Why 'City Chicken' Isn't Made With Actual Chicken

City Chicken is one of those hangovers from the Great Depression. A 1932 advertisement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette details the entire process — you would take either pork or veal, and cut the meat into squares. Afterward, you would skewer the meat, and then cover it in breadcrumbs. Once you've browned it, you would let it simmer until cooked.

The first part of the ad that might baffle today's readers is that the meat was 33 cents per pound. The second is that for a dish with chicken in the name, there is no chicken actually prepared. This should not be too surprising, however, as chicken was not yet the go-to meat in much of the world. The Economist explains that chicken became mainstream once newer birds with more meat were bred, and factory farming became an industry standard. Atlas Obscura notes that it is the same factory farming that caused a decline in the popularity of City Chicken. Still, this does not directly address the question of why the dish was named after a totally different type of meat.

The economics of City Chicken

The name City Chicken was due to the economic reality of the time, according to The Economist. Before the advent of chickens bred for slaughter and factory farming, they were more valuable alive than dead. The impact of factory farming can be seen in how Costco managed to keep its rotisserie chickens at $4.99, despite the pressures of inflation. Even before inflation appeared in the headlines, Costco was investing in a massive chicken plant so it could source its own chickens and keep production costs low (per CNN Business). 

Southern Living explains that during The Great Depression, families were reluctant to kill their chickens. The issue was that their hens were more valuable as egg layers than dinner. Once they could no longer produce eggs, the hens would die. However, at that point, their meat was only suitable for stew. Atlas Obscura notes that because of this, chicken meat was considered a luxury. Once someone decided to sell pork as a substitute for chicken meat, the name stuck until the economics of chicken changed.