By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1995 Gourmet Magazine
Chicken dinner is all America’s homespun meal, but it is dished out differently everywhere you go. Rhode Island likes its birds presented family-style, with pasta shells in red sauce on the side. Indianapolis goes for skillet-cooked chicken as the centerpiece for Sunday supper, with bowls of biscuits and mashed potatoes and with peppermint ice cream sundaes for dessert. In Miami, chicken is roasted Cuban-style and served with black beans and yellow rice. Throughout the South, deep-fried chicken is the star of boarding house meals and always appears on the table circled by a constellation of vegetable side dishes. But nowhere is the ritual more cherished than in Kansas City, Missouri, where—like sizzling sirloins and pit-cooked barbecue—chicken dinner is a consuming passion.
Both Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, have a way with poultry fried up in iron skillets. To the west in the old Central Pacific Railway settlement of Brookville, the Brookville Hotel draws customers from hundreds of miles away for meals of shatteringly crisp chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, creamed corn, sweet-and-sour coleslaw, and baking powder biscuits with strawberry preserves. South of Kansas City in the one-horse town of Pittsburg, a pair of eateries—Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s—have waged a rivalry for hungry customers since the 1930s that has given Highway 69 the nickname of “chicken dinner road” among roaming devotees of regional cuisine.
Stroud’s of Kansas City, Missouri, is one good reason chicken has attained royal status in these parts. Known as the home of panfried chicken with all the trimmings for more than half a century, this dilapidated roadhouse on a bleak street south of the city defined a meal now served by the most popular restaurants in town, including even some of the best barbecue parlors and steak houses. As memorable as the chicken dinners may be in the outstanding restaurants of other towns, there is none as sublime as the meal made by Stroud’s.
Each piece Stroud’s serves is tightly enveloped in a red-gold crust imbued with succulent chicken fat exactly the way a crisp strip of bacon is charged with the goodness of pig fat. When you heft it in your hands (no one here uses a knife and fork) and sink your teeth into the tender wrapping, the flavor of sizzled skin is so profound that you might think you have never really tasted fried chicken before. Great fried chicken, for which this is a paradigm, is as different from mediocre stuff as is a grand cru Burgundy from a screw-top wine. To say that what Stroud’s serves has soul is correct, but mere soulfulness does not suggest its full grandeur.
The time this bird has spent sizzling in a skillet gives it a crust that clings to the meat even though there is no breading or batter (the kitchen uses none) to interfere with the unadulterated flavor of chicken. Inside the lip-smacking crust, each breast is steamy moist and white. Dark meat fairly drips juice as soon as you bite into it, and it pulls from the bone as easily as if it had been stewed.
With each meal comes gravy, made the farmhouse way from cracklings left over in the iron skillets. No broth is needed to give it flavor, just salt and a hail of pepper, flour and enough milk to turn it top-cream thick. The gravy is served in a cereal bowl with a spoon so it can be ladled over mashed potatoes or chicken pieces, but the connoisseur’s way is to dip a drumstick or shreds of breast meat into the gravy. Once you have savored the inspired harmony of the gravy’s pepper, milk, and chicken drippings, it is impossible to imagine eating fried chicken without it ever again. Stroud’s waitresses speak with awe of radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, a Missouri native and longtime customer, who used to bypass the full-course dinner in favor of a meal composed of not less than five breasts and five bowls of gravy. “He doesn’t do that any more,” one waitress said with disappointment, if not disillusionment, in her voice. “He has cut back. He’s trimming down. I believe the last time he was here all he had was two breasts and two bowls of gravy.”
Mashed potatoes come swirled high and smooth in a serving dish to which everybody at the table helps themselves. On Sunday, after church, many tables designate one person as the dealer to avoid the commotion caused by all hands grabbing for the mashed potatoes at once. Made from Idaho russets at the rate of a batch every half hour, they are pure tasting and gently flavored, with only a few tiny lumps discernible within the swells of buttery whiteness. They, too, are brought to a state of supreme savor by the application of liberal amounts of peppery gravy.
