Unraveling the culinary history of Chicken Maryland is like pulling on a loose thread on a fraying sweater that may end up being a ball of yarn, to create a brand new sweater.
The dish goes by a number of aliases in the culinary world, including Maryland Fried Chicken, Chicken Maryland, Maryland Chicken, and Chicken à la Maryland. Some would even say that 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.
The first time I ever heard of Chicken Maryland was in the novel Tender is the Night by F. Scot Fitzgerald, first published in 1934.
Born in 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to an upper-middle-class family, Fitzgerald was named after his famous second cousin, three times removed on his father’s side, Francis Scott Key but was always known as plain Scott Fitzgerald. His father was Edward Fitzgerald, of Irish and English ancestry, who had moved to St. Paul from Maryland after the Civil War, and was described as “a quiet gentlemanly man with beautiful Southern manners”. His mother was Mary “Molly” McQuillan Fitzgerald, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the wholesale grocery business. Fitzgerald was the first cousin once removed of Mary Surratt, hanged in 1865 for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
Nicole Diver, the anti-heroine of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, Tender is the Night is described as “the exact furthermost evolution of a class,” in Fitzgerald’s words, and in command of the most exquisite manners and taste. She has an excellent ear for foreign languages. However, it is only well into the book the reader discovers that Nicole is not truly in command of anything. She is a schizophrenic, very much like Fitzgerald’s equally glamorous wife Zelda, mentally crippled and hovering constantly on the edge of mania. Throughout the book, 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 à la Maryland into French.”
Nicole 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: Chicken Maryland.
Fitzgerald began working on Tender is the Night during the late 1920s but was sidetracked by financial difficulties that necessitated his writing commercial short stories, and by the schizophrenia that struck Zelda in 1930. Her emotional health remained fragile for the rest of her life. In February 1932, she was hospitalized at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, Fitzgerald rented the “La Paix” estate in the suburb of Towson, Maryland to work on his latest book, the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychiatrist who falls in love with and marries Nicole Warren, one of his patients. The book went through many versions. Some critics have seen the book as a thinly veiled autobiographical novel recounting Fitzgerald’s problems with his wife, the corrosive effects of wealth and a decadent lifestyle, his own egoism and self-confidence, and his continuing alcoholism. The book was finally published in 1934. Critics who had waited nine years for the follow-up to The Great Gatsby had mixed opinions about the novel. Most were thrown off by its three-part structure and many felt that Fitzgerald had not lived up to their expectations. The novel did not sell well upon publication but, like the earlier Gatsby, the book’s reputation has since risen significantly. Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and financial difficulties, in addition to Zelda’s mental illness, made for difficult years in Baltimore. He was hospitalized nine times at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his friend H. L. Mencken noted in a 1934 letter that “The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing. He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance.
Given his Southern roots and 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 fill the imagination of the reader.
The second time I ever heard the dish mentioned was in the classic 1945 film “Christmas in Connecticut”, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner and S. Z. Sakall . The movie opens with two Navy men awaiting rescue on a raft for 18 days after their ship has been torpedoed, and Jones (Morgan) dreams about food and envisions his first meal: steak and baked potatoes, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, chocolate cake and ice cream. But the hospital food for the shipwrecked survivor is a big disappointment: a bowl of milk with a raw egg floating in the center—even though his shipmate dines on steak and Chicken Maryland.
While convalescing and still dreaming of that special meal, Jones comes across the menu of the month by Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck), “America’s Best Cook,” in Smart Housekeeping Magazine. Lane writes a monthly column for the magazine called “Diary of a Housewife” in which she details domestic life on her farm in Connecticut— and in the December issue, a Christmas dinner featuring fresh fruit cup, olives, bouillon, roast goose Bernoise with walnut dressing and giblet gravy, cranberry-orange relish, buttered green beans, candied sweet potatoes, tomatoes, celery soufflé, hot rolls, lettuce with Russian dressing, and for dessert, mince pie, pumpkin pie, ice cream, old-fashioned plum pudding, fresh fruit, mixed nuts, mints, and coffee—an unheard of feast in wartime America.
However, what Jones and the readers do not know, is that Lane lives in a flat in New York City, basing the descriptions of the farmhouse on that of her architect friend, Sloan (Gardiner), that she isn’t married and doesn’t have a baby, and that she doesn’t know how to cook! Yet her dinnertime preparations are mouthwatering to readers who are still enduring rationing: “I took crisp lettuce, romaine, and crinkly endive from my own garden for my husband’s favorite salad. For this I made a rich, creamy blue cheese dressing. Then to prepare roast duck his favorite way, I rub salt and pepper inside, then brown the duck in its own fat….” Her friend, Bassenak (Sakall), who owns a Hungarian restaurant around the corner from her apartment, provides Lane with the menus and recipes.
