Before national chains covered our country from coast to coast with their “one hamburger fits all” business approach, local cities and towns had homegrown fast food. Compared with today, dining out before the 1950s was shockingly rare, and the popularity of cheap, quick food relied on broad and instant appeal. Fast food in Philadelphia was different than fast food in Memphis, Tenn. and buying local wasn’t a matter of choice, but of necessity.
One local sandwich has managed to survive the march of homogenization and continues to maintain a quiet, cult-like following: the chicken barbecue, more affectionately known as the chicken barb.
For those of us who weren’t raised in the Methuen/Lawrence area, the chicken barb, much like the salty expletive mingya, or the card game “45s,” (read more about that here ) is something of a mystery. More often than not, mentioning it causes locals to get misty-eyed and to recite where they were and whom they were with when they had their first bite.
Properly pronounced by dropping the bothersome “r,” the “bahb” doesn’t involve barbecuing. Chicken (or turkey, depending on whom you’re talking to off the record) is simmered in a pressure cooker with a secret blend of seasonings. The cooled meat is then pulled off the bone, shredded and simmered again in the broth from the pressure cooker. (Perhaps it’s the resemblance to pulled pork that earned the sandwich its barbecue moniker.)
With a slotted spoon, the meat is placed on a toasted roll with lettuce and a generous dollop of mayonnaise. The chicken barb is straight up comfort food. Filling and tasty, it appeals to sophisticated palates as well as finicky eaters.
According to Connie Gile, whose late husband, Joe, owned the now-closed Joe Gile’s Bungalow restaurant in Lawrence, “the barb could really be added to any restaurant menu because it’s fresh and unencumbered by preservatives.”
Local legend has it that the sandwich originated at Herman Marggraf’s Tally Ho Inn in Methuen. It was 1933, and while the nation’s finances were in tatters, Prohibition was ending and drinking a glass of beer in Methuen, which had been dry even before the Volstead Act, was now legal. Herman Marggraf opened the Tally Ho near the Lawrence border on Swan Street, and his brother, Fred, opened a separate roadhouse-style cafe, Marggraf’s White Horse, on the western side of Methuen a few years later.
During the 1940s, the food at the Tally Ho became a huge draw to the establishment’s somewhat different, yet overlapping, crowds: the male customers drinking at the front bar, and the mixed groups in the back room, dining and dancing to the jukebox.
The success of the Tally Ho was in its ability to be many things to many people: a social club, sports bar, date spot and family restaurant.
Soon, other local eateries began making their own versions of the barb.
South of Lawrence’s Essex Street in the 1940s, another chicken barb was being served out of the “Bungalow,” a 1920s-era car converted into a chuck wagon, on the northeast corner of Canal and Broadway. Customers would stop and grab a barb on the way home from Broadway’s Theater Row, according to Connie Gile.
Also according to Connie, in the late 1940s, her late husband, then-mailman Joe Gile, took a second job as the Bungalow’s cook. Gile eventually bought the business, renamed it Joe Gile’s Bungalow, and began fine-tuning his version of the chicken barb, eventually moving the restaurant to a brick-and-mortar location on the corner of Salem and South Union streets. Business took off, flourishing thanks to hard work, attention to detail, Cains’ mayonnaise and custom rolls from Tripoli Bakery.
The Bungalow was a popular stop after last call at the area’s many bars. (A barb and a coffee helped many navigate home.) At least a few locals remember their fathers showing up late at night with an extra barb or two for the missus as a preemptive apology for a night out with the boys. As a child in Lawrence, Joe Bella of Methuen found it remarkable that the Bungalow’s barb remained piping hot and moist all the way home.
Joe Gile’s Bungalow burned down in 1977, but Gile continued to make his barbs in other locations. In 1997, Gile and his son-in-law, former Ninety Nine Restaurants executive Steve Alfano, opened the now-closed Sutton Square Grille in North Andover to huge fanfare. On opening day, the two men served more than 500 chicken barbs to a crowd hungry for memories dripping in mayo.
The Marggrafs’ and Gile’s chicken barbs were so popular that their secret recipes were guarded like the formula for Coca-Cola. Hushed rumors of people coercing their relatives into working for these establishments in order to “borrow” the secret recipes have existed for years. Alfano bought the Bungalow’s recipe from his father-in-law and continues to keep it tucked away.
The Tally Ho Inn and Joe Gile’s Bungalow are long gone, but the White Horse in Methuen still serves the “original” chicken barb. The Marggrafs sold the White Horse, which is located on Route 110 with views of the Merrimack River, to Norm Nault in 1965, and he sold it to his daughter, Diane Frechette, in 1985. Today known as Norm’s White Horse, the restaurant is a living example of the roadhouse cafés that used to dot the area’s once-rural back roads. They serve upwards of 500 chicken barbs a week to loyal customers longing for a culinary connection with the past.
Frechette’s earliest memories in the kitchen are as a 4-year-old receiving exacting instruction from her father on the proper way to pull apart a chicken. And though she’s not afraid to experiment with possible adaptations (think pesto barb on focaccia bread), and uses chicken as an artist would a blank canvas, the chicken barb sandwich most often requested is the traditional interpretation.
You need to try a chicken barb in order to understand the passion of the sandwich’s fans. The union of hot, steamy shredded chicken with a thick spackling of mayonnaise will jolt anyone’s sleepy taste buds awake with a blend of savory and tang that other sandwiches just don’t deliver.
Outsiders still stumble unwittingly into local diners and coffee shops expecting the barbecued chicken sandwich they order to be dripping in red barbecue sauce. A conversation with Andover’s Nancy Cranney, whose roots extend to old Lawrence, best sums up the local take on the barb. “I grew up thinking all sandwiches called a chicken barbecue were full of plain, white meat, and was shocked to learn otherwise,” she says. “And another thing, didn’t everyone grow up with a pressure cooker in the house?”
( Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. )