Chicken à la King (Elsie de Wolfe)


A bit messily presented: Chicken à la King from "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining" (1934).

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)

SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS

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

Salt

Pepper

Cayenne

4 slices white bread, toasted and buttered

1 truffle, thinly sliced [I didn’t have one of these around for garnish]

DIRECTIONS

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.”

Advertisements

10 comments on “Chicken à la King (Elsie de Wolfe)

  1. littleaugury says:

    Love comfort food,elsie and history, and Lo all three here.

  2. michael says:

    some aristos! i remember the dish from horn and hardart. probably with a little less sherry! m

  3. Sally Chamberlain says:

    Horn & Hardart on West 57th Street – lots of comfort food and fun people watching. And Chicken a la King was ubiquitous in my youth, at every party or wedding – great that you’re reviving it.

  4. Charlotte says:

    It seemed like everything we ate growing up was a la something!

    Just a few months ago I used a recipe for chicken a la king in the most recent Neiman Marcus cookbook. It included a similar history of the recipe and was wonderful (I substituted poblanos to appease my green bell pepper hating family.)

    It did not say whether or not it was based on a recipe from Helen Corbitt. Do you know of her? She ran the Neiman Marcus Zodiac restaurant forever in Dallas. Her Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook published in 1957 is high on my cookbook wish list and evdidently full of classics like chicken al la king.

    I served mine over popovers as suggested in the NM cookbook, but used Lady Bird Johnson’s popover recipe from a Texas cookbook. Wonderful, but next time I think I’ll just do toast!

    Best,

    Charlotte

    • Dear Charlotte, Elsie didn’t note where her version of Chicken à la King came from, but it was very delicious. I like the idea of serving it over popovers.

  5. Bruce says:

    The history of chicken a la king is almost identical to the history of many originally delicious, easily prepared foods (think steak Diane). Reproduced badly (not a grain of salt, let alone cayenne pepper) and served ubiquitously (what banquet manager didn’t like being able to stretch cheap chicken with even cheaper cream and eggs?),it went from a dish for sophisticates to almost a tagline for pedestrian, middle class taste. If you were served it from the mid 1960’s on (I know I date myself), noone had to tell you that your host lacked imagination and was trying to “do things on the cheap”. Bravo for reviving a fundamentally delicious dish when prepared properly, as you did.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s