Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Chicken Cutlet Country

Years ago, a big reason for traveling was to try regional foods (here's a very partial list). You wouldn't miss goulash in Toledo, or green chilis in New Mexico, or spoon bread in the Deep South, or barbecue in Texas.

Regional dishes weren't always unique to the region. For example, Manhattan was all about oysters - at least until New York Harbor's oyster beds died due to pollution. Oysters were served in many other places, but Manhattanites made a celebration of them. You could depend on high quality and freshness. To this day, Manhattan oyster houses usually adopt an old-timey, turn-of-the-20th-century look. Whether they realize it or not, they're linking to a long tradition.

I may be the last surviving person to realize this, but the regional specialty in the lower Hudson Valley is chicken cutlets.

No, really. If you read food guides from the 1950s and 1960s, you'll see mention of this very old tradition, which was fading even back then. Chicken cutlets have always been found everywhere, but folks there made a celebration of them.

I enjoy spotting echoes of dying cultures and watching people act without awareness of the ghostly traditions forcing their hands. The delis in towns just north of White Plains to this day feature their chicken cutlets, without quite understanding why. I haven't seen hard stats, but I'd bet they move more cutlets, day after day, than similar delis in Stamford or Yonkers. Chicken cutlets still have some residual juju!

The other day I lined up to order at Rocky’s Millwood Deli. The place has a lot of pride despite modest ambitions, and the glue holding it all together is Rocky's chicken cutlets. Nine of their twenty "named" sandwiches are chicken cutlet-based, and cutlets are prepared throughout the day, so they're often hot and fresh (unless you go super late - Rocky's is open 24 hours). Like Montreal bagels or Vermont cider doughnuts, "always-hot-and-fresh" is is a sure-fire sign of a regional food....even long after the region itself has forgotten.

Like a particularly high bank of shoveled snow persisting well into Spring, Rocky is the final holdout, not completely melted. They're unaware of their link to a wider tradition, but I feel privileged to know.

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