Updated: Mar 17, 2021
This Wednesday’s great road-trip food comes from the outskirts of Pittsburg, Kansas (pop. 20,178)
The night manager at the Comfort Inn in Pittsburg, Kansas was completely unfazed by my request.
“Please complete this sentence for me,” I asked him. “When I visited Pittsburg, Kansas, I was soooo glad that I ate dinner at ….. where?”
“Well, there’s actually two places I’d recommend,” he said without even thinking about it. “That is, if you like chicken.”
This sounded too good to be true on an evening that began with a view of a spectacular sunset.
“That sounds great, thanks!” I said. “But what’s the difference? Which one would you choose?”
“Well, that depends on what you like,” he said. I had the impression he genuinely liked them both. “Annie’s is more German, more European, so it has maybe more vinegar and a sharper taste. Mary’s is more American, with a sweeter taste.”
When I asked him how to get there, he paused and smiled.
“You’re gonna think I’m pulling your leg or trying to get you kidnapped or something when I tell you this, but here’s what you gotta do.” And then he explained what sounded like simple but somewhat spooky directions. Turn left from the hotel. Go down until you see the huge sign for Chicken Annie’s. Turn right. Go down a two-lane, unlit country road for 3 ½ miles. Chicken Annie’s will be on your right, Chicken Mary’s on the left.
Processing a difficult but rewarding day
The promising dinner would be a welcome opportunity to process the day’s work. Earlier that Saturday, I had completed my first day as a disaster relief volunteer in Joplin, Missouri, a few weeks after one of the deadliest and strongest tornadoes in US history carved a long, wide gash of devastation through the city’s south side and beyond. The team I had joined that Saturday in early July 2011 cleaned up the ruins of a single-family home.
The daytime temperature hovered around 100 degrees, but the effective temperature was even higher thanks to the humidity, the lack of shade (the storm had uprooted most of the trees in the neighborhood), and the obligation to wear N95 masks. The picture below shows the lot across the street, with the ruin of the St. John’s Regional Medical Center visible in the distance, left of center, over a mile away.
When I’d returned to the Comfort Inn, I showered and then fell into a very deep sleep for a few hours.
The game of chicken
The night manager’s directions to Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s were flawless, as were his hints about the scenery.
When I headed out, the sky – which seems so much more vast in the Midwest than on the East Coast – was entering that eerie transition phase between sunset and darkness. The few houses along the way seemed dark and empty. A freight train’s whistle howled in the far distance. A couple of canine-looking animals ran across the road. Were they wolves? Foxes? Coyotes? Hmm ….
Finally, on the right side, the dimly lit sign for Chicken Annie’s became visible.
I arrived just a few minutes before their official closing time, but this is Kansas. They let me in and offered me a table with no sense of urgency or pressure whatsoever.
The dining room looks like you might expect a simple German restaurant to look: dark wood paneling all around, soft lighting, perfectly arranged rows of tables covered with neat, smooth tablecloths. If you take a close look at the white curtains on the windows, you’ll notice that the red and yellow trim at the bottom is actually a row of little chickens.
The menu is also simple: fried chicken broken down by the type (white/dark) and the number of pieces you want; side dishes; and a choice of gizzards, livers, or hearts. For some reason I had expected rotisserie chicken on the menu, and was pleasantly surprised to see fried chicken instead.
I ordered a three-piece dark with mashed potatoes, and asked about how large the portions of gizzards and livers would be.
“It’s pretty big,” the waitress said. “Some people even order it as a meal.”
We compromised. She would change my order to a four-piece, but make the fourth piece a smaller portion of gizzards and livers.
When they brought out my dinner – a spread I could never ever finish in one sitting – they also brought a cake to the next table, where the only other guests in the restaurant dined. The whole staff gathered around and sang “Happy Birthday” to a pair of teenage kids and then, to the same tune, sang “Happy Anniversary” to a couple who appeared to be their grandparents. Reflexively I joined in.
You can taste the tradition
As I learned from countless trips to Harold's Chicken Shacks in Chicago, you judge great fried chicken not on how well it conforms to some standard, but on how boldly it stands out. I’m sure Chicken Annie’s bold and extraordinarily unique taste helps explain why it and its rival across the street have stayed in business continuously for over 150 years combined. I indulged in the juicy meat, crispy skin, and the delicious sides as long as I could, and then the waitress packed up the rest.
The family and I left at the same time. I congratulated the grandparents again on their anniversary, and the grandfather proudly said “63 years!”. Those were the only words I recall him saying the whole evening. His wife looked at him and smiled.
As I drove off with the windows open, they were still heading to their cars. They yelled “Good night!” and waved a very genuine goodbye.
I made a left out of the parking lot, and took one look down the desolate road which disappeared into the dark horizon.
At that time, I had no idea that I would return to Joplin at least once a year, every year, since that day in 2011. In May 2012, I took that same road during the day and saw no traces of the imaginary eeriness of the first night. To explore the other half of those 150-plus years of fried chicken tradition, I went across the street and enjoyed a wonderful lunch at Chicken Mary’s. That is definitely a story for another day!
[This post is adapted from Frank Luby’s latest book project, which will explore his experiences as a disaster relief volunteer in Joplin, Missouri and in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as in other places around the country.]
Frank has road-tripped for over 25,000 miles in the United States. He keeps going despite all those miles, because he knows he has still only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer.