by Alexandra Rasic
We’re getting ready for another virtual program inspired by our From the Homestead Kitchen series (you can see a recording of our first Thanksgiving-themed program here). Something’s Brewing! Women and Tea in 20th Century Los Angeles will explore the social impact of gathering for tea and how women used it as a time for camaraderie, organizing, and working towards greater independence. Throughout the program, we’ll sample historic recipes and we invite you to join us. A couple of weeks before the event on May 9th, we’ll post the featured recipes on our website.
An artifact from the Homestead’s collection that will be featured in the program is Luncheon, Tea and Party Suggestions, a booklet compiled by the California Home Economics Association in 1927. A recipe from the booklet that did not make the cut for the program, but was well-worth exploring for its history and legacy is Chicken à la King: diced chicken in a cream sauce that often includes mushrooms, green peppers, and pimientos, typically served on toast, noodles, or inside patty shells (shells of puff pastry made to hold a filling).
I’ll cut right to the chase here and tell you that this recipe was beyond easy to make (even the patty shells!), but completely underwhelming. As my colleagues and I have prepared numerous historic recipes over the last year, “bland” is a word that has come up quite a bit, but often we notice that if a recipe survived the test of time, it was usually tweaked to include new ingredients or more/different seasonings. In the case of Chicken à la King, we see that some modern recipes are almost an exact match to the one in our booklet, but there are variations, too. The only differences in the recipe found on the Betty Crocker website, for example, are that Betty’s includes black pepper, but no olives or a hard boiled egg. The recipe is well reviewed (4.5 stars out of 90 reviews), and not surprisingly, many of the comments are nostalgic in nature noting that the recipe tasted just the way someone remembered it as a child. Other modern recipes note the addition of things like celery, onions, and peas, all three of which can be found in Stouffer’s frozen Chicken à la King at your local grocery store. A recipe from the Food Network pushes the envelope a bit further with ingredients like shallots, thyme, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, and even shiitake mushrooms. So to each their own, right?
But now let’s get into the meatier history of Chicken à la King and how it has been portrayed over time.
When it comes to the origin of the dish, you can take your pick from this list of possibilities because nobody knows for certain:
- 1880s: Created by French-born Delmonico’s chef Charles Ranhofer in New York City as Chicken à la Keene, named after Foxhall Parker Keene, an American racehorse owner and breeder who, among other things, was a world and Olympic gold medalist polo player, a competitive golfer, and a racecar driver.
- 1881: Created at Claridge’s Hotel in London and named for Foxhall’s father, James R. Keene, a stockbroker who also owned and bred racehorses.
- 1890s: Created by William “Bill” King of the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia. Following King’s death in 1915 numerous newspapers credited him with the creation.
- 1898: Created by chef George Greenwald of the Brighton Beach Hotel in Brighton Beach, New York, in honor of proprietor E. Clarke King II and his wife.
No matter the origin, journalist Leah Koenig explains that not long after the turn of the 20th century, Chicken à la King began appearing on upscale restaurant menus across New York City. “In 1915, the maitre d’ of the Plaza hotel recommended preparing minced chicken à la king as the centerpiece of a ‘dainty home luncheon’ to [New York] Times readers.” But by the 1980s, she notes that food writers including Marian Burros and Calvin Trillin were contemplating the dish’s demise. “‘There was a time—in the 1950s, say, when the whole country seemed to be awash in chicken à la king,’ Trillin wrote in The Nation in 1985. During those years, the dish was a regular fixture at wedding receptions, in banquet halls, and at other fancy (or faux-fancy) events. By the time Trillin was writing, however, those days had clearly past [sic]. A few years later, in 1989, Burros proclaimed the chicken à la king she grew up eating at the formal dinners her prep-school held before school dances had ‘gone the way of molded gelatin salads.'”
