Saturday, 3 April 2010

Chicken Elizabeth

I did this "defining moment" for the FT today:

The banquet following the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, on June 2 1953, demanded the creation of a celebratory dish.

It came from the royal florist Constance Spry and the cookery writer Rosemary Hume: chunks of cooked, cold chicken in a mildly curried mayonnaise sauce blended with tinned apricots. “Chicken Elizabeth” offered a tactful combination of luxury and austerity for a Britain still on postwar rations. It was also a consciously multicultural dish for the international guests, designed to appeal to all the new Queen’s subjects across the Commonwealth.

But Spry and Hume had greater ambitions for the dish. They were aware that many people would be watching television for the first time on coronation day and that this pre-prepared dish would be easy to combine with television viewing. The coronation marked a tipping point in the take-up of television – more than a million sets were bought in that year, and Chicken Elizabeth was designed as Britain’s first “TV dinner”.

Although it is doubtful that many viewers ate Chicken Elizabeth on the great day itself, it went on to become one of the most popular dishes of the 1950s. Soon renamed “Coronation Chicken”, its recipe was widely disseminated in the bestselling Constance Spry Cookery Book (1956), actually co-authored by Spry and Hume. “Not since Escoffier invented Peach Melba has a dish so fast become so famous,” the cookery writer Prue Leith has written.

Coronation Chicken appealed to a Britain that wasn’t quite ready for the ready meal: it was easy to make but it still gave the cook something to do. In the 1950s, eating in front of the TV became commonplace, but television viewing was highest among the over-forties, who were more likely to be accomplished cooks. For this new generation of TV viewers, dishes such as Coronation Chicken offered the right blend of convenience and culinary skill. It is not quite such a voguish dish today, and is most often encountered as a filling for shop-bought sandwiches.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Homosexuals are sincerely interested. They will sit for hours on stairs while chars complain about their rheumatism; they will stand at street corners while postmen rage against the handwriting of correspondents; they will pay extra fares to hear conductors rails against their wives. Every detail of the lives of real people, however mundane it may be, seems romantic to them. Romance is that enchantment that distance lends to things and homosexuals are in a different world from the “dead normals” with many light-years dark between. If by some change an hour of pointless gossip makes fleeting reference to some foible, some odd superstition, some illogical preference that they find they share with the speaker, homosexuals are as amazed and delighted as an Earthman would be on learning that Martians cook by gas.’ – Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant

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