QT 62 – The Surprisingly Complicated History of Chicken Salad

QT 62 – The Surprisingly Complicated History of Chicken Salad

What is UP, my homies? This is J-Skillet, AKA JManFresh, AKA IcePikk, The Great JonGuino, coming at you hot and fast from the mean streets of your local library, to tell you about a topic you had no idea was going to be interesting, and quite possibly won’t be, if you’re not a huge nerd: Chicken Salad.

Yes, as we discussed on Monday’s post, it turns out that Chicken Salad was too complicated, historically speaking, to dive into mid-post. Also, never dive into chicken salad. The bowls are too shallow, you’ll hurt yourself, and then you’ll be in pain and covered in Mayonnaise.  Or Vinegar. Which is kind of the point. We’re not even sure what liquid you’re going to be covered in.

 Anyway, If there’s one thing my father told me, it was “shut up for a minute and let me think.” If there’s 2 things my father told me, the second would probably be…I forgot what my point was going to be. I had like, 2 whole ounces of chocolate, and may be going insane. It’s practically midnight , and I swear it’s still like, 79 degrees,.


One degree off! Good to know this bionic thermostat is still calibrated! 

 Shit. I honestly don’t remember where I was going with the bit about my dad. Was I going to joke about “counting your chickens”? Let’s see, what did Dad ACTUALLY say…”Make your name a stamp of value”…”If they don’t like you for who you really are, then they don’t really like you”…Wait, no, I remember now: if there’s one thing my dad told me, it’s “find what you’re good at, and make it what you do.” And “IF you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Yes, that’s two things, but, again, it’s almost fucking 80 degrees, and it’d midnight, so eat it.  And when I found myself 23 goddamn tabs into researching Chicken Salad last Sunday night, I knew that THIS is what we had to write about for today. So let’s ad-dress this salad, and get to it. (Apparently, heat exhaustion makes me more punny. How terrible.)


Digging at the Roots of the Willow

Now, my preliminary research, AKA, “the Wikipedia page” didn’t give me a lot in terms of the history of chicken salad. A couple recipes in the mid 1800’s, nothing fancy. The first place I got any real leads was from the website for Willow Tree poultry farms, who noted that “we can thank the Chinese for being the first to serve variations of “chicken salad.” Of course, these versions were far from what we are familiar with today, but the general idea was pieces of chicken mixed with a variety of spices and oils, always tied together by a binding substance.”

And here’s the thing about that claim: It’s dubious. Not impossible, mind you, but dubious. I can find absolutely no proof of it. What I BELIEVE they’re referencing is the existence of dishes like Khuo Shui Ji, or “Mouthwatering Chicken”, a Sichuan dish consisting of cold poached chicken served in a chili oil sauce, or Zui Ji, “Drunken Chicken”, where chicken is cooked in flavored Shaoxing wine, and served cold, often in the thickened wine sauce.

Marvin Lee.jpg

If you didn't know which of those two recipes I was going to focus on, then you haven't read enough of my praise of spicy food. 

The issue with that claim is that I cannot find ANY proof that this is older than French-style Chicken salads. Which could easily be my fault: these are, of course, Chinese foods, so looking for their histories in English is something of a fool’s errand. Sadly, I don’t read either Mandarin or Cantonese, so I can’t check more first-hand sources. Hell, I don’t even read Hangul, and as we touched on, that’s a language designed to be learned in a day!

Anyway, the CLOSEST I can find to any kind of reliable dating on these recipes is that mala sauce, the Sichuan sauce of oil laden with peppers and spices, first took off in night markets, who served pier workers in the 19th and 20th century. Which is certainly a fine pedigree, of course. But the earliest FRENCH Chicken salad I can find comes from 1808, and is directly referencing “older” ways of making it, so I have to assume France did it first. 



Mon Petite Poulet

Here’s where things get kind of fascinating. See, the recipe I referenced last paragraph, (And I know I’m skipping that ending line for that, I assure you) isn’t a French recipe. Or maybe it is. See, the recipe is FROM an English cookbook, but it’s called “French Salad”. This is at least partly due to the politics of cooking in the late 18th century. This is going to get fairly controversial fairly fast, but just stick with me here. Due to complex historical events and economic realities (France’s centralized position among Western European nations, several famous cookbooks created by the chefs for French Kings and other elites, etc) France had the reputation of being the ‘height’ of European cuisine. So there was a great popularity for French food and French Chefs in countries like England and Germany. 

