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May 30, 2008

The mysterious airline chicken breast



Deskmate Scott was asking me about airline chicken breasts, which he's seen recently on the menus of several Baltimore restaurants, including the new Clementine in Hamilton and Lucy's (formerly Maggie Moore's). Is it a trend?

Well, we all know the definition of trend is three. When I Googled airline chicken breast, the menu of Hull Street Blues popped up. ... 

Not only that, earlier this week I ate at Saute in Canton, and the cut was used in a daily special. How close to a trend are we getting here, folks? (If you can call something trendy that's been around since the '60s.)

Here's as official a description of an airline chicken breast as I could find for you. It's from Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council. In his e-mail to me he said:

It is a boneless breast portion with the first wing segment (the "drummette") attached. There is a rather detailed official description I could fax to you although I do not have it electronically. Please send me your fax number if you want to see that.  I also have a very recent book on "Culinary Arts" which says, "If the drummette is left on, chop off the end knuckle and push back the meat for a finished presentation."

This is also referred to as a "hotel cut" (especially by hotel chefs, obviously)...

I told him we probably didn't need a more detailed official description.

I wish I had a photo for you, but none of the ones I could find on Google images looked like anything.

There seem to be several explanations for the name.One is that part of the wing was left on the boneless breast to make the serving look bigger when airlines used to serve free meals on flights. (Yes, children, once upon a time you didn't have to buy $5 snack boxes to eat on an airplane.) 

Another is that the cut looks like it's about to take flight off the plate. This only works if you picture it as a whole breast with two drumettes attached. (I spell it with one "m," by the way. To each his own.)

(Photo of Clementine by Andre F. Chung) 


Posted by Elizabeth Large at 4:53 AM | | Comments (19)


I have never understood the concept of the need to eat in flight. Why wouldn't people dine prior to their trip? For one thing, the space is so cramped that it's more often than not that your seat companion pokes his/her elbow(s) into you while s/he is using the utensils. Secondly, the food is (was) palatable. The only exception to this was Midwest Airlines when, back in the day, all meals were served on china and with stainless steel utensils, not to mention complimentary red or white wine - and chocolate chip cookies baked in flight.

My first dinner at Chex Panisse was a grilled Guinea Hen breast of the cut you describe and this was in 1990. Not quite the sixties but along time ago anyway.
Speaking of Guinea Hens does anyone know of a local source for this delicious bird?

Mark - Springfield Farms in Sparks MD sells whole guinea fowl seasonally (fall and winter only). $6.75/lb. They are open Thursday through Sunday 10 to 5:30. They have a website. And I agree with you, the most delicious poultry out there.

I've seen these hotel cut chicken boobs recently on TV cooking shows. They're served skinless, and leaving on the drumette makes them look kinda deformed. They also look big, like upwards of a half pound. I haven't seen them in retail meat cases, but I can't imagine it would be difficult to duplicate for anyone who likes to cut up whole chickens.

It's also known as a statler cut. Dont know why. But thats what we called it at school. Just FYI, hah.

Rob, you've never understood the need to eat in flight? I take it, then, that you've never flown overseas or understood flying overseas, either? Here are a couple doozies I've taken in the past few years:

Washington Dulles to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - 24 hours

Baltimore to Sofia, Bulgaria - approx. 20 hours

Baltimore to Kauai, Hawaii - approx. 19 hours

So yes, I guess I could have eaten 1 meal in an entire day, but... I don't tend to do that!

Also, I should note that generally, ordering "specialty" meals has been my salvation - especially when airlines offer "Asian vegetarian" or some such option. The other diners poke their grey slabs of "chicken" and gaze at my veggie curry or stir fried combo with obvious jealousy...

Sean - You are absolutely correct in your assumption. I simply closed my mind toa transatlantic flights and only considered domestic flights. I should have remembered my own very first flight: Chicago to Rome, overnight. And thanks for the great tip about specialty meals.

I've flown overseas before, my longest was Dhahran Saudi Arabia to NYC. That was 13 hours. If I recall correctly though, we didn't get a meal.

