It’s the closest thing I can find to my grandma’s fried chicken, and that means more than a tasty drumstick. I remember warm summer evenings playing on the backyard swing set with my cousins, then hearing grandma yell from the back porch that it’s “T-iiiiiiiiiii-me for dinner!”. We would hustle inside and place our little bodies in the big wooden chairs of grandma’s dining room table. Steam rolling off the big bowl of mashed potatoes, a hot-pad sitting under the pot of dark green beans fresh out of the garden. Grandpa was always served first, then the big plate of golden-brown chicken was heading my way.
The chairs at Stroud’s are heavy wood and the potatoes – creamy blonde just like grandma’s – come to the table piled high and piping hot. But the reason the crowds have been visiting this landmark log cabin for 30 years is the beautiful, pan-fried chicken that arrives at your table on a big platter crisped to perfection. It’s some of the most pristine chicken I’ve seen, and among the juiciest.
A supper of fried chicken at grandma’s was one of my favorite meals with the family. I was always fascinated to watch grandma take the whole chicken, wash it in the kitchen sink and piece it, part by part. Often perched up on the counter with little legs dangling, I watched as the old metal pie pan was filled with flour, salt and pepper – the same batter used at Stroud’s. Then each part was dredged through the mixture, shaken well and placed next to the stovetop, ready for the big frying pan. She would tell me stories of being a girl and helping catch a hen from the family’s barnyard followed by all that was involved in getting one bird ready to cook back then. I thought the process I had observed of her working over a store-bought chicken, preparing the seasoned flour, and running it through the short assembly line on her counter was more work that I wanted to put in. But she learned to cook in a time and place without shortcuts, where the labor surrounding such a meal was part of the culture. It resulted in nourishment and a time of fellowship for the entire family.
It makes sense that Stroud’s would remind me of meals my grandmother made. That same culture is woven into the history of its Northland location. In fact, the homestead just off I-35 was the first home in Clay County with a working stove and, for years, served as the social center of the county with the family hosting dances during Civil War days and community gatherings for years to come.
Just pulling into the gravel drive of Stroud’s Northland location stirs up memories of days gone by. The crooked old house, a few outbuildings, and the little white chapel beside the pond make you think you’ve arrived at a place far from the hustle and bustle of Kansas City. And once you learn what goes on inside the kitchen, you find that you truly HAVE left the fast-food, quick-fix restaurants of today for a place where time seems to stand still.
Starting early in the day, huge pots of green beans simmer with ham hocks for 7 hours in the small kitchen. The chicken they serve arrives fresh, never frozen, each day. And my two favorite parts of the meal – the chicken noodle soup and the warm cinnamon rolls – are made from scratch. According to longtime manager Tammy Ruff, these small steps have a big impact and are just part of Stroud’s ways to provide customers a good meal in a homey atmosphere.
When you start talking numbers at Stroud’s, you quickly realize how popular the Northland staple remains and just how busy it really gets. If you’re preparing food in the quantity demanded at Stroud’s, you better have some quality control measures to keep it on track – and there’s no doubt they do. Cooks here train between 18 months and two years before taking charge of the pan-frying, and the kitchen has been managed by Chris McSorley ever since the Northland location opened in 1983. In fact, McSorley started washing dishes at Stroud’s original south location when he was just 15-years-old.
That kind of expertise and institutional knowledge is a must when you’re cooking up an average of 2000 chickens per week. On a weekend night, the stovetop in the kitchen runs 16 frying pans filled with chicken. I’m not talking about little sauté pans, these are heavy-duty, extra-large restaurant pans. Two bakers do nothing but make cinnamon rolls in order to put out the more than 1800 needed for service on a Saturday.
Asked what the secret is to such perfectly fried chicken, Ruff keeps her cooking tips simple. She says it’s just flour, salt, pepper and a lot of attention during frying. It’s probably the kind of attention grandma gave when making a big meal for her family.
Bringing back memories for people is something in which Stroud’s takes great pride. Comments like “We grew up on Stroud’s mashed potatoes” or “my family has dined here for generations” are pretty common inside the old log cabin. And if the last 30 years are any indication, it seems Stroud’s will be feeding Northland families for many generations to come.