The History of Chicken A La King

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Chicken a la King was extremely popular in the 50s and 60s. So popular that you would think it was created during that time period but it was actually created in the late 19th century. It was such a prevalent dish during the mid century that writer Calvin Trillin was wondering where its whereabouts was in an article for The Saturday Evening Post as it was everywhere from club dinners, wedding and almost every restaurant. He jokes that he thinks the government is hiding it in the huge silos in the plains of the United States or the salt caves in Kansas where the army keeps old reports. He wasn’t wrong about the popularity. Open almost any cookbook from that time period and you will find a version of Chicken a la King.

Who and where was the recipe created?
There are a few tales of the origins of Chicken a la King. Here are the most likely suspects:

1. In the popular New York beach side resort, Brighton Beach Hotel, Chef George Greenwald created the dish and asked the owners Clark King II and his wife to try it. They loved it and asked for more. The next day Greenwald asked King if he could put it on the menu and it was added as a special with a price tag of $1.25. New York Times food editor and cookbook author Craig Claiborne backs this claim up in his book The New York Times Food Encyclopedia. In it photographer James N. Keen showed him a brochure that was written by Clark King’s son claiming the hotel as the origins.

2. The New York City restaurant Delmonico’s supposedly created it in the 1880s. The story goes that restaurant customer Foxhall P. Keene, the son of sportsman and business man James R. Keene, came up with the idea.

3. It is also claimed that the London restaurant Claridge’s was the origin of the dish. This time it was named after and created for James R. Keene and not his son to celebrate his Grand Prix win.

4. In a 1915 obituary in the New York Times, it was said that the creator of Chicken a la King was William King. It was supposedly created in Philadelphia at the Bellevue Hotel where King worked as a cook in 1895.

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What actually is in Chicken a la King?
The recipe at its most basic is cubed chicken and mushrooms in a white sauce garnished with pimentos served usually over toast points. Often either sherry or Madiera is added to the sauce. Later in the 50s and 60s you start to see the addition of peas, carrots and green peppers. Eventually recipes popped up that used can soup as the base of the sauce and/or canned chicken to highlight the ever growing trend of convenience cooking. At the height of its popularity in the mid century it was usually served in a chafing dish with toast or biscuits. Though it can be suggested by recipes to ladle the sauce over rice or noodles.

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Why would I want to make Chicken a la King?
I mean it is chicken and mushroom surrounded by a rich cream sauce so do I need to say more.  The end result is oddly comforting and nostalgic. Especially weird as I did not grow up eating Chicken a la king. Oh you are still not convinced to try it? Well… it is easy to put together which is why I can understand its popularity. It can actually be used with most leftover meat as I have seen recipes for turkey and ham versions. You can actually make it vegetarian by just leaving out the meat, using vegetable broth and bumping up the amount of mushrooms used. It can be spooned over almost any starch as recipes have used toast points, biscuits, rice, noodles and puff pastry shells. Plus if want to try a dish that they ACTUALLY ate in the mid century and not just what the magazines of the day gives an illusion of what was eaten then this is the recipe for you.

So do you have any fond memories of Chicken a la King? Let me know if you try this dish either in the comments or take a picture and let me know on Instagram.

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Chicken a la King

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A mid century classic! I left the seasoning of the salt and pepper up to whoever makes this recipe. Almost all the recipes I researched did not season the sauce. Therefore if you want a more mid century kind of meal go light on the seasoning but if you want the dish to have modern sensibility then season to your hearts content!

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 package (8 oz) mushrooms sliced (you can use canned mushrooms if that is more your thing)
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream (half and half or milk can be used as well)
  • 2 cups cooked chicken, chopped in bite size pieces
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 2 tablespoons pimentos
  • 2 tablespoons sherry (optional)
  • chopped parsley for garnish (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • whatever you want to serve it on: toast, biscuits, egg noodles or rice are a few options.

Directions

  1. Saute the sliced mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of butter on medium heat until lightly browned. Set aside.
  2. Melt the remaining butter on medium heat and whisk in flour.
  3. Stir in slowly the chicken broth and heavy cream stirring constantly until it thickens.
  4. If using add in the sherry. Take a sip for yourself at this time if you would like. I won’t judge.
  5. Stir in the chicken, mushrooms, peas and pimentos
  6. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
  7. Ladle onto what ever starch is calling your name and garnish with some chopped parsely if you want to make it look fancy!


Sources:
Claiborne, Craig. Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Food Encyclopedia. New York: The New York Times Company, 1985

Mariani, John F. The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013.

Popkik, Barry and Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: Volume One. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Trillin, Calvin. The Chicken a la King Question. The Saturday Evening Post. March, 1988.

Westmoreland, Susan. Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbooks. New York: Hearst Books, 2004.

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