You say you want a garden vegetable to round out the feast? Green beans are what Stroud’s serves and they are, indeed, a vegetable. Or at least they were seven hours before they were hefted from a marathon simmer along with enough ham hocks and butter and onions to turn them from something nutritionally correct into the wickedest green beans ever cooked. They are as treasured a part of the meal as the chicken and gravy: “We tried making the beans from scratch,” Stroud’s co-owner Mike Donegan confided, “but fresh green beans simply cannot develop the kind of taste we’re after. We use number 10 cans of them, with their broth, and let them soak up butter and the juices of the hocks all day long.” There is no dessert at Stroud’s, so when the waitress takes the order she generally asks if a customer wants a cinnamon roll with the meal or later. “Frankly, we serve so much food, I don’t know anybody who wants dessert,” Mike Donegan says. Regulars usually have the roll at the end of the meal to put a sweet point on things. They are round, about four inches across, and they glisten with butter; their bottoms are crusted with candied cinnamon sugar scraped up from the baking pan.
There is another choice to make when dinner is ordered: how to start the meal. This is a significant decision as it takes a good half hour for the chicken to fry, meaning you will have plenty of time to spend with either a salad or a soup. The former is a Midwestern head lettuce (a.k.a. iceberg) plate drenched in the dressing of choice and—if requested—an avalanche of blue cheese crumbles. Stroud’s soup is, of course, chicken—shimmering yellow with a strong salty smack. It is loaded with egg noodles (plump pale ribbons that feel more like dumplings than pasta) as well as tender hunks of white meat and bits of celery, onion, and carrot.
It is also possible to order a plate of cottage-fried potatoes to munch while waiting for the bird to fry, and, although the crisp disks make a delightful companion for beers or cocktails from the bar, they can also seriously dull an appetite, which most devotees want well-honed for the meal to come.
Stroud’s reputation is founded on its chicken breasts and legs, but there are other parts from which to choose, some of them purely wonderful, others an acquired taste. In the latter category we would have to list a “mixed plate” of livers and gizzards, three pounds of them fried in the same pans as the chicken and served in a mound. The livers are crusty on the outside and tender within. The gizzards, on the other hand, are not parboiled before frying, so they reward with a deep chicken flavor only after the most vigorous chewing. “For me, they’re something to snack on while you watch a football game,” Mike Donegan suggests. “But we have a coterie of steady customers who love their gizzards at dinnertime.” Among the non-chicken entrées, Stroud’s chicken-fried steak is a knobby-textured knockout—bigger than the broad plate it is served on and blanketed with pepper gravy. And the “K.C.” strip steak is right up there with the city’s finest (and this city has some of the finest steaks anywhere in America): a handsome crescent of beef served with a cup of natural juices. We asked Mike Donegan if he has ever had the inclination to bow to current nutritional dogma and offer lighter versions of Stroud’s food. “In this town, you try something new and people get suspicious,” he replied. “I wouldn’t think of altering the basics on our menu.”
Stroud’s started as a fireworks stand. In 1933, Guy and Helen Stroud traded the pyrotechnical business for cookery when they took over an empty shack kitty-corner from their stand at the southwest corner of 85th Street and Troost. Their specialty in the beginning was barbecued ribs at fifteen cents a slab. A sardine dinner went for ten cents; goose liver or salami was a dime, too; and beer sold for a nickel a mug. During World War II, when beef was rationed and ribs grew scarce, chicken became the cheap and patriotic meal, so Mrs. Stroud, like restaurateurs and home cooks all around the country, made it a specialty.
“Back then, I believe every town had its favorite chicken dinner roadhouse,” Mike Donegan explained. “They were mom-and-pop kinds of places, usually out in the country on the outskirts where rent was cheap. But after the war, as proprietors retired, a lot of those places vanished. The interstate highways took their toll, too, and the growth of the suburbs and then fast food. Not a lot of them survived.”
