How Serbian Immigrants Made an Ohio Town the ‘Fried Chicken Capital of the World’
From Vojvodina, with lard.
by Luke Fater, January 30, 2020
Smiljka and Manojlo Topalsky weren’t the only Eastern Europeans to leave home for a burgeoning Ohio farm-town called Barberton in the early 1900s. Their grandson, Milos Papich, points out that one of the oldest Serbian social clubs in the country is there, an hour south of Akron. The emigrated family owned a successful 300-acre dairy farm for decades.
During the Great Depression, though, the Topalskys lost everything but the farmhouse. Luckily, Smiljka could still cook.
Once they had a taste, they couldn’t get enough. The chicken became an overnight hit among town denizens, and love of Smiljka’s fried chicken wove itself into the fabric of the community. “It kind of fell into their lap,” says Papich. “My grandparents never would have dreamed that the food they grew up with would be so well-received.”
Within seven years of putting Serbian fried chicken on their farmhouse menu, the Topalskys were able to buy back 65 acres of land from the bank, says Papich, current owner of 87-year-old Belgrade Gardens. The restaurant stayed with the family as much as pahovana piletina stays with Barberton. And to the purists in this still chicken-smitten town, Smiljka’s original dish is all but scripture.