Damn recipe for chicken à la Maryland
Nicole Diver, the anti-heroine of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, Tender is the Night (1934), first appears in its pages lying on a sandy beach near Cannes, sunbathing and writing out a list from a book propped open before her. Nicole shimmers into sight as a vision of unparalleled glamour – her bathing suit straps trail off her shoulders, her back has browned to a deep ochre, creamy pearls hang iridescent from her neck. She seems to be the archetype of the new unbound flapper, so independent and absorbed in her reading that she pays no attention to the antics on the beach around her.
Or so Nicole appears to Rosemary Hoyt, a young American starlet visiting the Riviera, who falls in love with both Nicole and her husband Dick Diver on first sight. The Divers seem like a golden couple to Rosemary, “the exact furthermost evolution of a class,” in Fitzgerald’s words, in command of the most exquisite manners and taste.
Only well into the book do we discover that Nicole is not truly in command of anything. That first moment on the beach appears very different through Nicole’s eyes, as she recounts it in the book’s middle chapters written from her perspective. By then we have learned that Nicole is a schizophrenic (like Fitzgerald’s equally glamorous wife Zelda), mentally crippled following a childhood rape by her own father, and hovering constantly on the edge of mania. As she lies upon the beach she is trying desperately to keep it together, reassuring herself that “everything is all right – if I can finish translating this damn recipe for chicken a la Maryland into French.”
Of course, the fact that Nicole – who has a brilliant mind for languages as Fitzgerald repeatedly emphasizes – is consumed with translating a recipe indicates the circumscription of her life. She is far from the independent woman she first appears, she is in fact utterly dependent on her psychiatrist husband to maintain her fragile sanity. Although she might like to do something “serious” like study archaeology, her “principal interest” as she says at one point, she is confined to the domestic sphere. Her intellectual endeavors are limited to preparing recipes for the family cook.
Or at least one specific recipe. Considering that Fitzgerald’s novel went through seventeen drafts before publication, it is probably fair to conclude that Fitzgerald put thought into his selection of chicken à la Maryland, or fried chicken with white gravy, as the dish that Nicole believes will hold her fragile world together. He even mentions it twice, having Rosemary notice on her second encounter with the Divers that Nicole, “her brown back hanging from her pearls, was looking through a recipe book for chicken Maryland.” Like Nicole’s brown back, the golden-brown crust of chicken Maryland symbolizes the good life lived by the expatriate American characters who people the pages of Tender is the Night. As its name suggests, Chicken Maryland is a French rendition of an American recipe. Even minus the “à la”, the dish’s reversed word order betrays its transatlantic quality.
In origin, the Chicken Maryland was obviously American – named for the state where Fitzgerald’s family originated. (Fitzgerald was named for his Maryland relative Francis Scott Key, author of the Star-Spangled Banner.) The dish first began appearing by this name in American cookbooks during the late nineteenth century. Fannie Farmer included a recipe for “Maryland Chicken” in the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896), the most successful American cook book of its age (which has never since gone out of print). Farmer, who was born in Boston, calls for dredging the chicken in flour, baking it and basting it with butter, then covering it with cream sauce. Most southern recipes called for frying the chicken in lard rather than baking it in butter, but Farmer, who struggled with ill health throughout her life, chose a less rich approach. In fact she included her doctored recipe for Chicken Maryland within her well-known 1904 recipe book Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, a likely candidate for Nicole’s beachside reading.
Or Nicole may have been searching for a Chicken Maryland recipe after eating the dish in France, since as James Beard notes in American Cookery, “there is no other American chicken recipe quite so internationally famous as Chicken à la Maryland.” The recipes vary enormously, according to Beard, but the great American chef’s favorite is clearly that inherited from his father John Beard, who cooked it on Sunday mornings. Beard père began by frying side bacon in a cast-iron pan over a low flame. When the bacon had crisped and released its oil he removed the pork and added pieces of chicken dredged in flour, salt, and pepper to the pan. With frequent turnings to produce an even brown, Beard fried the chicken in the bacon fat, then placed a lid over the pan to let the meat steam in its own juices. Next the lid was removed, the chicken crisped up and removed, then the pan was degreased, and a gravy made from the pan scrapings, flour, two cups of rich milk, and lots of pepper. Served alongside biscuits or popovers, who wouldn’t spend their life dreaming of such a childhood dish.
Auguste Escoffier, the French “king of chefs” fell in love with the dish when he tried it at Martin’s restaurant in New York in 1908. He included a recipe for poulet sauté Maryland in Ma Cuisine, his last cookbook – designed for the home chef – published in the same year as Tender is the Night. Escoffier’s sophisticated approach substituted a coating of bread crumbs for flour, and served the dish alongside fried bananas, corn cakes, and potato croquettes. He recommended coating the dish with béchamel, no mention of whether to scrape up the pan drippings into the sauce.
By the time Escoffier discovered Chicken à la Maryland, it had become an international hit. The New York Public Library’s wonderful database of historic menus includes hundreds offering Maryland chicken, among them a 1937 menu from the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C., my home away from Paris.
Most famously, Chicken à la Maryland was served at the very last First Class luncheon held aboard the Titanic, on April 14, 1912. By then the dish had come to symbolize the apogee of American international culture. (The Titanic seems to hold this place still. An original menu for its last luncheon, along with one other menu from the doomed voyage, was auctioned in 2012 for $160,450 – making them the most expensive menus ever sold).
Chicken Maryland, like Nicole Diver, symbolized the “furthermost evolution of a class.” Or consider it the other way around: Nicole Diver, like Chicken Maryland, symbolized a real classy “dish” – a word that during the late 1920s had come to mean a sexy woman.
At the end of the book, Nicole finally succeeds in translating her classy dish into French, leaving Dick Diver – and her own painful American origins – to marry a Frenchman who demands “parlez français avec moi,” whenever she slips into English. This is a happy ending for Nicole, who seems to recover her mental balance. But abandoning her American identity does not come without loss; fried chicken has real charms. I think I need to cook up a batch, using John Beard’s recipe of course.