I have a good friend whose brother used to be a pilot for the Saudi airlines. He once had to go back and stop people from cooking their in flight meal over an open fire in the aisle.

Yikes! Bring on those bags of peanuts!

Sean, you are so right about veggie meals. The sweet and sour tofu/veg concoction on a recent international flight (Budapest home to Dulles via Amsterdam, 17-ish hours) was so good I contacted the airline to see if they'd give me the recipe. They would not.


You'll have better luck with pictures if you try "chicken supreme" in your search engine. It seems to be the same thing. Like this one ...

My guess is that the descriptor is an acknowledgment of the effort involved in creating them, a la supremes of orange or other citrus fruit. It takes a lot of cutting and trimming to get just the good parts out of the original package.

Piano Rob, back in the old days people expected to have a meal on board. In the early 80s I was a flight attendant at the original Frontier Airlines and we were known for our inflight service. It was as you described at Midwest: meals were served on china with stainless steel utensils and dinner flights came with a split of Mateus. This was true even for flights that were in the air for only an hour!

Then People Express took over the company and initiated the policy of selling meals & drinks on board, which we and our passengers loathed. Complaints rolled in and PE accused the FAL flight attendants of undermining their corporate philosophy. This was true: when passengers complained, we'd say something like "I agree, this is NOT the Frontier we know and love. Please write a letter".

We all believed PE ushered Frontier into bankruptcy, which probably isn't entirely true ... many airlines were struggling then due to deregulation of the airline industry. But FAL had very loyal employees and we were bitter watching the steady demise of our beloved company. Sob!!!

But to get back to food, most of FAL's meals were good and we had very few "turn downs". As we approached the back of the cabin with the food cart we'd be praying for a turn down so we could share the extra meal among ourselves! Alas, we usually had to run into the airport to buy a rubbery hot dog.

Ah, you've brought back poignant memories! Also, you've forced me to out myself as bordering on geezerhood .... thanks very much!

El -- A search for Statler Cut Chicken in Google Images turned up this picture of the cut, which bears an eerily familiar resemblance to countless banquet chicken dinners I've had over the years. Also, according to this Wikipedia entry, the cut originated at the Hotel Statler in Boston.

Nice find hmpstd, but the presentation needs a little work. I wouldn't put my name to that plate.

Skin -- judging from the Picasa web album of which that photo is a part, the dish was made by the photographer in a cooking class. I can't say that it looks that bad, being the work of a cooking class student -- but you might be more concerned about the fact that so many "professional" chicken dishes I've had look distressingly close to the cooking class result.

Carol in Hampden, we may complain about Geezerhood, but it sure beats the alternative.

I remember reading (I'm not that old) that the first flight attendants were nurses, who flew in full white uniform, to assure passengers that flying was safe and they shouldn't worry.

Bringing this back to food, in the '60s there were "food wars" among the airlines on flights from New York to Florida. One of the airlines even advertised "cooked to order" steaks. Once, in the late '60s, I upgraded to First Class on a flight from LA to Baltimore, and we were served prime rib, sliced to order from a roll-around cart.

Never heard of the airline chicken breast or seen one cut that way until this blog topic appeared last week.

But last night, I was served one at a dinner function downtown.

It looked slightly more interesting on the plate than a plain old chicken breast.

(But the sauce was odd - tasted exactly like a lemon life saver. And the chicken was pretty dry. They should ban chicken at these types of big dinners, it's usually pretty bad.)

Don't see the need to dine while in flight? All I can say to that is, obviously you have NOT flown first class, done.

When I flew as a child, we dressed up for the ride and always got a meal. The only exception I can recall is when big planes stopped flying into my airport and the connector flight became the norm. Got peanuts on short flight, meal on the other flight. I looked forward to it. Even when only flying halfway across the country, it could make for a very long trip when the connecting flight is considered. Shoot, even without the connecting flight,... Take travel time to get there, check in, wait to board, wait for luggage, etc... I very much appreciated the mail.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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