Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Word Nerd Wonders: What am I eating?

It's no secret that I'm a lazy cook. It's not that I don't like to cook, but the fewer steps involved in preparing a meal, the happier I am. This doesn't mean a dish has to cook quickly; I don't mind keeping an eye on the stove while something simmers or visiting the oven regularly to baste chicken, but those are things I can do while multitasking. Chopping and peeling and fileting require time and focus (it's not good to multitask when a knife is involved), plus extra dishes, and thus I do my best to avoid them.

My favorite way to cut down on cooking effort is to get meat that is pre-trimmed and pre-sliced (or cubed). Handling meat is slimy and messy and maybe-bacteria-laden, so I'd rather just take a package of pre-cubed meat and dump it in the pot. I'm not being lazy, I'm just being hygienic! This is especially crucial when I make a favorite recipe I have for pork-and-squash stew. It's really best to use fresh vegetables, so I already spend close to an hour chopping up onions and carrots and peeling and dicing potatoes and butternut squash when I make this. I really don't want to spend extra time trimming and cubing pork as well.

So on the rare occasions I make this tasty-but-time-consuming dish, I look for pre-diced pork. And one day I was at the grocery store and couldn't find it, so I asked guy working the meat department, "do you have any of that lazy-person's, er, diced pork for stew?" And the guy looked at me and said, "You mean Pork City Chicken? I think we have some over there."

I froze. PORK CITY CHICKEN? I forgot that I needed to find it for dinner; why the hell was it called PORK CITY CHICKEN? I asked the guy, and he said "that's just what we call it." (Sigh. I was hoping the butcher was a closet etymologist, but you can't find everything at Kroger.) So I picked it up and added it to my cart. PORK CITY CHICKEN, the package actually said. I took it home and began preparing stew. PORK CITY CHICKEN, the package taunted. It made no sense. It was pork, but if that was the case, why did it appear as a modifier to "City Chicken"? What was the "city" doing there at all? Did it mean something like "chicken-style pork," and if so, why not just say so? Since I didn't have to spend a lot of time with the pork, I soon stopped obsessing, looking at the mound of potatoes and squash I still had to peel.

Still, every time I bought meat for the stew it preyed upon my mind: PORK CITY CHICKEN. I made it just last week, so now, for your edification and mind, I have finally looked into the possible meaning of PORK CITY CHICKEN. While the origin hasn't been confirmed, the term "city chicken" became prominent around the time of the Depression, when chicken was more expensive than lesser cuts of pork or beef. Thrifty cooks would purchase these cheaper cuts and prepare them in a way that imitated chicken: cubed and breaded, or ground and made into the shape of a drumstick. According to the food timeline site I visited, recipes for "city chicken" seemed to be most prevalent in the Midwest, especially Pennsylvania, with appearances in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.

So there's my answer: "city chicken" means cubed mock chicken, so PORK CITY CHICKEN is "city-chicken-style pork," only with fewer letters on the package. Since Kroger is mainly local to the Midwest, someone there decided to use the old term, even though it's been nearly 80 years since the Depression. (Maybe they knew this latest downturn was coming, although chicken is now cheaper than pork, so I'm not sure that makes sense.) In any case, I have solved this "fowl" mystery, am ready to start "bacon," and hope you enjoyed coming a-loin for the ride.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the Haiku had gone on almost too long (mainly I'm jealous that I don't write it), but these puns.....bad, bad, bad.