America’s ‘fried chicken war’

America’s ‘fried chicken war’

Located in the heart of the US’ Great Plains, the area around Pittsburg, Kansas, spreads out like one vast prairie. Here, the winds blow bitter cold in winter; the sun parches the soil in summer; and ranchers, farmers and folks from this 20,000-person community gather to watch Friday night football at the local high school. By all accounts, this former coal-mining town is pretty tranquil – that is, until the topic of fried chicken comes up.

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Over the past 80 years, this unassuming city has become one of the US’ fried chicken epicentres, and it all started when two women opened chicken joints 300ft apart on the same street – thus creating a local rivalry that still spits and simmers today. Four generations later, their descendants still use their grandmothers’ recipes to continue their legacies, and in many ways, who these women were and how their crispy birds got Pittsburg clucking speaks volumes about the heart and history of America’s Heartland.

The plains surrounding Pittsburg have always been home to large deposits of bituminous coal. These pitch-black rocks were once so abundant that they were found above ground. The Osage Native Americans who once lived here called it “black rocks that make fire”, and they traded it with white settlers.

The first miners arrived in 1866, just one year after the US Civil War ended. Digging deep shafts and breaking apart loads of coal was dangerous, back-breaking work. Soon, notices went out across Europe seeking immigrants to come work in Pittsburg and the surrounding Crawford County. At the height of coal production here in 1914, more than 12,000 miners and their families called Crawford County home, and this rural patch of roughly 55,000 people produced more than one third of the US’ coal.

One of the families who settled in the area was the Rehaks, who sailed over from Austria at the turn of the 20th Century, carrying their infant daughter, Annie. As a teenager, Annie married Charles Pichler. The couple had three children and bought a house in the shadow of the coal mine just outside Pittsburg where Charles worked.

In the middle of Charles’ shift one day in March 1933, the mine whistle blew four times, indicating that there had been an accident. Charles had been hit by a coal cart on the mine tracks. His right leg was amputated on site and his left leg was badly maimed. At the time, there was no such thing as workman’s compensation or disability insurance, and Annie was forced to provide for her family of five in the middle of the US’ Great Depression all alone.

Grandma never talked much about those times, but it had to have been tough

To keep her family from starving, Annie began selling ham and veal sandwiches for a few pennies to miners passing the front of her house. The men ate under the shade of the birch and maple trees outside the Pichlers’ little white house, not far from the outhouses, and drank Annie’s homemade hooch, which she sold for $0.25 for two quarts.

“Grandma never talked much about those times, but it had to have been tough,” said Anthony Pichler, Annie’s grandson. “But Grandma was tough too, and that’s why we’re here today.”

In 1934, looking for a way to grow her business and noting all the free-range chickens in her front yard, Annie started selling fried chicken dinners. She’d wring the birds’ necks, quickly clean and cut them into pieces and fry them on a coal-heated stove in her tiny kitchen. On Saturdays, Annie would move the furniture from the family’s living room and set up a few tables for diners in their tiny home. She also prepared potato salad, coleslaw, pickled peppers and sliced tomatoes from her garden as sides, and rounded the meals out with a slice of white bread. Sometimes, diners would stay and end up dancing until the wee hours of the morning.

One day not long after Annie started her business, a local doctor and fan of Annie’s cooking suggested she name her homespun business “Chicken Annie’s”. The name has stuck like grease on a pan ever since.

Sometimes, diners would stay and end up dancing until the wee hours of the morning

In 1941, a pair of German immigrants, Joe and Mary Zerngast, lived a few doors down from the Pichlers. Joe worked the mines as a “shot-firer”, meaning he was the guy who would go deep inside, light the dynamite and run out – hopefully before it exploded. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the mines, and after 20 years, “black lung” (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) cut his career short, leaving Mary to provide for the family.

The Zerngasts also had chickens clucking around in their front yard, a big cast-iron skillet and a coal-fired stove. And like Annie, Mary was a pretty good cook, too. So, just as the Pichlers had done, the Zerngasts cleared out the furniture in their little living room, set up tables and began selling fried chicken dinners with potato salad and coleslaw.

Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s quickly developed a friendly rivalry, with locals in this tight-knit community having to pick a side

“I needed to survive,” Larry Zerngast, Mary’s grandson, recalled Mary telling the family.

At first, the Zerngasts called their little place, “Joe and Mary’s”. They had a jukebox in the living room and, just like at Annie’s, people often danced until the early morning. If locals under the influence arrived in the middle of the night craving fried chicken, they would often pound on the door, shouting, “Chicken, Mary! Chicken, Mary!”. Mary would open the door, fire up the coal stove and fry chicken until dawn – thus, Chicken Mary’s was born.

The Pichler’s and Zerngast’s little houses soon got so busy with dinners and dancing that the families had to move so they could devote their former homes solely to the restaurant business. Word continued to spread of the families’ mouth-watering, deep-fried birds after World War Two, and poultry pilgrims would drive hours across Kansas to dine at Annie’s or Mary’s – or sometimes, both. As more people flocked to eat at their venues in the 1960s and ‘70s, the ladies tore down their original houses and expanded again, building modern restaurants with commercial kitchens that could seat about 300 instead of 30.

