Barberton Ohio Serbian-American Fried Chicken

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Recently, I find out about another immigrant food, Barberton Fried Chicken, that has sustained northern Ohioans for over 80 years. My high school friend Natalie, who owns a farm just south of there in Canal Fulton, both of which are southwest of Akron, turned me on to this regional delicacy. It holds popular rank amongst our other beloved Ohio immigrant foods – Henry County Prettles, the pulled chicken sandwich, the Spanish Hot dog, Cincinnati goetta, Auglaize county German grits, Cincinnati Chili, the pierogi, the sauerkraut ball – the list goes on. Our Ohio immigrants have given us great gifts and helped build our strong economy.

Nashville has its hot chicken, and the South certainly has its variety of fried chicken. But even John Edge, the prolific writer of Southern food as editor at Garden & Gun, host of the TV show TrueSouth, and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, thinks there’s something special about Barberton Fried Chicken. It doesn’t need 11 secret herbs and spices like Kentucky Fried, or only 8 count (both sides of breast, wings, thighs, drumsticks). It has a dipping sauce and two sides that come with.

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A former Barberton native, Ronald Koltnow, has recently written a book about it, Barberton Fried Chicken: An Ohio Original, with my publisher History Press, and I’m dying to read it! His grandparents were Ukranian Jews who immigrated for factory jobs to the industrial Midwest. Even they went off Kosher (Barberton chicken is fried in lard) to regularly eat the super delicious Serbian-American fried chicken.

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Barberton fried chicken is always fresh, never frozen, and cooked to order, so expect to wait. Its breading is not spiced, but fried to red-golden crispiness in lard. The spice comes from the dipping sauce, called djuvece, which consists of tomato, rice, and Hungarian hot peppers. The current owners say the original dipping sauce was a lot hotter, but it’s been toned down over the years to suit tastes. It sounds more like a dirty rice, but it’s more of a relish, and some customers prefer to dip their French fries or fried potatoes in the rice. Either way, the rice was added as a cheap filler, again in the Depression era waste-not culture. The second side its always served with is a sweet, vinegary cole slaw called kupus salata.

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Barberton’s Fried Chicken hot dipping sauce, known as djuvece in Serbia.

The interesting thing to me is that there is a connection to our Cincinnati Chili. Barberton fried chicken started in 1933 at the farmhouse restaurant, Belgrade Gardens, of Serbian immigrants Manjolo “Mike” and Smilka Topalsky. Both had immigrated with their families to Barberton around 1905 from the area of Belgrade, in then Yugoslavia. The current Serbian province abuts the current state of Macedonia near where our Cincinnati Chili pioneers hailed. Although they spoke different languages – the Serbians spoke Slovenian according to the census, and the Cincinnati Chili pioneers spoke Macedonian / Bulgarian.   But the bottom line is that they would have shared cultures, especially food, since they were all under the Turkish Ottoman empire before the Balkan wars. If the Kiradjieffs were a bit further north, they’d have been Kiradjskis, if the Topalskys would have been a bit south they’d have been Topaloffs.

The Barberton Serbian community centers around the Saints Peter and Paul Serbian Orthodox Church, like our Cincinnati Chili pioneers lives centered around the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Oddly enough, before serving the Barberton Fried Chicken at their restaurant, Smilka Topalsky served chili. It would be interesting to see if the recipe had spices similar to our Cincinnati Chili with the cinnamon-y Turkish Baharat spice blend.

Its food of necessity of the Depression. So, Milka cut the chicken into six instead of our current four piece cuts – dividing the drum into leg and drummettes, and adding the usually discarded “back”, which is actually the ribs. The back was John Edge’s fave. He took a bucket home on the plane back to Mississippi to write about it.

Soon, the Barberton community opened up other chicken houses. Helen DeVore, who worked at Belgrade Gardens, opend Hopocan Gardens in 1946. The Pavkov family opened White House in 1950. In 1955 the Milich family opened Milich’s Village Inn.

The Food Network and other foodies have made the pilgrimage to Barberton and given it national renown. Today there are four Barberton Chicken houses that can be visited to taste this delicious Ohio immigrant food. I know a summer road trip that I’ll be taking this year!

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