Anyone who reads this blog knows I have a weakness for creamy foods. There just something about the texture of a recipe incorporating butter and cream that is terrifically fulfilling, both emotionally and gustatorially—the richness, the aroma, the calories. Since my family doesn’t devour such ingredients every day, I don’t mind serving one extravagant dish a week. Last night it was Chicken à la King from Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934).
The origins of this dish are obscure, and numerous stories about its invention abound. Some sources date the creation of this chicken, cream, and sherry concoction to the 1880s or 1890s, either at Claridge’s in London or Delmonico’s in New York City, where it was reportedly known as Chicken à la Keene, after its honoree, a wealthy American. One site states the likeliest genesis story is that it was invented around 1900 at the Brighton Beach Hotel at Brighton Beach, Long Island, New York, and named for the hotel’s owner, E. Clark King (the original recipe from that source is published here, right below de Wolfe’s version). Yet another source, a 1912 advertisement in Good Housekeeping magazine for Purity Cross canned chicken à la king, gives credit to the chef at the Ritz in Paris, who reportedly prepared it for Edward VII of Great Britain, using the monarch’s own recipe.
Whatever the truth, as Calvin Trillin once noted, chicken à la king (or Keene) was eaten a lot by “rich people of the sort who were listed in the social register.” Good Housekeeping, in 1916, called it “a very aristocratic and delectable supper dish.” It didn’t take long, however, for it to become a staple at women’s clubs, mess halls, and board luncheons all across the United States. And for good reason—it’s simple to prepare, is a great use of leftover chicken or turkey, and is one of the world’s finest comfort foods. Somewhere along the way cayenne pepper crept into the ingredients, though usually specified as “a few grains,” which really doesn’t do much. I gave Elsie de Wolfe’s Chicken à la King recipe a couple of healthy shakes of cayenne pepper, which gave it a welcome kick that was deemed acceptable by all, even our usually spice-averse daughter. I did not, however, garnish it with sliced truffles. Alas, I was fresh out of that particular fungi.
CHICKEN A LA KING
SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)
6 [white] mushrooms
1 green pimento [I used red, since it was all I could find at the grocer]
2 ounces unsalted butter
White meat of a cooked chicken, cut into good-sized dice
2 tablespoons sherry
1/2 pint heavy cream, plus 2 teaspoons
1 egg yolk
4 slices white bread, toasted and buttered
1 truffle, thinly sliced [I didn’t have one of these around for garnish]
Slice the mushrooms and pimento into thin, long strips. Place in sauce-pan with butter. Cover the pan and cook over a low flame for 5 minutes. Add the chicken, sherry, and 1/2 pint of cream. Cook for 5 more minutes. Mix the yolk with the 2 teaspoons cream and add at the last moment of cooking, stirring it in thoroughly. Do not allow the mixture to boil after the egg has been added. Remove from heat, season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste, and serve over slices of hot buttered toast.
CHICKEN A LA KING
SOURCE: The New York Times, 14 April 1980, an article by Craig Claiborne citing a circa-1900 brochure from the Brighton Beach Hotel.
“Melt two tablespoons of butter and add one-half of a green pepper shredded and one cup of mushrooms sliced thin. Stir and cook five minutes and then add two level tablespoonfuls of flour and a half teaspoonful of salt. Cook until frothy and then add one pint of cream and stir until the sauce thickens. Put this all in a double boiler, add three cups of chicken cut into pieces and let stand to get very hot. In the meantime, take a quarter of a cup of butter and beat into the yolks of three eggs, one teaspoonful of onion juice, one tablespoonful of lemon juice and one-half teaspoonful of paprika. Stir this mixture until the eggs thicken a little; add a little sherry and finally shredded pimento before serving on toast.”