The story (and the secret magic) behind Barberton Chicken

Catherine Messner pulls a thigh from the fryer. She folds it into a paper towel and presses with a firm palm. “If there’s blood,” she says over her shoulder, “then you know it’s not done.”

(photo: Shane Wynn)

Messner slides a thermometer through the center of the thigh, just in case. She’s worked in Belgrade Gardens’ kitchen for nearly six years. A relative newcomer, Messner says it wasn’t hard to learn. “I had good teachers,” she says. “It really is like a family here.”

Across the kitchen, Rosanada Idanis moves between stovetops like muscle memory. A Serbian immigrant herself, Idanis has helmed the kitchen at Belgrade Gardens for almost 20 years. Today, she shuffles between several Serbian dishes—dumplings; chicken paprikash; and ćevapčići, a caseless sausage commonly served in the Balkans.

Out front, a portrait of Smiljana and Manojlo Topalsky hangs behind the counter. A few dozen ceramic roosters line a glass display case beneath the register. From a pink vinyl booth, deep in the maze of Belgrade Gardens’ dining rooms, Milos Papich tells the story of his forbearers.

“I grew up in the business,” says Papich. “I never did anything but work for my parents. For me, it’s a labor of love.”

Papich is the inheritor of a legacy that dates back to the Great Depression. After losing their dairy farm, his grandparents—the Topalskys—served soups and sandwiches out of their farmhouse kitchen, bringing in just enough to lease the house from its new owner.

One evening, while Smiljana made dinner, a customer asked to sample her home cooking. “She was frying on the kerosene stove,” Papich says. “The fried chicken, the homemade fried potatoes, the hot sauce, and the coleslaw.” The customer fell in love.

(photo: Shane Wynn)

Soon, the rest of Barberton, Ohio, would fall in love as well. On July 4th, 1933, the Topalskys opened Belgrade Gardens and began serving the iconic meal that has both shaped and reflected the culture and economy of the city for nearly a century.

A Taste of the Old World

Born in the Bačka region of Serbia—a northern, agricultural region of the former Yugoslavia, bordered by Hungary and Romania—both Smiljana and Manojlo came to the United States as children. They were among thousands of Eastern European immigrants who flocked to Barberton in search of industry jobs at the turn of the century—bringing with them a host of cultures, customs, and cuisines from the Old World.

Smiljana’s fried chicken, and its quintessential side dishes, are what Papich calls “simple, country fare.” But the process requires meticulous attention to detail. The trick is to use a young bird, never frozen, and never bigger than 2 ¾ pounds—served in a 10-piece cut that separates the back from the breast and thigh.

The bird is seasoned with salt, then coated with flour, egg wash, and two layers of bread crumbs. The second layer, Papich insists, is always done by hand.

The bird is chilled, then fried “low and slow,” in what is perhaps Barberton Chicken’s most distinguishing characteristic: “We use lard,” Papich says. “We’ll never change that, because what you get is a hybrid poultry and pork flavor.”

(photo: Shane Wynn)

The final product is a bronzed, porcine-doused bird, kept tender and flavor-locked inside a crisp, uniform breading. It’s served alongside kupus salata—a vinegar-based coleslaw—as well as fresh, hand-cut fries, and a traditional Serbian dish called djuvec (better known to Northeast Ohioans as hot sauce).

Smiljana Topalsky’s Serbian hot sauce recipe calls for rice as a thickening agent, along with onions, tomatoes, paprika, salt, sugar, whole peel tomatoes, purée, and Hungarian wax peppers.

“We try to serve something that’s as authentic as possible,” says Papich. “We start with a good recipe, and never deviate from it.”

The dish’s popularity meant that, eventually, the Topalskys weren’t the only Serbian family serving traditional fare. In 1945, former Belgrade Gardens employee Helen DeVore opened Hopocan Gardens—serving the same meal, made in much the same way. White House Chicken followed in 1950, then Milich’s Village Inn in 1955.

Post-war factory jobs made middle-class living attainable for most families. “[People] were gainfully employed, looking for a place to take their families to dinner,” says Papich. “That’s how we all thrived back then.”

A Shared Experience

Under the passionate, innovative management of Papich’s parents—Sophia and Kosta—the chicken business boomed. Smiljana’s recipes, and the dining rooms where people gathered to eat them, became a distinctly American experience—a shared and sacred opportunity to gather and connect.

(photo: Shane Wynn)

“It’s where you celebrated birthdays,” says Ron Koltnow, author of Barberton Fried Chicken: An Ohio Original. “People had wedding receptions, graduation parties.” Over time, Barberton chicken houses became essential and beloved community spaces—the secret machinery of a hyper-regional cooking tradition found no place else in the country.

Smiljana’s recipes have become the smell, taste, and unmistakable sensation of home for an entire generation of immigrants and blue-collar factory workers, and, in turn, their children and grandchildren.

“It’s really a time thing,” says Koltnow. “You walk into those portals and you’re sort of transported. My brother and I always talk about it. It’s like suddenly we’re back—late 1950’s, early 1960’s—and we’re sitting there with our parents.”

That leap is the secret magic of Barberton chicken—the thing that everybody feels in the hallowed few seconds before that first, perfect bite.

“People connect on a very elemental basis,” says Koltnow. “You never eat alone at Belgrade’s, even if you’re the only one at the table.” Koltnow pauses. “You carry with you the weight of tradition.”

In the 1980’s, Barberton saw an unprecedented economic shift. Sun Rubber ceased operations in 1974, and several other major manufacturers followed suit. Seemingly overnight, Barberton’s population shrunk by thousands.

(photo: Shane Wynn)

The golden age is long gone, and Papich isn’t certain what the future might bring. But like his ancestors before him, he’s resolved to uphold the values that landed him here in the first place: work hard, be kind, serve good food.

“I’m proud of the fact that [we] carried on my mother’s family’s legacy,” says Papich. “We’re tapping into some cross-cultural type of food that brings people [back to] their family roots. It’s almost hard to explain.”

Koltnow calls the phenomenon vestigial, an inexplicable pull toward the tastes and flavors that sink into our collective memory. Food, after all, is nothing without the shared experience of it, without the byproduct of connection.

To understand Barberton Fried Chicken is to embrace this one sacramental fact: “Food,” says Koltnow, “on the very basic level, equals love”—the kind of love that is built into the recipes themselves, passed through them, present always in the hands that craft them.

Barberton Fried Chicken is itself a monument, a testament both to Rustbelt resilience, and to the Eastern European immigrants who laid its framework. When the bank takes the farm and the factories all close, this meal will be waiting—timeless, loyal, unchanging even in the face of uncertainty. This meal, made once for a family, has remained in spite of everything.

Made, always, with careful, home-cooked love.

—Words by H.L. Comeriato, photos by Shane Wynn