The Strouds’ place, south of downtown Kansas City, was one that thrived. Mrs. Stroud was acclaimed for her dinners, which sold for eighty-five cents, or $1.50 for two people, in the mid-1940s; and her place also was known for its wild piano music that played every night. Food was served on paper plates, and, if a man and a woman didn’t arrive together, Mrs. Stroud didn’t allow them to dance together. During the war, the street in front of her restaurant and the land around it were lowered some six feet so munitions trucks from the nearby Bendix factory could pass under the viaduct, which explains why you now have to climb up a set of woodbeam stairs to enter. The original 45-seat dining room was expanded several times to its present capacity of 110 diners plus the approximately 10,000 customers waiting for a table in the bar area. (When there is no room at the bar to wait, you can stand outside and observe how no two sets of windows are plumb—each tilting casement represents a stage of Stroud’s growth.)
In 1964 Kansas City Star restaurant reviewer Dick Brown wrote, “Ever since this column began, people have been asking me when—not if, but when—I was going to do something on Mrs. Stroud’s fried chicken.” Brown’s review sang hosannas about the tasty food and about what he called the “unpretentious, friendly” atmosphere. He also made note of another Stroud’s characteristic still true today, the democratic mix of clientele, calling the customers “a cross section of knowing diners—millionaires and truck drivers, political figures and newspapermen. Some people go all gussied up, others go in overalls.”
In the late 1960s world class epicure Roy Andries de Groot arrived to dine with an entourage that included his secretary and his Seeing Eye dog. As was De Groot’s custom, he had called Mrs. Stroud to tell her he was coming (an old time gastronome’s strategy of daring the chef to do his or her best work), and when he arrived Mrs. Stroud asked him where he would like to sit. “Where I can hear the chicken sizzle,” he replied. After laying waste to supper, he reportedly took Mrs. Stroud’s hands in his, kissed her forehead, and declared, “Helen, this is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten.”
A Dark Ages fell upon the fried chicken world in 1970 when Mrs. Stroud hung up her apron. She sold her restaurant, and it became Bob Ford’s Canteen Bar, where chicken was available only on occasion, as an afterthought to the house specialty, which was cocktails.
“I missed the fried chicken,” Mike Donegan recalls. “It was something I grew up eating, but it had become hard to find in Kansas City. This town needed a good homecooking place like Mrs. Stroud’s had been.” Donegan, who was then working as a bartender at Kelly’s, the oldest tavern in Kansas City, joined with Jim Hogan and bought Bob Ford’s Canteen Bar in 1977. “Our goal was to turn it back to the way it was,” he says. “I brought Mrs. Stroud in from her nursing home so she could taste the food and tell us how we were doing. She ate a piece and approved.”
The renaissance turned out to be a tremendous success. Stroud’s epitomized a return to down home fare just when many Americans were emerging from the 1960s mindset of culinary self-loathing and learning to appreciate such native treasures as barbecue, chili, country ham, shoofly pie, and panfried chicken. Within a few years, the old roadhouse kitchen was sending forth nearly five tons of chicken and four tons of mashed potatoes every week. And Kansas City blossomed with dining rooms that made chicken dinner a specialty, many of them imitating the Stroud’s menu from soup to cinnamon rolls. This was the heyday of a legendary cook called “Chicken Betty” Lucas, known among the cognoscenti as the Pied Piper of chickendom because she worked at a series of the city’s then-popular diners and roadhouses, luring customers from one to the next with her superb fried chicken, pan gravy, and cottage-fried potatoes. “I believe we might be the only restaurant in town where Chicken Betty never worked,” Mike Donegan says.
