This is City Chicken!

Maciak's Specialty Meats and Media Criticism

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, my favorite thing that Bun—my grandmother on my mom’s side—could ever make was city chicken. We didn’t eat it a lot; I remember knowing, even as a little kid, that you could only get city chicken at certain places. So, it was a treat when she made it.

City chicken, you might or might not know, is most notable for not being chicken at all. When Bun or my mom made it—and this is pretty standard—it was alternating cubes of pork and veal, arranged on a skewer in the sort of oblong shape of a chicken drumstick. We got them—my mom confirms!—from McGinnis Sisters Special Foods store in Monroeville, PA, right off the turnpike, around the corner from the big mall where I would later learn that they shot Dawn of the Dead and where we would go shopping sometimes. (McGinnis Sisters closed its doors in 2018 after 71 years, I learned in writing this—so you gotta get your city chicken somewhere else now, I guess.) She would bread and pan-fry the skewers, and, by way of some silly alchemy stretching across time and space, I can still taste them.

Even at that age, I knew city chicken was a sort of niche thing, but it wasn’t until I went away to college that I realized virtually nobody I met had ever heard of it. It wasn’t actually until a few weeks ago, when I began researching it in earnest, that I learned how intensely, regionally specific a dish it is, existing mostly among Polish and Ukrainian immigrant communities in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. As I also learned, and as often seems to be the case among idiosyncratic food objects, it’s an artifact of the Great Depression. At that time, shockingly, chicken cost considerably more than pork and veal, and home cooks would conspire with their butchers to produce a family meal with at least the general vibe of a Sunday bird. By the time my Bun made it for me, it was a delicacy rather than a last resort, though maybe its magic might have been a bit more ambivalent for her, just as it was different for my mom as a child in turn.

Anyway, why am I talking about Depression-era food hacks? Not for the reason you’d expect! This is my new newsletter, CITY CHICKEN.

When you bite into a skewer of city chicken, it tastes like pork and veal, but it also begins to taste like something else. Nobody gets tricked, nobody’s fooled, it’s not molecular gastronomy, but that’s not the point. It’s certainly not chicken, but it’s not nothing. Something happens in between those flavors that isn’t easy to describe. For me, for city chicken, that’s memory: my Bun’s kitchen, the smell and sound of it, the ceiling fan where my Uncle Rip would hide my shoe whenever I left the room, her dog Ralph, her back porch and the big tree my cousins would climb, the train caboose that was just sitting in the park by her house for some reason that she and Ralph and my Pap and I would walk to everyday in the summer. That’s not chicken. What is it, though?

For this letter, city chicken is going to be my reading practice. Every time I send you one of these, I’m going to take two different things—films, TV, books, probably not types of meats—and try to describe the third thing you get when you take a bite out of them together. I’ll try to consider objects that maybe don’t have an obvious relationship to each other, or at least ones people don’t ordinarily discuss as a pod.

My hope is that this will bear some small resemblance to Lawrence Weschler’s great, defunct McSweeney’s column, “Convergences,” which I read obsessively when I was younger. In that column, Weschler wrote at length about (often) contemporary images that bear uncanny visual similarities to works of (often) classical art or historical photographs. The premise was that there are no accidents. If such images exhibit “moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections,” as Weschler put it, it’s because images speak to each other across time, because they speak to us in a constant, intergenerational game of Telephone.

I was then, and am now, inspired by the simple, inaugural request of Weschler’s 1999 introduction to the column. “Here we go,” he wrote, “make what you will.” Make what you will.

Like the experience of biting into an actual skewer of city chicken, most of this will be personal. It only tastes the way it tastes because it tastes that way to me. And so: the things I talk about in this newsletter will be related to each other mostly because I’m talking about them in relation to each other in this newsletter. The blueprint of this, for me, is an essay I wrote a couple months ago on a trio of domestic argument scenes in the 1987 film Moonstruck, the 2019 television series Catastrophe, and the 2019 film Marriage Story. The creators of the latter two were obviously familiar with Moonstruck, and the creators of Moonstruck were obviously familiar with the decades of melodramas and romantic comedies before them, so it’s not like finding identical crop circles on opposite sides of the Earth to say that these three texts look like each other a little bit. But part of the fun of writing that piece was in figuring out how I, and my opinion of those three scenes, made them converse with each other in different ways. I didn’t invent the generic conventions all three played with, but they registered to me as a viewer in ways that couldn’t have been baked in, that are at least marginally different in my head than in the heads of other people. (Swimming around in there, of course, is historical and cultural context new and old, nothing is ever alone.) When we allow films and shows and books to converge in our minds and memories like this, we make something new that bears no necessary relationship to any of the original texts in isolation. You take a bite out of the two different things, and there’s that third thing. It’s not chicken.

