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Special Travel Issue | Kansas

Chicken Run

Crisscrossing Kansas to Sample the State's Legendary Dinners

October 12, 2003|Cynthia Mines | Cynthia Mines is editor of the Wichita Times in Kansas.

Every once in a while, the word about our fried chicken slips out, as when Calvin Trillin wrote about chicken wars between two legendary cooks in Crawford County, Kan. Or the authors of "Roadfood" proclaimed Stroud's in Kansas City, Mo., to have the best fried chicken in America. Or last year, when American Airlines' magazine singled out Stroud's and the Chicken House in Olpe, Kan., as two of the country's top six chicken restaurants.

Thanks to Kansans' generally humble nature, this talent has remained mostly secret, covered up as neatly as the basket Dorothy carried to Oz and back. Many Americans credit the South for fried chicken, although it dates to ancient times. The phrase "Southern fried" didn't appear in print until 1925, according to "The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink"--more than half a century after Hays House and the Brookville Hotel, both in Kansas, started frying chickens for travelers on the Santa Fe and Chisholm trails.

The fried chicken dinner is so ingrained in Kansas culture that debating the virtues of various eateries is popular sport. Discussions start with frying methods (purists insist on cast-iron skillets), but the debate inevitably moves to side dishes. My family has celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with fried chicken at the Brookville Hotel since I was 9. I have a slight preference for Brookville chicken, but I'll concede that the mashed potatoes at Stroud's are superior. On the other hand, Brookville's coleslaw is delectable. It depends on my mood whether I prefer the cinnamon rolls at Stroud's or Brookville's biscuits.

As for decor, if you want waitresses in white aprons, food on Blue Willow china and genteel dining rooms, choose Brookville. If you're in a roadhouse mood, opt for Stroud's, where the staff's T-shirts proclaim: "We Choke Our Own Chickens."

Though I come from a long line of farm women, I did not inherit their cooking talent, so I seek my guilty pleasure in public places. This summer I crisscrossed the state in search of the ultimate chicken dinner. Although I've lived in Kansas for four decades, I hadn't explored many of its back roads and historical sites.

The Napa Valley has wine tours. Kentucky has a bourbon route. I was on the Kansas chicken trail.

I began with pilgrimages from my home in Wichita, in south-central Kansas, to the sources of the Stroud's versus Brookville debate. Though I'd eaten often at the Stroud's in my hometown since it opened a decade ago, I headed 180 miles northeast and sneaked over the Kansas border to where Helen Stroud first started feeding guests in Kansas City, Mo., in 1933. Accolades heaped on her little roadhouse include the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for regional cuisine.

The lines form early at Stroud's, so I arrived at 4:30 p.m. By the time I finished my Boulevard Pale Ale from a local brewery, the place was nearly full.

To my mind, mashed potatoes are the proper accompaniment to fried chicken, but the platters of cottage fries caught my eye. All dinners come with salad or homemade chicken noodle soup; I chose the salad only because it was a sweltering July day. The chicken was pan-fried to perfection.

I spent the night at the White Haven Motor Lodge in Overland Park, a suburb on the Kansas side. It's a 1950s family-run motel, the kind with a pool in front and a "No Vacancy" sign that lights up at night. It was immaculate and the price was from bygone days: $47 for a single, and breakfast doughnuts cost a nickel.

The next day I headed 150 miles west on Interstate 70, the highway I hold responsible for much of the ridicule suffered by Kansas because it slices through the flattest, most boring part of the state. My destination was the Brookville Hotel, which stands just off the highway in Abilene, not the town of Brookville (population 226), 40 miles to the west. The fourth-generation owners faithfully re-created the hotel after it became apparent that Brookville's infrastructure could no longer support the hordes of diners flocking there. The menu has remained virtually the same since 1915, when Helen Martin added family-style fried chicken dinners: coleslaw, cottage cheese, bread-and-butter pickles, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, biscuits and vanilla ice cream (to which I always add a dollop of strawberry preserves).

There is no printed menu here, and soon after you're seated, a waitress appears, bearing a tray of salads and relishes. Then come the platters of chicken and bowls of corn and mashed potatoes, which she'll gladly refill. As always, it was delicious and comforting, to the stomach as well as the soul.

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