A Brief History of Food: Chicken à la Marengo
Chicken à la Marengo is a French dish, similar to chicken à la Provençale, that consists of a chicken sautéed in oil with garlic and tomato, and garnished with fried eggs and crayfish. Over the last two hundred years the ingredients have varied considerably. Many modern recipes add olives but omit the eggs and crayfish (or prawns).
According to a popular myth, the dish was first made after the army of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Austrian army at the Battle of Marengo, located south of Alessandria in Italy, in June 1800. The story goes that because the supply wagons were too distant, Napoleon’s resourceful chef, Dunant, foraged in the town for ingredients and created the dish from whatever he could gather. Napoleon is said to have enjoyed the dish so much that he had it served to him after every battle. It is also said that later, when he was better supplied, Dunant substituted mushrooms for crayfish and added wine to the recipe, but Napoleon refused to eat it believing that a change would bring him bad luck.
One critic of the Dunant version, the late food writer, argued that the first published recipe for the dish omits tomatoes, but also that there would have been no access to them at the time. Unfortunately, this is not entirely true. Tomatoes are indeed not native to Europe as they originated in the South American Andes. As a food source, they first used in Mexico before being spread throughout the world after the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s, with one of the earliest cultivators being John Gerard, a barber-surgeon. Gerard's Herbal published in 1597, which largely plagiarised continental sources, is one of the earliest discussions of the tomato in England. He knew the fruit was eaten in Spain and Italy, but he nonetheless believed it was poisonous. The plant and raw fruit do have low levels of tomatine but are not generally dangerous. Gerard's views were influential such that the tomato was considered unfit for eating, but perhaps not necessarily thought poisonous, for many years in Britain and its North American colonies. By the mid-18th century, however, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopædia Britannica stated the tomato was ‘in daily use’ in soups, broths, and as a garnish. They were not part of the average person's diet although by 1820 tomatoes were described as ‘…seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets’ and to be ‘used by all our best cooks’. Reference was made to their cultivation in gardens albeit ‘for the singularity of their appearance’, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian or Jewish cuisine. In Elizabeth Blackwell's ‘A Curious Herbal’ the tomato is named ‘Love Apple’ (Amoris Pomum) and described as being consumed with oil and vinegar in Italy. So, tomatoes were eaten in Italy at time of the Battle of Marengo. Whether they were available in the area for Dunant to forage is difficult to prove.
In his book ‘Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favourite Dish’ author Andrew Uffindell examines in detail the military history of the campaign, the Battle of Marengo and the men involved. He also explores Napoleon’s eating habits and preferences and significantly the food stuffs available in the area at the time. The classic ingredients of the dish were not available around Marengo. Moreover, Dunant was not even in Napoleon’s service at the time of the battle. He was in Russia in June 1800 and did not become Napoleon’s chef until 1801 so he simply could not have created the dish after Marengo. Uffindell therefore concludes that the association of the dish with Napoleon after the battle is a myth which probably began with spin perpetrated by the Emperor himself. In the years following the Battle of Marengo Napoleon rewrote the history of the campaign to place himself and his military abilities in a more favourable light.
It is said that Napoleon particularly enjoyed chicken ala Provençale, often eating the dish for breakfast. It is just possible that chicken ala Provençale was the inspiration for the Chicken à la Marengo recipe that Dunant first recorded in 1809. Since then, however, the recipe’s ingredients of have varied considerably. Chefs have re-interpreted the recipe according to personal preference substituting rabbit and veal for the chicken and adding such things as mushrooms, truffles, black olives, white wine, different herbs and spices, and so on. Even the crayfish and fried eggs, once part of the original recipe, have been left out or substituted over the last two hundred years. The following recipe is an attempt to recreate the original, albeit for a modern audience:
Despite the story’s inconsistencies or whether the recipe’s origin stems from a myth, Chicken à la Marengo is worth a try. We hope you are inspired to do so. Bon appétit!
Uffindell, A., (2011), ‘Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favourite Dish’, Frontline Books.
‘Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo’, Food.com, Available online (accessed October 31st, 2023).