Giant Fried Chickens of the Illinois Valley
The next chapter of our exploration of the curviest nation on Earth...
The average weight of a whole 'fryer' chicken in Europe is around 1.7kg, which if I plug into my Metric-to-'Murrican converter is....three and three-quarter pounds. A whole chicken, of course, has two legs, wings, breasts & thighs. Thus, a 'quarter' chicken would consist of two pieces, and is typically designated as 'light' if it is the wing & breast, or 'dark' if it is the leg & thigh.
Myself, I have never voluntarily eaten a dark quarter chicken. I am all for grinding up all poultry dark meat for use in animal feeds. Many of you feel exactly the opposite, and that's wonderful! I am not nor ever will engage in a debate about the superiority of the top of the bird or the bottom, because both are completely valid points, and besides, all you drumstick eaters kindly leave more breasteses for me.
What I want to start with today is the fact that this quarter 'light' section below, not counting the fries or the piece of bread below that serves as a drainage sponge, tips the scales at 1.1kg in and of itself.
Rip's Tavern, Ladd, IL. The Grandpappy of the Valley
Apparently, the fine people of Scotland were amongst the first to fry chickens, along with West Africans. Skipping the excruciating circumstances that brought both races of people in close proximity in the American South, fried chicken became engrained in our culture. It started out as a dish fried in a pan or skillet, in lard. It is still prepared that way, of course, throughout the South. The inventions of the deep fat fryer and the pressure cooker allowed several innovations that have not only identified a certain type of fried chicken to a region, but has proven to be an eating phenomenon that is appreciated throughout the world.
There are several types of regional fried chicken of note. What I have today is not world or even regionally renowned. But I am 'fortunate' to live in a area where, well, chickens are enormous. Now, these birds are not certified 'organic' let alone 'free range', 'cruelty free' or any other indicator of humane nuturing that the Christ Child would approve of. At least that is my suspicion, because most 'production farming' in America is certainly not done in the public purview. I am a true hypocrite for thoroughly enjoying the fruits of this unholy labor.
The (in)famous Quarter-light, Rip's Tavern, Illinois
Take a look above. This is the signature dish of the Illinois Valley; the Quarter-light from Rip's Tavern in Ladd, IL. People wait in lines for nearly two hours to get their mitts around these beasts. They are double battered with an extremely crispy crust while the meat inside stays incredibly moist. That big ol' plate of yardbird with fries can be yours for under 6 bucks! Also note the 'side dish'. We call them 'crispies' and they are of course the small pieces of breading that fall through the baskets while the chicken pieces are taken from fryer to plate. They are free upon request. Regulars will also ask for some dill pickle slices with which they use to grab the piping hot crispies as if it were a taco or a piece of naan.
Would this be enough for you? Most likely it would. Not here, though. The entire menu at Rip's is the Quarter-light or the Quarter-dark. The crust is extremely enjoyable although it has a neutral flavor, really. So within the Valley of the Illinois River (home of the flying Asian carp), frybird innovation popped up.
Verucchi's Ristorante, Spring Valley, IL
Verucchi's, like Rip's and most of the others discussed today, was first started by Italian immigrants who were forced to make a living after the underground coal mines closed in the mid-1900s. What you see above is actually my favorite chicken in the area. The crust is a tad denser yet crunchier, I suspect due to a difference in the flour used in battering. It is also seasoned with garlic, oregano, and other spices. You may also note the side dish of pasta in the upper left corner. That tells the Illinois Valley consumer that this is 'Family Style' chicken.
Mona's and Capponi's, Toluca, IL
Mona's and Capponi's, Toluca, Illinois
Another fine example of Chicken Family Style can be found at Mona's and Capponi's of Toluca, IL. Back when families actually loved one another, they would gather at these places and in the spirit of togetherness and efficiency, the meal would be brought on platters to be shared. Typically this would include the chicken, bread, potato dish (typically fries or wedges, whoever I was eating with had rice this day), and pasta. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to get the whole family to agree on what to eat, provided you were actually able to bring them together at all. But the 'family' style lives on, simply by tacking on a side of pasta to the individual fried chicken dinner you already had and most likely weren't going to be able to finish, anyway. 'Murrica!
Sip and Snack, Mendota, IL
Sip and Snack, Mendota, Illinois
My hometown chicken joint offers a twist. Some of us might want chicken. Some might want pizza, instead. Instead? Nah, 'instead' introduces a strain of indecision that we've done away with. So you can get both! The Sip chicken is a double-breaded affair, and although I prefer Rip's or certainly Verucchi's...I love the greasy Sip pizza! Compromise! Brings more happiness!
Candlelight Inn, Sterling, IL
Candlelight Inn, Illinois
We conclude our article on the big barnyard pimp with the Chicken George with Jan's Sauce, originated at the Candlelight Inn, with three convenient area locations to serve you. Readers may recall my mention of the sauce from our night out.
Perhaps my all-time favorite sketch involving the Three Wise Men was the breakfast meeting in the 'offices of Peugeot', where the great mustachioed minds got together to decide to make crap cars out of 'spit-and-kleenex'. Having sat in many, many of these pitch meetings myself, whenever I come across an utterly bewildering product I instantly wonder what they were about? Like, how the hell did Salad Cream come to be? Or Miracle Whip? Guy Fieri's Donkey Sauce?
Now put yourself in the comfy sensi shoes of our Jan, on THE day in the early 1970s. The day when she decided that the best flavor profile to provide alongside her gigantic planks of deep fried chicken breast meat was: like cake frosting, only with a bit of tang. And thus, with a whip of a wrist to blend the mayo, vinegar, and powdered sugar, a local legend arose!