“She always had a smile and would greet her guests by name,” said Donna Lipoglav, Annie’s granddaughter, who recalled that Annie’s waitresses always wore crisp white dresses and aprons. “She was very sweet and gentle, and no, I don’t think she would approve of my sweatshirt today.”

Despite having nearly identical recipes and side dishes, Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s quickly developed a friendly rivalry, with locals in this tight-knit community having to pick a side and be careful who saw them entering the door of which restaurant.

Lipoglav’s earliest memories are of working in the house with her grandmother, clearing tables and serving guests. Occasionally, Annie would ask her to ride her bike down the street to count the number of cars in Chicken Mary’s parking lot. “I think Grandma was alert as to what was going on,” Lipoglav said. “Our parking lot was always just as full as Mary’s.”

My Grandpa Joe always said, ‘Don’t turn your back on a Pichler, you can’t trust them!

In 1982, the Pichlers tried to rename the small street running in front of both establishments “Chicken Annie’s Road”. When the Zerngasts objected to that, the incident made national headlines with a tongue-in-cheek article in The New Yorker titled, “Fried-Chicken War”.

“My Grandpa Joe always said, ‘Don’t turn your back on a Pichler, you can’t trust them!’,” Donna Zerngast, Mary’s granddaughter, laughed.

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Today, Pittsburg’s first families of fried chicken are still at it, with Lipoglav running Chicken Annie’s Original, Larry Zerngast running Chicken Mary’s and Anthony Pichler running Pichler’s Chicken Annie’s alongside an unlikely co-owner: Donna Zerngast, who must not have listened to Grandpa Joe’s advice and has now been married to a Pichler for the last 54 years.

Other than the size of the buildings and the fact that they’re no longer wringing the chickens’ necks themselves, all three businesses still do everything just about the same way Annie and Mary did in the 1930s and ‘40s. Each still batters their birds, then coats them with flour and salt just minutes before frying them in lard. Chicken Mary’s uses egg and milk in the batter; whereas Chicken Annie’s Original and Pichler’s Chicken Annie’s uses just egg.

We have customers who just show up from all across the country because they’ve heard of us and the fried chicken in this part of Kansas

To this Midwesterner, the chicken at both Annie’s and Mary’s has a crisp, light crunch and a tender, juicy inside. But Pittsburg residents know the difference.

“You can put a plate of our chicken next to a plate of their chicken and locals will know which one is which,” said Lana Brooks, who has worked at Chicken Mary’s for 51 years and claims that both families use the same seasonings, just in different amounts. “I think the key to success in both restaurants is that we’re still doing things exactly as Mary and Annie did it. That’s part of the appeal to families who have been coming here their whole life. It’s a part of our community heritage.”

Over the years, Chicken Annie’s and Mary’s have inspired at least nine other homespun fried chicken joints in Crawford County. “We have very loyal customers, but every week, we have customers who just show up from all across the country because they’ve heard of us and the fried chicken in this part of Kansas,” said Missy Pichler, the fourth generation of Pichlers to work at Chicken Annie’s Original and whose teenage daughter also waits tables there.

Every few months, Steve and Melissa Pulis and their boys drive about two hours from Springfield, Missouri, to Pittsburg, eating at Chicken Mary’s on one trip and Chicken Annie’s the next.

“I like Annie’s chicken the best, but Steve likes Mary’s the best,” said Melissa. “But it’s the opposite with the coleslaw. I really like the extra garlic in Mary’s coleslaw. Steve disagrees.”

And that’s the way it goes in Crawford County. Families here are divided in a delicious brawl over fried chicken and the fixins.

Al Eshelbrenner grew up just north of Pittsburg and has been eating fried chicken dinners for nearly 60 years. While he admits that Chicken Mary’s is good, he insists that the difference lies in the seasoning. Today, he maintains his parents’ allegiance and now takes his grandchildren to Chicken Annie’s. “My folks would take us to Chicken Annie’s every Sunday and that’s just what I grew up with,” said Eshelbrenner. “People don’t really argue about it down here because we respect that everyone has their favourites, their family tradition.”

In fact, the Eshelbrenners are so devoted to Chicken Annie’s that they ask the restaurant to cater their family’s Christmas gatherings.

“I think it’s the potato salad and coleslaw that I crave the most,” said Kristian Walker, who was born and raised in Pittsburg but now lives in Harrisburg, PA. Although he no longer has family living in the area, he once drove five hours out of his way just so he could have a fried chicken dinner in Pittsburg.

“I’ve met people from across the country who, as soon as they learn I’m from Pittsburg, start asking me about my favourite fried chicken and telling about the times they’ve been able to eat [it],” he said. “We might not be world famous, but there are sure a lot of people around the world who know about the fried chicken of Crawford County, Kansas.”

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