I’m the last person one could ever accuse of being a royalist, seeing as I’m more of a “bring forth the guillotine” kind of guy, but I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a decent coronation chicken sandwich. Call it my guilty pleasure, but I bloody adore what so many of my peers would view as a gastronomic abomination.
If the truth be told, almost as soon as I deplane and make it through the UK’s purposely intimidating-sounding Border Force, I’m scurrying around the airport trying to find a pre-packaged sandwich, and inevitably it’s coronation chicken.
Coronation chicken (AKA Poulet Reine Elizabeth) was originally created for the two dignitaries’ banquets celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation. It’s alleged that Rosemary Hume and, to a lesser degree, celebrity florist Constance Spry, two principals of London’s Cordon Bleu Cookery School, “invented” the dish, and it is believed to have been inspired by the Jubilee Chicken created for George V’s silver jubilee in 1935
Ostensibly the dish consists of bouquet garni-poached chicken mixed into a sauce containing onions, curry powder, tomato purée, red wine, lemon juice, apricot chutney, mayonnaise, and whipped cream. Perhaps that list of the original ingredients (not to mention a problematic tablespoon of colonialism) already had you balking, but somewhere along the way someone decided to add sultanas/pineapple and cinnamon. And that’s before we even touch upon the bastardization courtesy of the usual suspects: Nigella Lawson (mango, lime, chillies), Gordon Ramsay (crème fraîche, swearing, mangoes again), Jamie Oliver (lime, almonds, ginger, cilantro) and Yotam Ottolenghi (twists it into a chicken/broccoli bake).
Although it’s now a staple of UK sandwich fillings and shitty salad bars, back in 1953, post-war Britain was still suffering from the dreary austerity of forced rationing, and a dish with the aforementioned ingredients was quite the indulgence. As food historian Dr. Annie Grey put it, “It’s hard to overplay how much of a blingy dish this would have been at the time… Most people couldn’t afford to eat chicken; it was enormously expensive.”
Despite the British Empire’s century of ruling over the South Asian subcontinent, curry powder was still wholly exotic to the vast majority of the British populace, although perhaps slightly less so to the 800 affluent attendees of those two coronation banquets held on the 3rd and 4th of June, 1953 in the ballroom at Buckingham Palace.
This year King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla have chosen “a deep quiche with a crisp, light pastry case and delicate flavours of spinach, broad beans and fresh tarragon,” to serve at their nationwide Coronation Big Lunch event, even going as far as posting a “How to…” video on Youtube. According to sources, garlic and chili were vetoed as ingredients.
What a time to be alive.*
I feel it’s worth noting that on the days of the 1953 celebratory banquets, the coronation chicken was washed down with Krug Champagne, hardly the tipple of the budget-conscious. Looking at the utterly failed state of Britain today (see: record number of UK households relying upon food banks, more than one in four children living in poverty, etc.), and the upcoming £100 million coronation celebrations, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s an absolute disgrace.
Still, I do love a good coronation chicken sandwich.