Now, the recipe I have, as alluded to on Monday, is essentially cooked chicken tossed in a vinaigrette with a couple veggies: specifically, some diced shallots and minced parsley. (The recipe I’m referencing can be found here, and is connected to a Youtube Channel I’ve been checking out at a friend’s recommendation.) As we noted then, that bears more resemblance to the Vietnamese Chicken Salad  than what an American would consider chicken salad. So what happened? Well, my friends, Colonialism.  And weird timing.

Francisco Anzola.jpg

To be fair, the last 60-70 years have been "weird timing" for colonialism. 

The recipe I just referenced, as the video notes, is from an 1808 cookbook. That’s quite relevant for two reasons: firstly, because of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise just kind of showed up in the late 1700’s, early 1800’s. There’s questions on where and how it started that, again, no time to discuss right now. Jesus, Chicken Salad touches on a LOT of shit going down in various culinary circles. Anyway, Mayonnaise starts showing up, in fact, it’s first cited in a French cookbook in…1808!(Though it appeared a couple years earlier in a German cookbook, for a “Mayonnaise de poulet” which is FRENCH for “Chicken in Mayonnaise”)  So Chicken’s already being tossed in Mayonnaise, AND being made into Salad at the same time.

And, ALSO around this same time, France is starting to get very friendly with Vietnam. As in “signed a treaty and sent forces to makes sure the guy they liked ended up in charge, in exchange for land”. You know, typically European “friendliness” in those days. Surprisingly, this had mixed results: while they got along fine with the guy they helped, his successor was less than thrilled, a couple decades of tensions later, a couple decades of WAR later, and everything got sorted out. And by “sorted out”, I mean “France conquered Vietnam and Cambodia”


The typical European way of "sorting things out" back then, as well!

France would retain control of “French Indochina” for almost 70 years, but that’s not important.

What IS important is that the idea that this long association bred familiarity and intermingled cultural effects. France brought over the chicken salad, but it didn’t bring over Mayonnaise, for 2 reasons: firstly, because Vietnam is much warmer, and therefore mayo is gonna go bad much faster, and second, because of what mayonnaise WAS at the time.


Mighty Mayo

See, mayonnaise today is a simple condiment used on the wide majority of sandwiches. But when it debuted, it was a literal sauce, and its use for salads was discovered shortly afterward. And when it was, it was for FANCY salads, because remember, this is before widespread refrigeration. Mayo was something made in hotel kitchens for rich people, or made for a special batch of sandwiches. Mayonnaise was in Waldorf Salad before it was on bread.

Kimberly Vardeman.jpg

I've personally always preferred the Astoria. 
Historical New York Hotel Humor is definitely the correct follow up to a section on colonialism.

But, the relatively cooler temperatures of America proved a bigger market for mayo-based salads. Southern ladies would gather in the summer for chicken salad, bound with mayo, and served in a lettuce cup, in the antebellum period. It wasn’t until sometime around 1863 that a gentleman named Liam Gray, at his meat market in Rhode Island, supposedly created the first commercial chicken salad by mixing together left-over chicken with tarragon, grapes, and mayonnaise. The dish was so popular, that within a short time, the meat market became a deli., offering the salad in sandwiches right on the premises.

And THAT’s where the American Chicken Salad comes from: a man taking a fancy French Salad for the rich, and serving it on bread, out of his refrigerators, so that the honest people of Rhode Island could see how the wealthy ate, and try it for themselves.

I was going to write a big closing ideal here, but I realized that it’s MUCH more about mayonnaise than chicken salad, so I had to save it in case I visit that story again. And I guess that’s in and of itself a great metaphor: chicken salad is a dish of multiple distinct ingredients, working for a whole. And each part supports and infuses the other. Its history is the same, a stream of varied causes and continuations, overlapping and influencing each other. It’s a jumbled, sticky mess, all barely bound together into a cohesive whole. And that’s what makes it great.

Jon has made himself hungry, rhapsodizing about chicken salad, so he’s going to need some lunch here in a minute. If you’d like to atone for once bullying your classmates out of their lunch money by giving an overweight, glasses-wearing nerd some scratch for sandwiches, our Patreon is always available for your guilt-assuaging funds. Or you can just share our posts on Social media, and invite your friends to like our Facebook page. That’ll feed Jon’s spirit, instead of his stomach. Whichever works for you.