I’ve been going through all my Depression-era cookbooks recently “just for fun,” and it’s inspiring to read about how people managed to make do with what little they had. Case in point: city chicken, a Rust Belt delicacy that’s actually pork.
During the Depression pork was ridiculously cheap thanks to disastrous commodity surpluses, so when the Eastern European immigrants who had settled between Pittsburgh and Cleveland wanted fried chicken, they chopped up some cheap pork, combined it with veal (which was similarly cheap at the time), put it on a skewer, shaped it into something roughly resembling a drumstick, and then breaded and fried it. Does it taste like chicken? No. Does it taste amazing? Absolutely.
Usually city chicken is made on long skewers, but I decided to make mini ones on toothpicks so they could fit in my air fryer. As I’ve explained in many of my previous air fryer recipes, air fryers are just high-powered convection ovens, and sometimes I opt for it over deep-frying because I just don’t have it in me to deal with the production of hot oil. (Before anyone heads into the comments: I’m a culinary professional and know how to deep-fry things, so there’s no need to explain to me how it’s done again. While I appreciate your enthusiasm for “real frying,” my air fryer is dishwasher safe, so you aren’t winning this fight.)
In addition to using the air fryer and miniaturizing the skewers, I’ve deviated from tradition in a few other ways. City chicken isn’t normally marinated, but I plunged mine into a milk brine for a few hours to make the pork as juicy and succulent as quality fried chicken. Instead of plain breadcrumbs, I breaded the nuggets in crushed Ritz crackers, which brown beautifully in the air fryer thanks to their oil content. And for serving, I made a quick dipping sauce from equal parts yogurt and apple butter.
I did, however, use the traditional cut of pork shoulder since it’s a cheap cut; I couldn’t betray city chicken’s roots by buying anything too fancy. If you want to use a pricier, more tender cut like the tenderloin, knock yourself out. And if you’re a deep-frying purist, you can feel free to fry these city chicken nuggets the old fashioned way. We’re living in not-exactly-unprecedented times. We do what we can with what we’ve got.
“City Chicken” Air Fried Pork Nuggets
Makes about 20 nuggets
- 2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
- 1 1/4 cup milk
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. minced chives (dried or fresh)
- 1/2 tsp. paprika
- 1/2 tsp. onion powder
- 1 cup flour
- 2 eggs
- 2 Tbsp. water
- 2 sleeves Ritz crackers, finely crushed
- 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream
- 1/4 cup apple butter
Cut up the pork into manageable pieces of meat, trimming off any fat, connective tissue, or other sorts of less-than-tasty-looking bits. (See note below.) Cut the pork into rough 1/2" cubes, then cover with a sheet of plastic wrap and pound with a meat tenderizer or cast iron pan until they’re 1/4-inch thick. Skewer 3-4 pieces of meat on each toothpick.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, sour cream, garlic powder, salt, chives, paprika, and onion powder. Add the mini pork skewers, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Set up a three-bowl breading station: put the flour in the first bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper; beat the eggs and water together in a second bowl; and put the crushed Ritz crackers in the third. Begin preheating the air fryer to 400 degrees.
Remove the pork skewers from the marinade one at a time, roll in flour, dip well in egg, then place in the Ritz cracker crumbs and press well with your hands to give it a firm coating.
Once you’ve made an enough miniature city chickens to fill your air fryer, throw in your first batch—if your model has a perforated tray or basket, stick the ends of the toothpicks into its holes so the nuggets stand upright. Cook for 12-15 minutes until they’re golden brown, checking the pork after 10 minutes and moving things around as needed to crisp up evenly. While the first batch is cooking, continue breading the remainder of the pork and allow it to sit at room temperature until it gets its turn in the air fryer.
Whisk the apple butter and yogurt together in a small bowl. Serve alongside your fried city chicken nuggets.
Note: Do not throw away any of the scraps from cutting up the pork! Put them in a resealable freezer bag to use for stock. If you have chicken carcasses in the freezer (like, perhaps, from a spatchcocked chicken), you can throw the pork scraps into the same bag. Putting some pork in your chicken stock is never a bad idea.