Coronation Chicken: A Lowly Sandwich Filling With A Royal Pedigree

If you want to eat like a queen, maybe it’s time to break out the cold chicken, curry and cream sauce.

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the 60th anniversary of her coronation in a ceremony Tuesday at Westminster Cathedral. But the event also marks the anniversary of a dish as resilient as the British monarch herself: Coronation Chicken.

The recipe was invented as a solution to a conundrum of royal proportions: What to make – in advance – to serve 350 foreign dignitaries attending a banquet following the queen’s coronation on June 2, 1953? Oh, and did we mention that Britain was still living under post-war food rations that made many ingredients hard to come by?

“Chicken may be cheap now, but it wasn’t then,” notes British food historian Gerard Baker. “It was a relative luxury.” The use of herbs and spices, says Baker, was also a decadent move at the time, when “few food imports were coming through.”

Coronation Chicken, Baker suggests, was the culinary equivalent of the famous British stiff upper lip: “The choice of chicken says, ‘We’re managing OK now, thank you very much.'”

With its combination of cold meat and a creamy sauce, the dish is rooted in late-medieval cooking. And its mild curry flavors, Baker says, would have been familiar to the monarchy, given the large Indian presence at the Royal Court.

Easy to make at home, The Little Dish That Could soon became one of the most popular dishes of 1950s Britain, writes cultural historian Joe Moran. But in the ensuing decades, the royal treat – now a staple of delis and supermarkets – has lost its sheen of glamour, as the U.K.’s Guardian noted back in 2011.

“How the mighty have fallen. From royal favourite to sadly soggy sandwich-filling in a single reign, coronation chicken has experienced a decline in fortunes that would give even Fergie’s accountant cause for concern.”

But while the dish may strike some as decidedly retro these days, Her Majesty remains a fan, says Darren McGrady, who spent 11 years cooking for the queen.

Finger sandwiches filled with Coronation Chicken are a staple of afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace, he tells The Salt. ” And at Balmoral Castle, where she spends the summer, “McGrady says, “Coronation Chicken features heavily.”

Given the dish’s “peculiar” mix of sweet and savory, historian Baker, “it’s amazing how it’s survived.”

True, the recipe has been made more sweet over time. But Baker attributes its longevity to it being “not at all avant-garde, not offensive. It’s very middle of the road.”

Perhaps not unlike the queen herself.

Want to take a stab at this queenly meal? Here’s a recipe from BBC Food.

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