The Story Behind MPS’ Most Popular Mystery Meat
School cafeterias are notorious for dishing up some meals that cause kids to groan, or even pack a bagged lunch, to avoid the day's entree.
But one lunch menu item in Milwaukee Public Schools has been adored for generations – even though it might sound suspect.
What’s the big deal with “mock chicken leg?”
What is "mock chicken leg?"
The basics: Mock chicken leg is pork – or in some cases veal, or other meats – ground up, molded to resemble a drumstick, breaded and fried. It looks similar to the original McNugget, only bigger.
The recipe has roots in the Great Depression, when cooks looked for cheaper alternatives to chicken.
"I think for older people like myself, it tastes like childhood, and a really positive experience that I had in MPS." - Ryan Clancy
And, it’s been a staple in MPS cafeterias for years – more than 35 years, to be exact. That’s the statistic according to Barbara Rodriguez Graf, a supervising dietitian in the district’s Department of School Nutrition Services.
Early on, the product was made primarily of pork and veal. Today, the mock chicken leg served in MPS cafeterias is made of primarily pork and seasoning, along with a breading consisting of cornmeal, milk, a little bit of soy, and wheat.
From a nutritional standpoint, Rodriguez Graf says the mock chicken leg meets all the guidelines set forth in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meal pattern requirements.
Mock chicken leg appears on the lunch menu across district schools every four weeks – and always on a Thursday, which also happens to be a mashed potatoes and gravy day. Usually on that day, anywhere from 800 to 1000 additional meals are served across the district – and many of those happen to be adults!
“That’s a testimony to the fact that people who went to school here as kids, still love that mock chicken leg!” laughs Rodriguez Graf, who started working for MPS in 1989. “We have people who graduated many years ago – in their 50’s and 60’s – who still ask us if we’re serving [it]. And it’s still a very popular, favorite item for our students and our staff.”
MPS alum Shawna Patawaran fondly remembers eating the dish throughout her time in the district, 20 years ago.
“Growing up it was just one of my favorite lunches!” she recalls. “I loved the taste and the texture of the mock chicken part itself.”
And it takes her back.
“I can remember being in the cafeteria in fifth grade -- I can remember what it looked like, what it felt like, what it sounded like,” she reminisces.
Reimagining a Cafeteria Classic
Shawna Padawaran is not alone in her fond memories.
If you Google search “MPS mock chicken leg,” you might be shocked at how many hits pop up. This entrée is more than just an MPS staple; it’s also an MPS favorite.
So much so, that it’s inspired recreations – like the “mock chicken leg pizza” that now graces the menu at Bounce Milwaukee, a locally-owned arcade and indoor trampoline park.
Bounce started serving the pizza this month. Owners Ryan and Becky Cooper Clancy – a husband and wife duo -- say it's been a big hit.
Their culinary creation is an homage to Ryan’s love for his former district -- he used to teach in MPS.
“I thought I was a fairly good teacher, as far as teachers go, [but] there was nothing I could do to compete with the admiration and awe inspired by mock chicken leg day!” Ryan chuckles. “Teachers like it, kids like it. It’s almost universally admired -- except for people that, you know, are watching their sodium, or have a basic understanding of health!”
In doing some research, Ryan has found that a few other districts around the country boast their own version of mock chicken leg on school lunch menus. But as far as he knows, within Wisconsin and Milwaukee, MPS is the rare purveyor.
“It’s kind of a badge of pride for MPS grads and staff,” he adds.
Becky, a New York native, had never heard of mock chicken leg until moving to Milwaukee and meeting Ryan. She declares that she’ll brave the unknown, and try the dish today.
Before taking the plunge, Ryan warns: the mock chicken leg will taste like “joy and sodium.”
What's the secret ingredient?
For Ryan Clancy, the dish is all about nostalgia.
“I think for older people like myself, it tastes like childhood, and a really positive experience that I had in MPS,” he says.
“It becomes sort of a cult thing,” adds Becky Cooper-Clancy – now a mock chicken leg convert. “There is this sort of, ‘This is our thing’, and it makes it well-loved for that reason.”
RECIPE LINK: Make your own Mock Chicken Legs at home
As for MPS dietitian Barbara Rodriguez Graf, she opines that kids like the dish so much because – along with the combination of high-quality pork and seasoning -- the way it’s cooked is bar none.
“It’s prepared with love! That’s the secret ingredient,” she says. “A lot of our kids, they’ll be in the system throughout their twelve years, and then they’ll graduate -- they might not remember every teacher’s name, but they’ll remember their food service manager.”
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