Dinner with Napoleon
Jun 01, 2020 03:37PM
By Cornelius O'Donnell
That famous portrait of Napoleon with his hand inside his rather scruffy gray overcoat always reminded me of the line I read in a long-ago book (was it Captains Courageous?) that I think went something like this: “His chef wouldn’t let Bonaparte go into battle without a liverwurst sandwich.”—or words to that effect.
One of Bonaparte’s great feats was getting his army through the St. Bernard Pass (supposedly in that gray coat and on a mule). The French army went on to defeat the Austrians at Marengo, but our hero had little to do with that, and “rewrote the official account of Marengo in his favor.” The story of the famous dish is also suspect. I learned this from a new (to me) book. In fact, the full title of this book on which I’m basing the longish column you are now reading is titled Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo, Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favourite Dish, by Andrew Uffindell. Further, the myth also refers to the 1800 battle itself, as the generals shamelessly manipulated the story of the combat—Napoleon even more than the others—to make themselves seem more heroic and combat-savvy than they were. The author calls it spin-doctoring. We have it now, the French had it then. I could go on about the politics of the time, and of this time, but I will spare you. Let’s get on with this beloved dish.
Turns out Napoleon’s chef, a man named Dunant, is remembered for either procuring, or getting his staff to assemble, the ingredients for a dish called Poulet à la Marengo (the latter was the site of the battle that the French narrowly won). Bonaparte, who led the French and (not yet Emperor) had the title First Consul, supposedly ate this during or after the battle.
Need chit chat for a cocktail party? (Does anybody give those anymore?) From the book, which is actually more of a tome for a war historian, I also learned that Bonaparte ate moderately but quickly, sometimes while standing, and that even at St. Helena the silver used for dining was spectacular, as was the Sevres china. Marengo appears in fiction in 1833, and the book’s author makes the case for the dish that “symbolizes French cuisine as a whole.” Tallyrand, the famous politico of the era, is recorded as serving Marengo circa 1829. I also learned that those famous St. Bernard dogs carried food, not brandy. And, alas, that the Duke of Wellington wrote that Napoleon’s entire life “civil, political and military, was a fraud.”
The Origins of Restaurants
The word “restaurant,” and the concept of such a thing, was invented by the French in the late seventeenth century. These were an extension of the small bars where you’d stop for a “restorative” glass. Then owners added food and the word “restaurant” was born. There exist extensive records of restaurant menus; Poulet a la Marengo turns up about 1807 but took some time to become popular. Chicken was expensive back then. Because the myth was born of its connection with the great French leader, tourists who had heard the “Marengo story” were anxious to taste it. One third of the restaurants (most in Paris) in Le Guide des Dîneurs had the dish on their menus in 1815.
The recipe did not appear in Le Cuisinier Impérial, the definitive French cookbook, in the 1814 or 1816 editions. But there it was in 1820. Moreover, the naming of food after battles was not totally unusual. The victorious battle at Austerlitz also produced a French dish, but it eventually faded. Another victory, this time by the British, resulted in Beef Wellington, honoring the great general. The author praises the dish as being convenient and yet elegant. Versions, even today, are found around the world.
Despite Napoleon’s exile and eventual return of the Royalists, Chicken (or veal or rabbit) Marengo stayed popular, although many points of interest in Paris that adopted Marengo as a part of their location title, in time dropped the reference (place names with Marengo appear in Cuba, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Belgium, and in twelve U.S. states).
Cut to the 1900s and you find Marengo a standard on railroad dining cars (1907), as well as in upscale restaurants. It was also cooked at home (in the basic version it is easy to prepare), and it’s a dish that’s often found at state banquets and wedding receptions, perhaps a bit gussied up. That’s easy to do too, as you’ll see below.
And to add to the fact that the main ingredient was pretty pricey before the depression, remember that in 1928 the Republican party’s slogan was “A Chicken in Every Pot.”
Marengo by the Book
When I heard the name Marengo, I knew that I had made it many times over the years. But whence came the recipe? I plucked my favorite go-to cookbooks and hit pay dirt on my first try: Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook (my copy is dated 1966). Next to the recipe was my comment, in pencil, “2x.” Must have been a large party.
