Which came first: Chicken salad, or debates about chicken salad?
That may be impossible to answer. Chicken salad history is tougher to crack than a hard-boiled egg.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Chicken salad is so adaptable that cooks can take it in any direction they want. But when you dig through cookbook history, everything you think you know is contradicted by something else.
It just evolved as a way to use leftovers? No, there are a lot of 19th-century recipes that start with cooking the chicken, making mayonnaise and adding elaborate garnishes. A dish that involved was probably made for special occasions and social events.
It’s Southern? Well, it stayed popular in the South, where most houses weren’t air-conditioned until well into the 20th century – cold suppers were important around here. But summer is hot in most areas of the country, and there are plenty of examples of chicken salad from other regions.
In fact, when we asked author Jean Anderson of Chapel Hill to dig into her extensive cookbook collection, the earliest recipe she turned up was in a Massachusetts cookbook printed in 1829. “American Frugal Housewife,” written by Lydia Maria Child, suggested chicken as a substitute in a recipe for cold lobster salad.
Anderson also found two versions in the original version of “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” by Fannie Farmer, which dates to 1896. Both used mayonnaise or a cream dressing and celery. One included cooked egg yolk as a garnish, and the other had diced pickle.
So much for the notion that putting eggs and pickle in chicken salad makes it Southern.
The controversy continues today when you consider the “rules” on making chicken salad. Some people insist you have to poach the chicken. That makes it moist, so you don’t have to add too much mayonnaise. But the editors at America’s Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines, insist that poached chicken tastes boiled, and roast chicken is the only way to go. For this story, we made chicken both ways in the five versions we tested. Both had advantages. Poached chicken was moist and silky, while roasted had deeper flavor and firmer texture.
That still leaves another controversy: Should chicken salad be chunky or smooth?
Like many recipes that start with food companies, Anderson thinks finely minced chicken salad started when home meat grinders got popular in the early 20th century. The booklets that came with the grinders usually included a chicken salad recipe. Putting chilled, cooked chicken through a grinder makes a smooth spread that became very popular as a sandwich at tea rooms and ladies luncheon events. It’s worth rediscovering, actually: We found that it makes a wonderful salad with a silky, fluffy texture that’s perfect on a cracker or on soft bread.
Today, though, chunkier salad is in style. It’s less work and more substantial as a dinner salad or a filling lunch.
Maybe that’s the key to the long survival of chicken salad. Like the other mayonnaise-based classics, potato salad and pimento cheese, you can make it any way you want – as long as you do it the way your mother did.