Seeing that the recipe I made came from a 1927 booklet about luncheons and tea parties and Koenig made reference to the Plaza hotel’s maître d’ recommending the dish as the centerpiece of a “dainty home luncheon” in 1915, I decided to look for mention of Chicken à la King in newspapers around that window of time to see what I’d find. When it came to recipes, they were very similar to what was described above. And there was certainly evidence of the dish being readily available at local restaurants and as part of luncheon menus. I also found ads for canned Chicken à la King produced by Libby’s and College Inn. But other interesting things emerged, too.
The maître d’ of the Plaza hotel was far from the only person to refer to Chicken à la King as “dainty.” I saw that word come up a few times in reference to the dish. Seen as something quite special and fancy, even though it was easy to make, the dish was often prepared and served in novel and aesthetically pleasing ways, and maybe even the name of the dish elevated it’s elegance. The ad below notes that it was an ideal recipe to prepare in a chafing dish, and the recipe from our booklet is found in the section devoted to chafing dish recipes, but it notes that cooking with gas was preferred.
Evidence of the dish being served at special places and for special occasions was found in Elizabeth Jordan’s Column, published in the Los Angeles Times in November of 1921. It featured the story of The Bride’s Pupil, who it turns out was her new husband. “It was clear to everyone who observed them as they entered the big hotel dining-room that they were bride and groom. They were very young, very self-conscious, very much in love and very unsophisticated.” The bride was described as “extremely pretty,” and the husband as “a big, good-humored, awkward chap with a country air.” As they nervously studied the menu full of dishes they had never heard of, the groom took charge: “‘Roast beef!’ he ejaculated at last, hoarsely,” followed by mashed potatoes. The waiter turned to the bride who agreed to the same, thinking her husband knew best what to order, but then she began to look around. “She observed that her fellow guests were eating oysters on the half shell, soup served in silver tureens, boiled chicken, asparagus, hot-house peas, sherberts, salads of all kinds, and delicious desserts of every variety.” Jordan wondered if the bride knew that each dinner served at the hotel cost $4. Clearly not, because as she realized that she and her husband were not going to get all they were entitled to, “the corners of her pretty mouth suddenly drooped like those of a hurt and hungry baby.” The next evening, the couple returned to the fine dining room and were escorted to the same table. “Now we looked for a repetition of the little tragedy. But tonight all was different.” This time, “The bride took the menu. She ordered for them both, oyster cocktails, cream of tomatoe [sic] soup, chicken-a-la king, pineapple fritters, fresh vegetables, raspberry sherbert [sic], lobster salad[,] vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, cake and coffee.” With table manners improved to boot, the groom “beamed at her ecstatically. In one day she had learned everything, he decided. He needn’t worry anymore. She would see him through.”
Aside from enjoying Chicken à la King in such a fine establishment, celebrating a wonderful event, we also see the young bride swiftly taking on the role of advocate, teacher, and caregiver for her unsophisticated husband. Without her, it would be meat and potatoes every night. Modern, young brides wanted a husband who would defer to them in certain realms like food and household management. Don’t believe me? Ask Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, otherwise known as Dorothy Dix, whose advice column was syndicated in newspapers all over the world.
“A girl desires to know by what earmarks you can distinguish the man who has good husband timber in him, from the man who will make a rotten husband,” wrote Gilmer in an article titled How to Pick ‘Em published in 1922. “There’s no infallible sign….Nevertheless, straws do show which way the wind blows, and if I were a girl who was beginning seriously to consider entering into a life partnership with an agreeable youth, I would observe these points.” Among them were his demonstrated ability to make a living, the status of his ego, how he spends his money, his ability to hold your interest, and if he was afflicted with the “interfering mania.” “If he said to me continually, ‘Why don’t you wear brown instead of blue? Why don’t you wear a big hat instead of a little one? Why don’t you read history instead of novels? Why don’t you eat roast beef instead of chicken a la king?’ I should have none of him.” Message received!
So if Chicken à la King could be used to help a woman gauge whether or not a man was marriage material, and it could be part of an overall effort to sophisticate an awkward new husband, and it could impress friends at a women’s luncheon, did that make it women’s food?