One of the places that opened in the late 1970s was Mrs. Peter’s Chicken Dinners, which has earned its rank in the pantheon right alongside Stroud’s. Mrs. Peter’s, located in Kansas City, Kansas, has its own personality, as well as its distinct ritual meal: creamy coleslaw and marinated vegetables followed by heaps of golden chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy (whiter, less peppery than Stroud’s), green beans (long cooked and porky, with soft-cooked carrot added for color), biscuits with honey butter and strawberry rhubarb sauce, and pie or a sundae for dessert. The ambiance at Mrs. Peters is country-craftsy. Slaw and vegetables come in speckle-ware dishes; waitresses wear granny dresses and frilly bonnets; decor consists of thousands of chicken-themed figurines, pitchers, samplers, and old advertising signs. Up front, there is a dainty gift shop. When we left two pieces of chicken on our serving platter at the end of a big supper, our waitress, Nell, kindly persuaded us to please take them on the road with us in a doggie bag for a midnight snack. Such a polite place!
Polite is not exactly the word that comes to mind when thinking of adjectives for Stroud’s. Not that it’s rude—in fact, everybody is very friendly—but there is a delectable outlaw cachet about the old tavern that adds spice to the dining-out experience. From outside it looks like a million weather-beaten saloons that lurk on the wrong side of the tracks in America’s older cities; there is a nonworking Falstaff beer sign out front and another falling apart sign on the roof. At peak times, cars are parked for nearly a hundred yards in both directions along 85th Street and in the shadowy recesses of the Troost Street viaduct. Take-out customers exit the front door balancing huge cardboard boxes full of food, and, even from the porch, the honky-tonk piano is loud enough to rock the walls and penetrate the bedlam of a hundred happy eaters and many more people waiting to eat.
The inside is a great sprawl of tables and low-backed booths, with teetering shelves along some walls holding all sorts of food service miscellany. On the walls are pictures of celebrity patrons, glowing reviews, sepia-toned photographs of Stroud’s when it was a barbecue shack, and a tiny newspaper advertisement Mrs. Stroud placed for her restaurant in 1944. Tables are covered with easy wipe red-checked oilcloth. The walls are weathered stucco, and the floor is worn wood with a good creak to the boards as waitresses speed among their tables.
It is amazing to see the action in the kitchen: greasy chaos (stove fires are routine every day; to be a chef here, you need to know how to handle an extinguisher) centering around ancient eighteen-inch iron skillets that require a cook to have the forearms of a farrier. Chicken breasts and thighs take about thirty minutes in the hot fat, which is half vegetable oil and half lard; legs require twenty minutes. As soon as the cook decides a piece has reached optimum crispness, it is hoisted from the pan to drain on paper towels for one minute, before going onto the serving platter where the kitchen’s “wheel man” tamps off any excess grease and sends it forth with the rest of the dinner.
At Stroud’s, waitresses do not carry food from the kitchen. That job is delegated to expediters, men whose only duty is to whisk trays crowded with plates of chicken, potatoes, gravy, and beans to tables immediately. “A lot of places go to the trouble of panfrying, then undo all their good work by letting it sit under a heat lamp for fifteen minutes before they serve it,” Mike Donegan says. “We are one of the few restaurants that has people on staff who do nothing but carry meals to the tables. An hour, even a half hour, after our food has been cooked, it is probably not much better than anybody else’s. We’ve had homesick customers plead with us to Federal Express them chicken dinners—there was one guy who wanted his sent to Hawaii—but I’ve had to refuse. Good panfried chicken can’t wait—it demands immediate attention.”
Customers obey Mike Donegan’s rule. Maybe it is because of the long wait most endure before they are seated, or the thirty minutes waiting for their meal to fry, but, as soon as the platter is set down, everybody digs in like hungry locusts arriving at a cornfield. Above the din of talk and laughter and above the throb of the piano, the old dining room reverberates with the fast, steady rhythm of brittle crust being crunched. Elbows braced on the table so they can use both hands to hold a piece to their mouths, Stroud’s believers sound a toothsome cadence as they tear into the world’s most delicious fried chicken.
Stroud’s (permanently closed)
1015 East 85th Street
Kansas City, Missouri
Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor
Mrs. Peter’s Chicken Dinners (permanently closed)
4960 State Avenue
Kansas City, Kansas