History of Food

History of Food

Friday, June 8, 2012

Chicken Tetrazzini Day - June 8

Who would have thought that there was an actual Chicken Tetrazzini Day?  As a matter of fact, in this world of FoodTV with all the different food programs making all of this different foods - Chicken Tetrazzini is a dish that doesn't appear to be thought of about much these days.  As a registered dietitian, I have had to plan many facility menus.  There comes a point that menu planning become tedious.  That is when recipes like Chicken Tetrazzini are remembered.  

As a person who never goes tired of learning about the cultural impact of foods, the history of food, and the food anthropology - researching the history of Chicken Tetrazzini was enlightening. Let me share a little about what I have learned so that we all can remember this entree and learn about its history.  

Surprisingly I learned that this dish was named after a person.  Who would have thought - a person with the last name of Tetrazzini.  This dish was named for famed Italian opera soprano Luisa Tetrazzini.  Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941), called “The Florentine Nightingale,” was a world-renowned opera star who was a favorite of San Francisco audiences. Chefs often named dishes for prestigious clients at their restaurants.  

But just what chef she inspired remains in doubt. One theory has the chef at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City, Mr. Pavani, creating the dish to honor Luisa Tetrazzini’s January 1908 New York debut singing Violetta in La Traviata. It is likely she stayed at the Knickerbocker at Broadway and 42nd Street; many opera singers in that period did, and in fact Enrico Caruso became a resident, moving his family there to be near the Metropolitan Opera. Although the Knickbocker no longer exists, one can still find a locked door at the Times Square subway station platform with the name Knickerbocker above it, where at one time a stairway led from the subway up to the lobby of the hotel.

A few historians claim that master French chef George Auguste Escoffier invented Chicken Tetrazzini, but it is not mentioned in his cookbooks. Sources say that a recipe for Chicken Tetrazzini appears in the Christian Science Monitor in October 1908, and in the Chicago Tribune in 1911. Various other people claim their relatives invented it at the turn of the 20th century. Yet another claim to the recipe is James Beard, who believes that the dish was created at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco by Chef Ernest Arbogast. It is possible he created Chicken Tetrazzini in 1904 when Tetrazzini sang to great acclaim in San Francisco and was featured in daily articles in the San Francisco Chronicle. Or maybe Arbogast gave the dish its official name after the 1908 New York debut when Tetrazzini had a second triumph in San Francisco. 

Another possibility is that the dish was premiered after Tetrazzini gave her famous outdoor Christmas Eve concert in 1910 before an estimated quarter of a million people at Lotta’s Fountain. That concert came about when two New York impresarios began feuding over which controlled her New York opera contract. When they attempted to get an injunction to prevent her singing in any theater until their legal squabble was settled, Tetrazzini, who loved the worshipful audiences in San Francisco, headed to the City vowing to sing in the streets if she had to.One final aside: Besides both claiming Chicken Tetrazzini, the Palace and Knickerbocker hotels also share an artist---Maxfield Parrish. The Palace still features the mural The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and the Knickerbocker had Old King Cole.
So this unknown day, to commemorate this often forgotten dish, is a reminder, a reminder to think about all the foods we used to eat and maybe, just maybe getting back to the roots of of our dining cuisine...our comfort foods.

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