Historian Paul Freedman explains that “By the early 20th century, women’s food was commonly described as ‘dainty,’ meaning fanciful but not filling. Women’s magazines included advertisements for typical female foodstuffs: salads, colorful and shimmering Jell-O mold creations, or fruit salads decorated with marshmallows, shredded coconut and maraschino cherries. At the same time, self-appointed men’s advocates complained that women were inordinately fond of the very types of decorative foods being marketed to them. In 1934, for example, a male writer named Leone B. Moates wrote an article in House and Garden scolding wives for serving their husbands ‘a bit of fluff like marshmallow-date whip.’ Save these ‘dainties’ for ladies’ lunches, he implored, and serve your husbands the hearty food they crave: goulash, chili or corned beef hash with poached eggs.”
As women gained more agency and independence, there was more pressure on them to be all things to all people: themselves; their sex; their husbands; their children; and if they were working, their employers. Men did not want to get lost in the shuffle. Soon, explains Freedman, there was “a proliferation of cookbooks telling women to give up their favorite foods and instead focus on pleasing their boyfriends or husbands. The central thread running through these titles was that if women failed to satisfy their husbands’ appetites, their men would stray.” Books like A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband With Bettina’s Best Recipes may have helped stoke some of these fears. (We wrote about another cookbook in the Bettina series in an earlier post.) But even in this book we find two recipes for Chicken à la King: one version to be served at a ladies’ luncheon and one to be served at a Sunday evening tea for four couples. So it’s safe to say that the dish was acceptable fare in the realm of domesticity.
Home economist and writer Florence La Ganke’s nationally syndicated Nancy Page column titled, The Day of Hearts Calls for ‘Hearty’ Accompaniments, published in the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News in February of 1928, is written in a very similar style to the Bettina cookbooks as it is from the perspective of a fictional character who is trying to impart wisdom to women. “Just because Nancy and Peter were entertaining on the evening of February 14, Nancy did not slight the family dinner. She believed that it was wise to observe holidays even for the family,” writes La Granke. “The main dish of the meal was chicken left over from Sunday and served as Chicken a la King. She used the heart shaped cooky cutter and cut slices of bread into hearts. These were toasted and the chicken was served in this hearty fashion.” A tomato jelly salad, also shaped like a heart, was featured, too. So at a time of great change for women, they were still receiving messages, even from other women, that their greatest need and obligation was to family and life at home.
The last item to share from my newspaper research on Chicken à la King technically has nothing to do with the dish…but boy does it say more about gender and stereotypes.
That’s right…there was Chicken a La King, the movie. And sadly it is lost to time. Released by Fox Films in 1928, it was based on a stage play called Mister Romeo. A writer for Hackensack, New Jersey’s Record described it the following way: “The story has to do with a drab little wife, who has been brow-beaten and bullied for nearly twenty years. Then suddenly she is confronted with the startling facts that her Puritan husband has developed into a gay Romeo and is haunting a burlesque show.” Instead of “praying for guidance,” the wife takes matters into her own hands “and enlists the aid of two members of the chorus. Together they fleece the old rogue until they make him see the error of his ways and he returns home a sadder, poorer, but much wiser man.” The King of the house is redeemed and brought back down to earth by a group of clever chickens, a.k.a. the ladies.
So what can we say about Chicken à la King in the present day? What comes to mind for me is that first and foremost, it is nostalgic. It’s a comfort food, something that reminds us of our youth, or someone who used to make or love the dish. As for how gender plays into it, all I can say is that I’m happy to live in a time when the differences between men and women are narrowing in the kitchen, and elsewhere.
OK…one more thing…
As if Chicken à La King the movie weren’t enough, there was also a cartoon! In 1937, Paramount Cartoons, a competitor of Disney, released a cartoon called Chicken a La King where a sultan rooster’s chicken harem is sent into disarray by the arrival of Ducky Wucky, a sultry duck seductress who talks, walks, and looks like Mae West.
Spoiler Alert: His chicks have the final word!