For years I’ve been hearing about the legendary fried chicken dinners at the Brookville Hotel – which used to be in Brookville, Kansas, but moved in 1999 to the somewhat bigger city of Abilene. This year, the James Beard Foundation honored the Brookville as one of “America’s Classics.” It was time for a road trip.
Because Abilene is the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, and is the current home of the Eisenhower Library, the Eisenhower Museum and the rather humble whitewashed frame house where Ike grew up with his five brothers, it’s more of a tourist draw than nearby Brookville. It’s closer to the Interstate too.
The former Brookville Hotel dates back to 1894, but the tradition of serving family style chicken dinners in the hostelry’s dining room didn’t start until 1915. That’s when Helen Martin, the daughter of the original hotel’s owners, began frying up the bird and serving it with hot biscuits and sides.
The new Brookville Hotel (which isn’t a hotel anymore, although it’s conveniently located right next to a Holiday Inn Express) is still owned by members of the Martin family and was even designed to look like the original 19th Century building that’s still standing over in Brookville.
“There’s not much going on in Brookville these days,” confessed one of the desk clerks when I arrived at the Holiday Inn. “It’s, you know, a one-horse town.”
That makes Abilene… a two-horse town? A couple of antique stores, two saloons, a “Fashion Museum” (which was, unfortunately, closed while I was there) and the Greyhound Hall of Fame. And this hamlet does have a handful of impressive historic mansions and a couple of restaurants – in addition to the Brookville there’s the Kirby House – that have gotten lots of press over the years.
The Brookville’s devotees have even compared the chicken dinners here to Kansas City’s iconic Stroud’s. But unlike Stroud’s, the Brookville only serves fried chicken -- nothing else. The pre-fixe meal (a bargain at $12.95) includes one-half of a skillet-fried bird, mashed potatoes and chicken gravy, creamed corn, baking powder biscuits, a relish tray, cottage cheese, and sweet-and-sour cole slaw. And a scoop of ice cream for dessert.
Busloads of diners pile in over the weekends to enjoy the home-style fare, served on reproduction Blue Willow china.
“We served over 400 people just during the lunch shift today,” said our waitress, clad in a genteel blue-and-white outfit trimmed in white cotton with good sensible shoes.
That’s a lot of volume for any restaurant. It made me wonder how this venue’s kitchen could churn out so many meals in a short time. Did they have to cut corners?
Well, yes. But not too many. The little “relish plate” was cute: spiced apple rings, canned peaches and a jumble of bread-and-butter pickle slices. The Pennsylvania-style cole slaw was terrific (the secret ingredient seems to be whipping cream) and the fried chicken was excellent. Not as fine as Stroud’s, but plump and juicy under a light, crackly coating.
The only disappointment was the bowl of mashed potatoes. They were clearly made from some kind of mix. The gravy wasn’t Grandma’s either.
“Are these instant potatoes?” I whispered to the server.
She blushed. “I’ll confess, they are. But we add stuff to them to taste more like home-made. But with the volume we do, we would have to have a whole kitchen crew just devoted to making mashed potatoes.”
But I couldn’t get too upset. It was only a $13 dinner, and I’ve paid more than that in Kansas City for a hamburger, fries and a chocolate malt.
Cookbook author Lou Jane Temple, who grew up in nearby Junction City, says that mashed potatoes are only disappointing note if you care a lot about spuds, and she doesn’t. But my friend Bob does. He was equally scandalized by the creamed corn. “Why can’t they serve real corn like Stroud’s?” he whined. “Creamed corn ought to be against the law!”
Luckily for the hundreds of diners who flock to the Brookville Hotel, Kansas has not outlawed creamed corn yet. But stranger things have happened. – Charles Ferruzza