Coronation Chicken, as Poulet Reine Elizabeth became known, was created as a balance between necessary thrift and needed elegance.
The Runaway Spoon
Last weekend, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee – 60 years on the throne. When she was crowned (she became Queen when her father died in 1952, but the coronation was June 5, 1953), Britain was still recovering from the wartime devastation, and rationing was still in effect for many foods. But it was, of course, necessary to create and elegant meal to serve to the guests of Her Majesty.
Coronation Chicken, as Poulet Reine Elizabeth became known, was created as a balance between necessary thrift and needed elegance. It was, originally, a cold poached chicken dish with a curried mayonnaise sauce. I have been doing research about the origins of Coronation Chicken and found that there is some dispute.
It is credited to Constance Spry, a famous English florist, but now thought to have been the creation of her partner chef Rosemary Hume (which seems more likely). But then, there was a dish of chicken in curry sauce served at the jubilee celebrations of George V in 1935. I even read that the idea was thought perfect for Britons to create at home to eat in front of the television watching the coronation.
But truthfully, I didn’t find the story as interesting as the dish. From its royal beginnings, Coronation Chicken has become a staple of the British menu, though it devolved over the years to a rather sorry sandwich filling. You’ll find this flaccid, flavorless version in café and sandwich bars across the country. Some more upscale chains do a pretty decent version, but its reputation has definitely suffered (I have even seen it as a sandwich filling from a shelf-stable jar). In my travels, I have encountered some truly awful versions. But many Britons make Coronation Chicken at home, and an English food magazine recently created a Twitter thread asking readers about the best way to make Coronation Chicken. The answers were so varied, it shows that this is truly a dish that has been taken to heart and transformed to family tastes.
I have made a curried chicken salad as long as I have made chicken salad. And at some point in my experiences in England, I began to call it Coronation Chicken Salad. It is one of my favorite versions, punchy with lots of flavor and texture. And it is what the dish set out to be, elegant but thrifty, and fit for a queen.