The plot thickens, and the menu, gets complicated when her magazine’s owner, Yardley (Greenstreet), compels her to entertain the shipwrecked sailor at “her farm” for Christmas: “You can imagine how much it’ll mean to him to have a nice homey Christmas with your wonderful cooking. To solve this dilemma, Lane agrees to marry Sloan, at his farm, on Christmas, and he agrees to entertain Yardley and Jones for the holiday. For those of you who have not seen the movie, the time spent at the farm is a comedy of double meanings and hidden identities, but among the most humorous moments to be enjoyed, but the viewing audience.
In the United States, fried chicken is traditionally considered a Southern dish. Contrary to popular belief, Southerners were not the first people in the world to fry chickens, of course.
People have been frying all sorts of foods, like meats, breads, and vegetables since ancient times and chicken is a global food with recipes varying according to the era, culture and cuisine.
The earliest known recipe for fried chicken is Pullum frontonianum (chicken à la Fronto) a dish from ancient Rome, found in Apicius, a cookbook by Marcus Gavius Apicius 4th or early 5th century. Almost every country has its own version of fried chicken, from Vietnam’s Ga Xao to Italy’s pollo fritto and Austria’s Weiner Backhendl.
This fuel-efficient cooking method had several advantages, one of which was portability. Dredging meat with flour and spices before cooking tenderized the item and enhanced its flavor. Medieval European cooks built on this concept, creating fricassee. Fricassee is not fried, but simmered in butter and served with creamy sauce.
When it comes to food, Maryland has its fair share of unique Mid-Atlantic fare that is not quiet southern, but not so northeastern either. The first settlements in what is present day Maryland were founded by wealthy Englishmen on the eastern shores of the Chesapeake Bay in 1634. They soon established the lavish social life they had been accustomed to in England. Just as lavish was the cuisine that was served by these gentry of the Old World, typical English foods were combined with the cooking skills of African slaves and the natural ingredients available, in the New World (Lee 1992).
Seventeenth century descriptions of colonial fare ignored the humble chicken for the most part. In the earliest manuscripts to enter America there are, of course, chicken recipes for roasts, stews, and pies, and none other than Governor William Byrd II was dining on the iconic southern dish of fried chicken at his Virginia plantation by 1709 (Smith, 2013).
By the mid 1700s, the efficient and simple cooking process of frying food was very well adapted to the plantation life of African-American slaves, who were often allowed to raise their own chickens. The idea of making a sauce or a gravy to go with fried chicken must have occurred early on, at least in Maryland, where such a match came to be known as “Maryland Fried Chicken.
Maryland-style fried chicken is traditionally served with gravy, reminiscent of fricassee. Batter-fried chicken appears to be a gift from northern medieval European cuisine.
Ironically, fried chicken did not become particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century. The Scottish, who enjoyed frying their chickens rather than boiling or baking them as the English did, may have brought the method with them when they settled the South, in particular in the mountain regions of North Carolina and Virginia (Mariani, 2013; Smith 2013).
Before that, the dish was usually referred to by many different names. The main distinction of Chicken Maryland is that it does not contain the multitude of seasoning and herbs that are found in most fried chicken recipes. The chicken is fried in a shallow pan, most commonly a cast iron skillet, rather deep fried in lard or oil like Southern Fried Chicken. The traditional recipe for Chicken Maryland is very basic and is often suggested to be eaten cold the following day. In its earliest form, fried chicken was seen as a picnic food.
By 1878 a dish by the name of Maryland Fried Chicken was listed on the menu of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, New York (Mariani, 2013).
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O Railroad) is one of the oldest railroads in the United States and the first common carrier railroad operating from 1828 to 1987. It came into being mostly because the city of Baltimore wanted to compete with the newly constructed Erie Canal ,which served New York City. At first, this railroad was located entirely in the state of Maryland with an original line from the port of Baltimore west to Sandy Hook. At this point to continue westward, it had to cross into Virginia (now West Virginia) over the Potomac River, adjacent to the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. From there it passed through Virginia from Harpers Ferry to a point just west of the junction of Patterson Creek and the North Branch Potomac River where it crossed back into Maryland to reach Cumberland. From there it was extended to the Ohio River at Wheeling and a few years later also to Parkersburg, West Virginia. In It’s heyday, the B&O Railroad serviced major cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Missouri along it’s route. B&O’s motto: “Linking 13 Great States with the Nation” became apart of the B&O Railroad’s immortality has come from being one of the four featured railroads on the U.S. version of the board game Monopoly, but it is the only railroad on the board which did not serve Atlantic City, New Jersey, directly. It is now part of the CSX Transportation (CSX) network, and includes the oldest operational railroad bridge in the USA.
