|Ain't nobody in Maryland but us chickens.
As a Detroit transplant, I’ve come to embrace many of my adopted home’s delicacies. I’m always down for shawarma from any of the numerous local Middle Eastern restaurants. If I don’t have at least one Greek salad and/or omelette at one of the many independent “Coney Island” diners around the city it throws off my whole week. I’ll occasionally enjoy a nice square Detroit style pan pizza with the sauce on top of the cheese, though that’s something I typically have to be in the mood for. Simultaneously, my Kentucky upbringing, has biased me against other local foods. I’m not a massive fan of Detroit Coney dogs, which come smothered in a thick meaty sauce, not dissimilar from chili, topped with mustard and minced onions. Instead I prefer my Greek-influenced chili dog in the Cincinnati style with a thinner chili sauce with a strong cinnamon flavor and a big pile of shredded cheddar. (Spaghetti with the same sauce and cheese, plus onions and beans is pretty good too.) The Cincinnati chili chain, Gold Star Chili, has long had a presence where I grew up in Central Kentucky, and their main competition, Skyline, has locations not too far away, as well as a line of grocery items. I’ll enjoy the occasional Detroit Coney, but the Cincinnati style ones are my preference, and probably always will be.
Vernor’s, a brand of ginger ale born in Detroit with a devoted following in southeast Michigan is another matter. I can’t stand the stuff. It has an excessive amount of carbonation and an odd metallic flavor. Maybe it’s a product of my youth drinking Ale8-1, Kentucky’s local ginger ale, or memories of an unpleasant childhood vacation in Northern Ohio where I fell ill and was force fed Vernor’s by my mother in an attempt to settle my churning gut. Either way, I flat out refuse to drink Vernor’s, or anything containing it, including the Boston Cooler, a mixture of Vernor’s ginger ale and vanilla ice cream, blended into an unholy float/milkshake abomination. No one knows why it’s called a Boston Cooler, as it originated in Detroit and is virtually unknown outside of the Detroit area, including Boston, where locals have no idea what a Boston Cooler is.
This phenomenon isn’t unusual in the food world. Hawaiian pizza was invented in Canada. German chocolate cake isn’t from Germany. (It’s named for its creator, a British-American chef named Sam German.) I was therefore unsurprised when I learned that the chain, Maryland Fried Chicken, originated in, you guessed it, Florida.
It was the early sixties in Orlando when restaurateur Albert Constantine saw early Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises opening nearby and noted their popularity. In response, he developed his own pressure fried chicken and signature seasoning blend with 21 herbs and spices, because if you’re going to imitate Colonel Sanders, you’ve got to outdo him with regard to the number of spices in your signature recipe. When it came time to pick a name for the restaurant chain that would sell his chicken, Constantine settled on Maryland Fried Chicken, in an attempt to attract workers in a nearby aircraft plant, many of whom had moved to Florida from Baltimore. His plan worked, and Maryland Fried Chicken was an overnight hit in Orlando.
Franchising grew MFC into a relatively expansive chain by the time Constantine cashed out in 1975. I can’t find a location count of the chain at its peak, but the Florida chain at one time had locations as far away as Pennsylvania, and presumably Maryland at some point. Some unknown hardship brought about the chain’s decline, resulting in locations outside of the core market closing. Today, around twenty MFC locations are open in Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia. They seem to be loosely affiliated, connected by little more than name these days, with different owners operating their own websites and Facebook pages. Most surviving locations use the same decades-old signs or modern imitations thereof, remnants of an era when franchisees had more support from a corporate entity.
Weirdly, the lone surviving Maryland Fried Chicken outside of the south is open for business in Imlay City, Michigan, over 800 miles from the next nearest MFC in Florence, South Carolina. With the final vestige of MFC’s northern presence so close to me, I couldn’t resist making the 90 minute drive up to Imlay City to check it out.
|The Imlay City location bears the surname of (presumably) the original franchisee, and plays it fast and loose with the word "fried."
|That confusing drive thru sign makes more sense when you're there. I promise.
I arrived a few minutes before the restaurant’s 11 AM opening time, despite a stop a few miles south to get a picture of a billboard advertising the Imlay City MFC. I take a minute to appreciate the small, house-like building that houses the business, as well as a few curiosities in the parking lot. There’s the rectangular main sign that contains the chain's signature yellow chicken characters over a red backdrop with a convex top edge, meant to evoke the shape earlier MFC signs, a few of which are still standing down south. There’s also a photo opportunity in the form of a larger than life image of the same chicken characters with holes for you, your children, and your elderly relatives to stick their heads through for a whimsical family photo. My favorite feature of the grounds, though, was the drive thru sign affixed to a living tree, which really sold the rustic vibe of the place.
|Chicken joint or grandma's house?
|Fun for the whole family.
|Drive thru's over yonder, y'all!
I walked in, the first customer of the day, and ordered a three piece mixed fried chicken meal from one of the two women who were running the place. I picked homemade chips and coleslaw as my sides. As I sat down and awaited my order, I heard the telltale high frequency whirring of some esoteric commercial appliance freshly spiral cutting the potatoes that would become my chips. With a few minutes before my order came up, I looked around.
|I kind of want to go back, and just order all of the sides.
|Basically the entire dining area.
|It was necessary to eat most of the chips to allow for optimal chicken access.
|With the chips out of the way, it was chicken time.
As I finished up my meal and gave the place a last look. I was glad to have experienced it. As the final location of the chain’s ill-fated northern expansion, the Imlay City Maryland Fried Chicken is a unique site in the local fast food landscape. While I’m often biased against out of state analogs of the food I grew up with in Kentucky, I feel no such bias against Michigan’s only location of the Florida-based chain that sells chicken allegedly related Maryland. I can honestly say that I prefer the experience and food at Maryland Fried Chicken to that of my local KFC. Then again, my dirty secret is that as a person from Kentucky, I generally prefer Popeye’s To KFC, so my preference of Albert Constantine’s chicken over Harland Sanders' chicken shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.