…and, boy, I know a lot of them.
Last weekend, I was (cheerfully) roped into helping prepare and serve a “proper” English tea by an old friend who had offered up her home, her china, and her silver tea pots for the benefit of my goddaughter’s school. I have placed the word “proper” in quotation marks, because this was a tea hosted by Canadian-Americans, which means that it just might have been even more so than a true, English tea. The Canadians, after all, still celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday. The English, however, have long since moved on.
Scones were baked and served with Devonshire cream, butter, and jam. Little tea cakes were made available as were a number of precious, crustless tea sandwiches: cucumber, egg salad, smoked salmon, and Coronation Chicken.
It was the last one that really caught my attention. I asked Mary Pat, my friend Shannon’s mother (and my former, formidable piano teacher), about it and she explained that the dish was called Coronation Chicken Salad because it was served at a luncheon in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Well, that seemed straightforward enough.
It also fit in nicely with the conversation about World War II food rationing I was having with my friend Craig and my goddaughter, Zelly, on the way to their house. Don’t ask. These things just happen. We got so involved talking about u-boats, the Battle of Britain, and how Queen Elizabeth (mother of the present queen regnant) was glad Buckingham Palace was bombed so that she could then “look the East End in the face”, that we forgot to stop for some necessary but overlooked tea supplies.
The Back Story
Coronation Chicken Salad was created by chef Rosemary Hume and the credit grabbed by one Constance Spry, a social-climbing society florist when students at her Winkfield Domestic Science School (at which Miss Hume was an instructress) were asked to cater a luncheon for the leaders of the Commonwealth Nations gathering together for the new queen’s coronation.
Yes, Winkfield. The dish was anything but new at the time; merely a rehashing of the chicken in curried mayonnaise concocted for Elizabeth’s grandfather, George V, in celebration of his Silver Jubilee. The name of the dish was, unsurprisingly, “Jubilee Chicken”. And you’ll never guess what was served in honor of Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee. It’s true. Jubilee Chicken.
But we made it because we thought you loved it so much. I can just hear her mother (god rest her soul) saying that.
The recipe was published in the newspapers ahead of the coronation so that the common people might partake of what their new queen would be eating on her very special day. However, since food rationing did not end until 1954 (several months later), it is very doubtful that most of the common folk had had sufficient amounts of chicken and dairy products on hand to whip of a batch of the stuff. If they had learned anything in 14 years of food restrictions and shortages, it was to make do, to improvise. Perhaps that is why there are so many different versions of this particular salad. Individual households approximated the dish with what they had on hand.
Today’s Coronation Chicken Salad is, essentially, cold chicken in curried mayonnaise. Simple but good. The original version, however, is a much more complex organism that included a cooked-down sauce of red wine, bay leaf, and tomato purée, and an addition of apricot purée and heavy cream. Throw in some mayonnaise and curry powder and… I’ll put it this way– I get the feeling that anyone who ate it would be spending more time on the throne than Elizabeth Regina.
Coronation-ish Chicken Salad
This is not the original recipe. Given the food rationing of the time, I think it’s entirely in the spirit of the thing to improvise with ingredients one has on hand. For example, if a bottle of red wine is opened in my house, there will never be any left over for use in a chicken salad. Instead, I have added vinegar. I’ve also omitted the original call for heavy cream, and the cooking of the onions, owing to my own preference for bolder flavors and an even stronger tendency towards laziness. Feel free to add or subtract whatever ingredients you like. Except for chicken, mayonnaise, and curry powder. I don’t mind, and I don’t think Her Britannic Majesty will mind much, either. For the original recipe, please visit The Greasy Spoon, a site I stumbled upon and of which I am now rather fond.
Note: I had chosen to serve my salad clad in nothing but a crown of watercress. Upon examination of the opening photo, however, I realized that crowns are meant to be worn upon the head, not sat upon. It is a small but important error. If it bothers you, please feel free to turn the whole thing upside down and place upon your head or the head of the queen nearest you.
Serves 4 to 6
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless, poached and diced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon curry powder (more or less, according to taste.)
2 tablespoons mango chutney or apricot preserves
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
1/4 cup currants or raisins
1 tablespoon vinegar: cider, champagne or whatever
the juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped cashews for garnish
watercress, washed and de-stemmed, for garnish
1. Combine mayonnaise, curry powder, vinegar, chutney, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir well.
2. Throw in the chopped chicken breast meat, celery, and currants/raisins. Stir until everything is well-coated.
3. Refrigerate overnight to let all the ingredients get to know each other a little better.
4. To serve, place on a bed of watercress and top with chopped cashews. Or slap some between two slices of bread. I will leave the decision of whether or not to discard the bread crust up to you.