For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013."
Whenever the following tweet appears – as it does roughly monthly during the traditional school year in Milwaukee ...
What's for lunch today? Mock Chicken leg, mashed potatoes & gravy, mixed vegetables, roll, grapes and milk. — Milwaukee MPS (@MilwaukeeMPS) September 12, 2013
.. a flurry of quippy replies follows. Recently, some folks on Twitter even changed their profile image to a shot of the much-maligned, but also much-beloved mock chicken leg.
Though the idea of a breaded, formed faux leg of poultry – made of pork – might seem initially shady and off-putting, Milwaukee Public Schools’ spokesman Tony Tagliavia confirms what I’ve always suspected – based on anecdotal evidence – to be true.
"The Mock Chicken Leg continues to be the overall No. 1 favorite entrée item on our menu," he told me via email recently.
The entree is served with mashed potatoes and gravy, fruit (typically grapes or apples), either a salad or mixed vegetables, a roll and milk.
When I asked my child do an informal survey of the kids at his MPS lunchroom table one day, he couldn’t find any kids in his group of friends that had tried it. That perhaps backs the assertion made by former MPS media queen Roseann St. Aubin.
"It had always been popular while I was with MPS," St. Aubin wrote to me, "but more so in the memories of former students and staff."
OnMilwaukee.com's own Lindsay Garric has also weighed in on the dish.
I asked my MPS-related Facebook friends – former students, current parents, teachers and principals – for their thoughts on the mock chicken leg and the responses flew in, and ran the gamut.
"I hated it as food but love it as a memory/reference," wrote Adam Carr, a well-known media and writing freelancer, who attended a number of MPS schools, including Golda Meir, French Immersion, Morse Middle School and Rufus King.
"Loved mock chicken leg," enthused recent King grad Lauren Saindon.
"The mock chicken leg was the ultimate in school lunch deliciousness," said public relations professional Brenna Kriviskey Sadler, who attended district schools in the 1970s and ‘80s. "If they were serving it with the freshly baked peanut butter cake, it was a very good day at school."
And the mock chicken leg apparently has quite a long history in Milwaukee’s school cafeterias.
"The ‘traditional’ MPS mock chicken leg was one of the favorite lunch menus from the late ‘60s," wrote veteran educator and principal Dan Donder. "Everyone, students, teachers and staff loved the mock chicken leg lunch. I remember my last days teaching in the 1980s and it still was the lunch everyone loved."
I was surprised – not unpleasantly so – to see at least two school leaders I highly respect express their unmitigated love for the mock chicken leg.
"Love it!!!!," said MacDowell Montessori’s Andrea Corona, who was seconded, if not explicitly outdone by Tina Owen, lead teacher at The Alliance School.
"It was my favorite before I learned I had a gluten allergy," she wrote. "I would organize official Mock Chicken Leg Day celebrations and everyone would dress up and I would play ‘The Chicken Dance’ in the lunch line. Happy days for sure. It's still the most popular lunch. We always have to order extra that day."
Numerous former students expressed their passion for this most curious of dishes.
Perhaps local musician Clancy Carroll summed it up best, however, when he posted, "This former student loved / hated them."
Some parents said they wouldn’t permit their children to eat the hot entrees like mock chicken leg.
"I don't want my kids to eat anything with the word ‘mock’ in it," said Susie Pringle. "Yuck."
"I remember loving the hell outta those things," said musician Chris Tischler, an MPS alum. "If you gave me one now, however, I'd probably hurl on sight."
The responses included no shortage of guesses about what constitutes – in a literal sense – a mock chicken leg – which, by the way, is not a uniquely Milwaukee phenomenon. I recall them in school lunch cafeterias in New York City and a Google search returns results that show the mock chicken leg is available most everywhere. Mock chicken leg is also available in many grocery stores, including Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, according to one commenter.
Some were afraid to venture a guess about the dish’s ingredients. Others suggested it is a mix of poultry and pork, and perhaps a filler or binder like bread crumbs. One suggested it included, without elaboration, "goop." And a couple others noted that the leg has changed over the years.
"It has changed in that it was originally produced by a company that has since gone out of business and is now made by Advance Food Company," said Tagliavia. "And our oven-baked Mock Chicken Leg made by Advance is 100 percent lean pork."
"You can identify the MPS alumni at Outpost Natural Foods Co-op. They're the ones excitedly hovering at the meat cooler when it's Mock Chicken day," said Christina Ward, who has discussed the entree with her daughter, Ruadhan Ward, who graduated a couple years ago from Reagan High.
"Our lasting horror is the suspicion that it was the EXACT same batch. Made sometime during the 1960s and residing in deep freeze for all these years," she joked.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.