I tell my students every semester that their own experience of a movie or a novel or a show can be as important as the text itself, that the act of reading or viewing is the thing that makes art anything at all, so the catalytic conversion of two-dimensional images or printed letters that turns an object or a play of light into something narratively coherent or visually meaningful must itself be worthy of our thought and conversation. City chicken, here, is a gimmick for the newsletter, but it’s also just a generative constraint meant to reproduce the reading practice we (or I, at least) use everywhere anyway. Images speak to each other, and then they speak to me, and then I write it down. Here we go.

[This, obviously, is what city chicken looks like. Image credit: Lois Britton, The Polish Housewife]

Finally Started // The Plot Against America

Like basically every television program I watch now, this is a series based on a novel that Mel has read, but that I haven’t read yet. I like it a lot so far! Zoe Kazan and Winona Ryder are terrific enough that I think it’s possible we’ll be able overcome our dread about its subject enough times to watch all the episodes.

Flagging // RUN

Not really flagging. We’ve kept up, but, I can’t think of a show that I’ve been less sure about. At times, this feels like an above-average, rompy, slapstick North by Northwest with two great lead performances and the hilarious premise that Amtrak trains depart on time to their destinations. At other times, I wonder if it’s the worst show I’ve ever seen—just a total, unconscionable mess. Maybe I’m just an easy mark for Merritt Wever, Domnhall Gleason, and the basic signifiers of prestige television. We’ll see, I guess!

Finally Finished // My Brilliant Friend, S2

I’m not proud that I’ve watched the first two seasons of this series without having read the books. (My order is in to Subterranean Books in St. Louis now so that I’ll be able to remedy that by the start of the third.) But, as maybe the only person on planet Earth watching this show who hasn’t read the books, I have to say that I absolutely love it. It has such unusual pacing for a TV show—it’s not literary, or novelistic (what even does that mean), but its time signature feels kind of haunted by the knowledge that this story is also being told elsewhere, differently. Characters go in and out of focus with such threatening and comforting regularity, you feel as if every space the camera enters could sustain the story indefinitely if only the camera were allowed to stay there, the exhaustive formality of its shots always stuns me (we’re gonna see every door that opens get shut, every dish go back in the sink, every character exchanges an affectless “ciao” in greeting and farewell to every other character). It’s hypnotic. Apparently the books are good, too.

Recommendations //

My friend Jane Hu is having a BIG WEEK.

Joel Anderson is really good on Michael Jordan being a not-especially-compelling mythological figure.

I haven’t been able to listen to this yet, but join me in finding a time to listen to Marc Maron eulogize Lynn Shelton, the best of the mumblecore directors (imho), and one of the best realist artists of her generation. She died suddenly this week, and I feel like, even for those of us who appreciated her, we didn’t appreciate her enough. Your Sister’s Sister is such a funny, messy, piece of work—it’s like if Kelly Reichardt made a James L. Brooks movie. You should find it and watch it if you can. And also “Hands and Knees,” from the fourth season of Mad Men. It’s a kind of plot management episode, but it has a handful of the images I find hardest to shake from that show. (It’s the one where Lane’s dad bonks him on the head with a cane.) RIP to an artist whose world I was always happy to see.

Annie Berke wrote a great piece about the era of media conglomeration and the new Hulu adaptation of High Fidelity, an unlikely—and charming!—culprit in the corporate exploitation of your digital lives.

I cannot recommend Elise Gravel’s kids book/twee graphic encyclopedia The Mushroom Fan Club enough. It’s hilarious and legitimately informative about mycology in general. (Maeve stomps around our yard now lecturing us about spores.) And it’s smart in a way that isn’t condescending to kids—a lot of high-concept children’s books seem like they’re written to impress parents. Gravel writes about—and draws—mushrooms with a lot of detail and information, but she does so in such an appealingly silly way. I haven’t quite read anything like it.

“Networks work by leaking”—I really liked this interview Jorge Cotte did with media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. I learned a lot!

These photos are incredible and, as always, Sarah Blackwood writes about them like nobody else.

In honor of city chicken, I’m going to try to include one extremely regional food item in each installment of this newsletter, as a service to you, the reader. (I’ll likely start out with things from places I’ve lived, but please feel free to submit suggestions for future links!) Today, allow me to introduce you to the St. Louis Pork Steak. It’s a thin “steak” of pork shoulder meat found in barbecue cuisine throughout the Midwest, popularized by the butcher counter at Schnucks grocery in the fifties. Unlike many of the signature scramble-brained nonsense dishes of the St. Louis region, it’s really good!

And, as usual, a recipe: If you’re looking for something to do with turnips AND turnip greens, might I suggest this caramelized turnip and greens pasta! (I wish I could provide you a way to permanently distinguish between turnips and parsnips, but good luck with that on your own.) It will shock you how much better this is than whatever roast-em-up you were going to do with those turnips before.

Oh, and the header image for this installment is a still from the pilot of The Americans—which you should hurry off and watch right now, if you haven’t. I’ve just always really liked it. In the very next shot, he’s holding a pancake.

Make what you will,

Phil.