KFC for takeout.

In Barberton, there are no competing schools of chicken cookery. Here the canon is fixed. But that is not to say that chicken cookery hereabouts is a simpleton’s art. Far from it. I returned home smitten by this bird-crazed town. Given a bit of prodding—and an absence of fellow Southerners within earshot—I might go so far as to propose that Barberton lay claim to the title “Fried Chicken Capital of America.”

A quick aside and a confession:

I should not overstate my myopia. I have sampled many a drumstick beyond the bounds of Dixie. For the past couple of years, I’ve been researching a book-length dissertation on the subject. (Putnam will publish my deep-fried opus in 2004.) In the name of service to my potential readers, I’ve visited Roscoe’s in Los Angeles, California, where wings are served atop fluffy waffles; I’ve munched thighs sealed in a peppery crust at Hollyhock Hill in Indianapolis, Indiana; and I’ve sampled breasts doused in honey at Chez Haynes, a birch-fronted boîte in Paris, France. I savored each morsel.

After a bit of reflection—and a handful of antacids—I have come to the conclusion that those eating forays were nothing more than satisfying aberrations, mistakes of culinary geography. Like finding a true bagel in Mississippi or true barbecue in Minnesota, these were cases of novelty trumping reality. And reality, as perceived by connoisseurs of fried chicken, has always been that the crust is crispier, the breasts juicier, south of the Mason and Dixon divide. Until I made the trek to Barberton and ate my fill, I was a true believer of the Southern Realist School.

Chicken, as fried in Barberton, hearkens back to Serbia, where Milchael and Smilka Topalsky, the acknowledged progenitors of the phenomenon, were born in Vojvodina, a region of present-day Yugoslavia just north of Belgrade.

The Topalskys were accidental restaurateurs. Saddled with hard debt during the Great Depression—the year most frequently cited is 1933—the second-generation Ohioans ceded the family dairy farm on the outskirts of Barberton to the tax collector. But all was not lost.

In a typical immigrant bootstrap story, Smilka cooked the family back to solvency by way of serving breadcrumb-coated fried chicken, vinegary coleslaw, hot sauce stoked with rice, and lard-fried potatoes at what would become the family restaurant, Belgrade Gardens. Local lore holds that these dishes were exacting replications of what the Topalskys knew in the old country as pahovana piletina, kupus salata, djuvece, and pomfrit respectively.

Regardless of the fact that the New World replications were probably not as true as some folks would have you believe, the foods that emerged from Smilka Topalsky’s kitchen came to be considered core elements of the Barberton Chicken restaurant rubric. In a very short time, imitators emerged. The Milich family, many of whom had worked the kitchen or the dining area at Belgrade Gardens, opened Hopocan Gardens on Hopocan Avenue in 1946, serving virtually the same chicken, sauce, coleslaw, and potatoes. Like the Topalskys, they were recently immigrated Serbs.

So was Mary Marinkovich, who opened Whitehouse Chicken in 1950, and was soon followed by, among other pretenders to the throne, Orchard Inn, Western Star, Terrace Gardens, and Flagpole.

Today, four of Barberton’s old-line chicken-dinner houses survive: Belgrade Gardens, Hopocan Gardens, Milich’s Village Inn (opened by the Milich family in 1955), and Whitehouse Chicken. They are the warhorses of the genre, gloried cafeterias that are, for the most part, short on decor and long on value. None save Whitehouse—which is executing a seemingly ill-advised strategy to open fast-food franchises and jettison the prevailing 20-minute cooked-to-order standard—have plans to expand.

Over the course of my trip, I ate at least two meals at each of the four survivors. Truth be told, the chicken I was served struck me as absurdly simple. I heard no talk of secret spice mixes, no discussion of proprietary marinades or breading mixes. I found comfort in that. Each restaurateur I met—from Sophia Papich, daughter of the Topalskys, to Dale Milich, proprietor of the Village Inn—sketched out the same three basic tenets:

1) True Barberton Chicken is fresh, never frozen. (Most of the birds are raised by downstate Amish farmers and are scratching around a couple of days prior to being eaten.)

2) True Barberton Chicken is a dish of almost ascetic simplicity, seasoned with nothing but a modicum of salt.

3) True Barberton Chicken must be cooked in lard, for a great crust requires the intercession of liquid swine.

Among a certain circle of Barberton Chicken connoisseurs, allegiances are sworn and epithets hurled in the name of whose hot sauce is the liveliest, whose coleslaw is the sweetest, whose fries are the crispest. But for me, it’s all about the bird—and the crust that enrobes the bird. When prepared in the traditional manner, Barberton Chicken emerges from its porcine baptism sheathed in a crisp but slightly chewy mantle that even a first-timer like me can quickly come to appreciate as the best part of the meal.

To that end, on my last day in town, a regular at Belgrade Gardens took me aside and let me in on a little secret. He told me that he dotes on fried chicken backs, which, though yielding little meat, offer a wealth of crust to be nibbled, so much so that the Papich family markets them to bone-gnawers as Chicken Ribs. When I looked skeptical, he offered a rib, and I was soon gnawing away.

That same evening, when I boarded the plane for home, I checked my rollaway luggage and stowed a 12-piece bucket of Chicken Ribs beneath my seat. It was a fairly short flight. I ate three. The fellow seated next to me ate two. The woman across the aisle ate one. And I arrived back in Mississippi with a half-bucket to share with my wife.

When I presented Blair with my prize, she smiled politely, shook her head, and offered to store it in the refrigerator. We had salad for dinner that night, and when I reached back in for the blue-cheese dressing, my bucket was nowhere to be found. When confronted, Blair pleaded ignorance and passed a bowl of sunflower sprouts my way. end


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