Chatterbox, while travelling earlier this month through Iowa, wrote an item ("Did a White Iowan Invent Rap Music?") that mentioned, in passing, tasting a Midwestern delicacy called "Broasted" chicken, which Chatterbox found something less than delicious. Chatterbox called it "a kind of deep-fried chicken." To be honest, though, Chatterbox wasn't entirely clear what Broasted chicken is. Now he knows a bit more.
Broasted chicken is the invention of the Broaster Company, headquartered in Beloit, Wisc., which since 1954 has manufactured the special kind of pressure fryer used to make Broasted chicken. (The Broaster Co. owns the trademark to the words "Broaster" and "Broasted," and no restaurateur can call his product Broasted chicken without purchasing the Broaster Co. pressure fryer and receiving training in its use from a Broaster Co. distributor. He must also use the Broaster Co.'s specially designated marinade, Chickite, and breading, Slo-Bro. The company refers to this arrangement as "a franchise without the franchise fee.") Chatterbox asked Renee Rudolph, a marketing assistant at the Broaster Co., how Broasted chicken differs from fried chicken. "When you pressure-fry chicken the way we teach them to make it," she said, "as soon as the meat hits the oil it kind of like sears it and keeps the juices inside." It's the juices that cook the meat, she explained--not the oil. So Broasted chicken is "not as oily as fried chicken."
Broasted chicken is found mainly in the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, but it's also found as far afield as California. About 5,000 restaurants nationwide are licensed Broaster operators. "The VA canteens are a big customer," Rudolph said. One reader informed Chatterbox that there's even a deli, now closed, across Amsterdam Ave. from Barney Greengrass on Manhattan's Upper West Side, that boasts on its still-posted sign that it served Broasted chicken. (Apparently there was greater consumer demand for Barney Greengrass' chopped liver and sable, much-praised by Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer.)
Since Broasted chicken is supposed to taste the same no matter where you eat it, Chatterbox figured the unexceptionable sample he had in Iowa was probably representative. But two questions haunted him. The first was: Did Chatterbox get real Broasted chicken? According to Rudolph, the Broaster Co. does what it can to crack down on restaurants that pass off as Broasted mere fried chicken, and to make sure any chicken used in its pressure cooker is properly smothered in Chickite and Slo-Bro. But she conceded that Broaster piracy happens "more often than we want it to." Chatterbox's second question was: Had the rigors of travel and campaign reporting made Chatterbox so tired that he was unable to appreciate Broasted chicken? To ameliorate both concerns, Chatterbox decided to seek out expert opinion.
Chatterbox went first to Calvin Trillin, the justly celebrated author of three volumes on offbeat regional foods (American Fried, Alice, Let's Eat, and Third Helpings), which a few years back were packaged in one volume as The Tummy Trilogy. "I am not an expert on Broasted chicken," Trillin told Chatterbox, though he did recall it was "done by some machine." When Chatterbox explained that Broasted chicken is supposed to taste the same everywhere, Trillin interjected, "Anything that tastes the same wherever you find it is not good. Things are not supposed to taste the same." Trillin advised Chatterbox to sample what he called the real specialty of Iowa, a pork tenderloin sandwich.
"Not a pig snout sandwich. A pork tenderloin sandwich." If I couldn't get that, he said, try corn.
Next, Chatterbox queried Jane and Michael Stern, authors of Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A., about whether Broasted chicken was "a synthetic form of folk culture." By e-mail, Michael Stern answered:
I would have to say that most folk culture--especially food folk culture--is at least slightly synthetic. Corporate character has been a significant part of real folk food for at least this century, from Jell-O to Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker ... It's really only elitist food writers who can afford to think of vernacular culinary culture as some earthy farm wife somewhere milking her cow and tending free-range chickens. By comparison to the HUGE corporate presence of, for instance, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, Broasted chicken seems almost quaint.
But, Stern confessed,
I'm only speaking image-wise here, as I am a sort of a purist about fried chicken, really only going for skillet-fried. Even though I grew up in the Midwest and have certainly seen my share of Broasted chicken in our travels, I don't believe I've ever eaten any.
Chatterbox next checked in with Alison Cook, food writer for House and Garden and Houston Sidewalk. She e-mailed that she'd never eaten Broasted chicken:
Mormon scones, yes; Great Lakes whitefish livers, yes; Panhandle carrot coins marinated in condensed tomato soup, even. But no Broasted chicken. Frankly, I never really believed there was such a dish. The name has such a wonderfully silly, fence-sitting, made-up quality to it. Sort of like "brunch."
Chatterbox also consulted Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic for Vogue and author of The Man Who Ate Everything, the legitimacy of whose title must now be called into question because he has never eaten Broasted chicken. "I've heard of it," he said, "but I've never known what it was."
Trillin had suggested that Chatterbox contact Michael Gartner, the former president of NBC News, who actually lives in Iowa (where he edits the Ames Tribune and owns the Iowa Cubs). Gartner confirmed that he had eaten Broasted chicken.
What did he think of it?
"You know how," Gartner said, "if you order fish somewhere and you say 'I've never had this kind of fish before,' and you're kind of a picky eater, and they say, 'You'll like it, it tastes just like chicken'? And you think, 'If I wanted chicken, I'd just order chicken?' Broasted chicken tastes just like chicken."
Finding this response somewhat evasive, Chatterbox phoned David Shribman, a former colleague of Chatterbox's in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal who is now Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe. Shribman had written a memorable piece for the Journal's editorial page several years back praising the regional cooking of Iowa. It hadn't mentioned Broasted chicken. Had Shribman eaten any?
What did he think?
"The phrase I would use would be 'utterly forgettable,' " he said. "I've completely forgotten what it tastes like."
Finally, Chatterbox consulted Jason Vest, Washington correspondent for the Village Voice and a onetime colleague of Chatterbox's at U.S. News and World Report, who has spent a lot of time in the Midwest. Vest said that not only had he eaten Broasted chicken; for a brief period three years ago he had eaten it every week! Not in the Midwest, but in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington! "I usually went to Whitey's in Arlington on Tuesdays," he explained, "to listen to Bill Kirchen (lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen) and get beers and Broasted chicken. I always wondered why they called it Broasted chicken because it seemed like fried chicken to me."
"I've had better fried chicken ... It's not that I dislike it. But if you are a true connoisseur of fried chicken, Broasted chicken is just not top of the list."