In Craig’s recipe, his herb of choice was dried tarragon. Today we’d try for fresh. He used a 3-pound roaster cut in pieces, rinsed, patted dry, then dredged in flour—enough to coat all the pieces. Put oil, a little butter, and the chicken in a skillet, brown, then pop into a casserole. Drain the fat from the skillet, then pour in 1 cup dry white wine, scraping the brownings from the skillet. When sauce is smooth and thickened, add tarragon to taste as well as a teaspoon or more of salt and pepper. Pour over chicken. Top with 2 cups canned chopped tomatoes, a finely chopped garlic clove, and 8 sliced mushrooms. Cover and bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until tender. Top with chopped parsley and serve to 6. In the 1990 edition, Craig specifies ½ cup of chopped fresh tarragon or 2 tablespoons dried (crushed).
In what’s thought of as the “original” Marengo, Chef Durant garnished the dish with crayfish and eggs, fried so that the yolks were barely cooked, and the runny stuff would become part of the sauce. On a battlefield?
Variations on the Marengo Theme
Joy of Cooking (I used the 1980 edition) checks in with a recipe similar to the one above, but using 1 chopped onion and 2 garlic cloves, ½ cup dry white wine, 1 cup tomatoes (chopped, canned), ½ pound sliced mushrooms, and 1 cup pitted black olives. The headnote reads: “A good buffet casserole which profits from a day’s aging, refrigerated.” For 8 servings use 2 frying chickens. Joy uses thyme and a bay leaf in the sauce and parsley at the end. That’s no yolk. I might add the addition of 1 jigger of cognac near the end of cooking, or Napoleon Brandy, or a less expensive port. But just a bit of spirits is a good idea.
Online I found a blog—“My Carolina Kitchen” (no longer in biz)—and the author uses the usual ingredients, plus 1 tablespoon brandy, then kicks up the tomato content with 4 peeled, sliced, and chopped tomatoes plus a tablespoon of tomato paste. She makes the sauce minus the chicken, then serves it over poached chicken breasts or thighs. You do lose the “brown bits” from sautéing the bird. Oh well.
Elizabeth Yarnell’s Glorious One Pot Meals has a most unusual technique for cooking her version of Marengo. She first uses olive oil spray on the Dutch oven pan and inside the lid. She tosses 1 cup farfalle (bow tie) pasta in that pot with 1/3 cup water and 1 teaspoon olive oil. On top of this go ¾ pound chicken breasts or thighs, then add salt and pepper. Scatter 5 quartered garlic cloves on top, along with 6 ounces wild mushrooms, ½ cup pimiento-stuffed olives, 1 cup frozen pearl onions, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, and 1 tablespoon chopped basil leaves. Add 5 to 6 leaves of fresh chard, stems removed, and leaves chopped. Pour a 14-ounce can diced tomatoes overall. Cover and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. If the sauce is too runny remove the chicken to a warm plate or platter and reduce the liquid over medium heat, uncovered. This serves a duo. With all that garlic, well…
To end a Marengo meal, why not scour the bakeries and find a fitting finale to split with a friend. I suggest that multi-layered and custard-filled extravaganza: a Napoleon.
Chicken Marengo a la Uffindell
This is the recipe as it appears on the back of the dust cover of the book. Inside you’ll encounter precious little of the dish until you get to about page 170. You might enjoy a Finger Lakes Riesling while you’re reading and cooking, and another while you’re eating.
- 2 chicken breast fillets, skinless and each cut into 2 or 3 pieces
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 1 medium-sized onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 3½ oz. mushrooms, sliced
- 2 1/3 cups dry white wine
- 2/3 cup chicken stock or broth
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed (skin removed, bottom trimmed)
- 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 tsp. finely chopped parsley
- 5½ oz. long-grain rice
- 2 medium-sized eggs
Heat a large frying pan and add the olive oil. Dab the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel. Roll them in the flour and shake off the excess. Add the chicken to the pan and sauté over moderate heat for about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken and add the onions and mushrooms to the pan and sauté for about 6 minutes. Once they are tender, tip them into another skillet or saucepan.
Remove the pan you used for the chicken and vegetables and add the wine, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the broth, garlic, and tomato paste and stir well. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered (use a flat baking pan if you’ve no cover), for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to simmer. While the sauce is reducing, cook the rice. Arrange a bed of rice on each plate. Spoon the chicken and sauce on top and fry the eggs (you want the yolks to be runny). Garnish each plate with an egg and top with parsley. Bon appetit!