Lost Foods of New York City: Chicken à la King

The Brighton Beach Hotel might have been the birthplace of the dish. ()
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Leah Koenig

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Lost Foods of New York City is a column that celebrates the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.

Right now, New York City is deep in the throes of an haute-comfort-food phase. One can barely throw a fork in a restaurant without it landing on a plate of truffled macaroni and cheese or a foie-gras-laced meatloaf.

That’s why it baffles me that chicken à la king, a dish that for several decades at the beginning of the 20th century was the pinnacle of upscale comfort food in this city, has so thoroughly disappeared.

At its core, chicken à la king is straight-up saucy comfort: mushrooms, peppers and diced chicken served in a creamy sauce over toast. Throw some biscuits on top and you practically have chicken and dumplings; add a flaky crust and you get pot pie. But for the high-society, francophile (or rather franco-obsessive) New Yorkers of that era, a vaguely French-sounding name was all the dish needed to secure its fancy reputation.

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There are competing origin stories for chicken à la king, none of which begin in France. One of the most quoted is that the dish was first created in the early 1900s in honor of E. Clark King II, the proprietor of the Brighton Beach Hotel. (At the time, Brighton Beach, like its sister Coney Island, was considered a fashionable resort town for harried Manhattanites looking to get away from it all.)

The source of this version of the story is a brochure mailed by a reader to the late great food writer, editor and New York Times food critic, Craig Claiborne. In a 1980 article he wrote for the Times, Claiborne contended that he had assumed chicken à la king had traceable French roots (beyond the bechamel-style sauce it was cooked in). He was intrigued by the brochure’s claim that the Brighton Beach Hotel’s head chef had in fact invented the dish to serve to Mr. King and his wife.

“It was enjoyed immensely and they asked for seconds,” Claiborne quotes the brochure as saying. “The next day, the [hotel restaurant’s] bill of fare carried the following: 'Chicken a la King - $1.25 a portion.'"

Regardless of the story’s credibility, not long after the turn of the century, chicken à la king began making the rounds on upscale restaurant menus across the 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 Times readers.

Over time, chicken à la king’s popularity spread to a broader array of establishments within and beyond New York City. According to the New York Public library’s menu archive, it appeared on more than 300 menus between the 1910s and the 1960s. By comparison, a search for the dish on Menu Pages today turns up a mere six results: mostly at diners (where it arguably makes more sense than at a fancy establishment), plus one at a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. That version, made with taro root instead of chicken, is vegetarian and likely shares little in common with the original beyond the name.

By the mid-1980s, food writers Marian Burros and Calvin Trillin were already musing about 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 and other fancy (or faux-fancy) events. By the time Trillin was writing, however, those days had clearly past. 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.”

Today, the dish hobbles along in our national consciousness in two degraded forms: canned chicken à la king one can heat up and pour over toast (though that too, is increasingly difficult to find) and as a Stouffer’s frozen meal, packaged with rice. In either case, New York’s turn-of-the-century elite are turning in their graves.

Even in Burros’ memories from the 1950s, chicken à la king had already morphed into an industrial facsimile of the orignal dish. Burros remembers it as an “unspeakable mixture of flour-laden sauce with bits of canned mushrooms, canned pimento and overcooked chicken.” But, as early haute-comfort-food-advocate James Beard wrote in his 1972 book, James Beard’s American Cookery, “[chicken à la king is] usually prepared in a mediocre fashion,” but can be “quite good if done with care and fine ingredients.” It’s a motto for life as well as chicken. Perhaps it’s time to get some quality chicken and cream from the greenmarket, and give this classic New York dish another chance.

Chicken a la King

In the 1980 ‘New York Times’ article mentioned above, Claiborne shared the original recipe for chicken à la king included in a brochure he had received from a reader. Below, I’ve adapted the original format to make it more usable for contemporary cooks (note: I did not retest the dish in this new format). View the recipe in its original language and format here.

6 tablespoons butter, softened and divided
1/2 a green pepper, chopped
1 cup thinly sliced mushroom
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups cream
3 cups diced cooked chicken
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon onion juice*
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon paprika
sherry for drizzling
chopped pimento for topping
toasted bread for serving

1. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan set over medium heat. Add the green pepper and mushrooms and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Whisk in flour and salt and cook, stirring constantly, until frothy.

2. Slowly pour in the cream and cook, stirring often, until the sauce thickens.

3. Transfer mixture to a double boiler set over medium low heat. Add chicken pieces and let stand.

4. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl beat the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter with the egg yolks, onion juice, lemon juice and paprika. Fold this mixture into the chicken mixture and cook, stirring occasinally, until thick and combined. Drizzle in sherry and stir in chopped pimento, both to taste. Serve chicken mixture on top of toasted bread.

*I am not sure what onion juice means, so I suggest grating part of a small onion, wrapping the grated pieces in a cloth and squeezing out the amount of juice needed.

Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods: New York City at LeahLostFoods@gmail.com.