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Why does everyone love coronation chicken?

The origins of the dish are clear, but its popularity is mysterious.

By Felicity Cloake

If your attitude to the Jubilee celebrations mirrors that of Margaret Duchess of Argyll, who, when asked how she was marking the Silver Jubilee, replied, “Of course I’m very happy for the Queen and her family, but with the country in its present state I don’t think it’s the time for a great celebration,” then you’re in good company. In fact, the British attitude to such bashes has long been a little less inclined to forelock-tugging patriotism than the Palace might wish.

As the historian John Baxendale explained in 1995, when the country was gearing up to mark half a century since VE Day, our approach may have something to do with the lack of communal revelry in the modern British calendar: “Nowadays we celebrate festivals like Christmas much more privately at home, so we like an excuse for a knees-up… An early example was the Relief of Mafeking, when people flooded into the streets and got drunk… I’m sure it wasn’t because they were all that bothered by the Boer War.”

And drink is always a feature of such occasions; newspaper coverage from the coronation suggests that the street parties were mostly aimed at “the kiddies”, as the West London Observer put it, who “packed away all the sandwiches, cakes, jellies and ices until they could hardly move”. Later, their parents “with dancing and singing, kept up the party spirit until midnight”.

Twas ever thus. The coronation feast for George IV ended in a drunken riot, while in 1902 the Mayor of Newport, on the Isle of Wight, found himself petitioned by local clergy to replace the pint of ale at a coronation dinner “for the poor, aged and infirm” with ginger beer, as they felt alcohol would be “detrimental to the highest welfare of the people, and especially so on this festive occasion”. In 1953 many working men’s clubs supplied free beer for their members on the big day – an astonishing 14 pints for unmarried men in Normanton near Wakefield – and the Savoy was said to have laid on 3,000 bottles of Champagne for its coronation charity ball: 2.5 for every guest.

Booze may have been prominent, but beyond the cakes – such as the spectacular “two-tier confection… surmounted by the figure of the Queen in Coronation robes” at the Brunton Road and West Street party in Lancaster – there is surprisingly little mention of food in the archives, and certainly none of that now most indelibly associated with the day, coronation chicken.

In fact, as my father recalls, in 1953 chicken was still a luxury, “to be eaten mostly at Christmas” – though his family, like many, did purchase their first television for the occasion, which meant sausage rolls round the set rather than a sit-down lunch. Indeed, that guru of mid-century British cooking Marguerite Patten suggested a coronation menu that could be prepared ahead, so the hostess missed as little as possible of the action – though curried chicken salad does not feature.

Its origins are, of course, well documented. The Cordon Bleu cookery school was asked to cater for 350 foreign guests at Westminster School, while the real VIPs dined down the road at Buckingham Palace. The brief, according to Angela Wood, a student who helped develop the recipe, was “something that had a bit of flavour, but not too much” and could be prepared in advance and served cold. (It is sometimes claimed that their creation was based on a dish served at the Queen’s father’s jubilee in 1935, but evidence for this is scanty.)

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What is mysterious is why a dish from a minor banquet has come, in recent years, to be so associated with the coronation. While the original recipe, with its red wine and apricot purée, was published by the Cordon Bleu’s Constance Spry in 1956, it didn’t really enter the national consciousness until the 1980s. There’s no coronation chicken in Delia’s 1982 Complete Cookery Course, but by 1988 it was well known enough to be dismissed as rather old hat in Jilly Cooper’s Rivals.

This surge in popularity surely can’t be due to its being one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourites, so who on Earth is doing coronation chicken’s marketing? If any readers have inside knowledge, please get in touch. And in the meantime, have a great long weekend, whatever you’re celebrating.

[See also: Ukraine’s culinary riches offer hope, and ensure that the war is not forgotten]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special