Chicken Maryland was listed on B&O Railroad Dinning menu. During its existence from 1881 through 1971, “the B&O Dining Car and Commissary Department rarely turned a profit, but the railroad believed that if it provided superior dining and impeccable courtesy, it would attract passengers, shippers and investors,”(Greco & Spence, ). According to “Dining on the B & O”, many of the railroad’s recipes were originally sourced from Charles Fellows’ 1904 book “The Culinary Handbook.”
The Handbook’s author had a disdain for the affectation of “a la” and thus the recipe is listed here as “Chicken Maryland.” Ultimately, the recipe is derived from that book as well as multiple versions of the B&O’s culinary references and chefs’ notes. Based on the different B & O “General Notice” manuals, the chicken in this dish may have been fried or baked at various times during the height of its existence. I opted to bake it since I’ve done the whole frying thing on here before. Rather than gravy, a bechamel sauce which called for ¼ cup of “Mushroom Essence or purée” was to be served over the chicken.
Some local taverns in Baltimore also listed dishes similar to Maryland Fried Chicken, and served it with banana and/or corn fritters.
So why bananas? Bananas were once considered a luxury fruit. Despite of the banana’s popularity in the tropics, it remained virtually unknown in the U.S. until the late 1800s. Bananas were formally introduced to the American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia which included a 40-acre display of tropical plants. A local grocer sold individual bananas, wrapped neatly in tinfoil, for ten cents— an hours wage at the time. But bananas remained an expensive luxury, available only in port cities, like Baltimore for a number of years after the Exposition. And Baltimore imported a lot of bananas.
Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1905. “Unloading banana steamer.” A teeming scene that calls to mind the paintings of Brueghel, if Brueghel ever did bananas. Note the damage from the Great Fire of 1904.
By the end of the century advancements in refrigerated steamship and rail transportation made it possible to ship bananas to all parts of North America and so began the banana boom. Aggressive marketing campaigns taught Americans how to eat the exotic fruit. Newly affordable, the banana became a hit and banana production shifted into high gear in the Caribbean and Latin American Countries.
The dish first began appearing 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, Massachusetts, 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 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“.
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. By the time Escoffier discovered Chicken à la Maryland, it had become an international hit. He included a recipe for “poulet sauté Maryland in Ma Cuisine, his last cookbook – designed for the home chef, published in 1934, ironically the same year Tender is the Night was published. Escoffier’s sophisticated approach substituted a coating of bread crumbs for flour, Escoffier’s sophisticated approach substituted a coating of bread crumbs for flour, fried the chicken in clarified butter in a pan, not baked in an oven and served the dish alongside fried bananas, sweet corn fritters, and potato croquettes and bacon. He recommended coating the dish with béchamel, to which a little grated horseradish may be added or tomato sauce. In his recipe, there was no mention of whether to scrape up the pan drippings into the sauce.
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 in popular culture. 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.
Perhaps the best explanation for the name and the fame is the following one, found in an article in the Maryland newspaper the Frederick News Post of September 24, 1932. The article was a review of a published cookery book called Eat Drink and Be Merry in Maryland by Frederick Philip Stieff (1998).
“… but a customer discovered, much to her sorrow, that there is no definition, not even any recognition of chicken a la Maryland. She gave vent to her sorrow and anger in the words “What kind of book is this anyway?” …. After the customer had gone her way, the question was put up to the author of the book. His reply was “As a matter of fact I don’t think that the name chicken a la Maryland is original with Marylanders. I think it more likely that this was a name applied by outsiders who camt to our State, ate our fried chicken, which has always been of a superior quality, and then went away to tell other people about the fried chicken they had in Maryland – chicken the way they fry it in Maryland – chicken in the Maryland style, and hence, chicken a la Maryland. I don’t pretend to be a cook. All I did was to act as an intermediary. That is, collect the recipes and have them published in a book. The recipes bear the original names under which they came to me. I do not remember that there was any recipes for chicken a la Maryland. There are half a dozen recipes for fried chicken, however, and one of them, no doubt, will answer the demand for chicken a la Maryland.”
James Beard notes in American Cookery (1972), stated that, “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. According to James, his father began preparing his version of the dish by frying side bacon in a cast-iron skillet over a low flame. When the bacon had crisped and the fat had been rendered, he removed the pork and added pieces of chicken dredged in flour, salt, and pepper to the skillet. With frequent turnings to produce an even brown, the elder 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 wonderful dish from their childhood!
As a dish, Chicken Maryland is served in a variety of ways around the world. In England it is a meal consisting of battered fried chicken, served with banana, pineapple and corn fritters, peas and a slice of bacon. In Australia, it is served with a version of hush puppies and a healthy slice of ham. But the dish in this case, refers to just the chicken leg and thigh portions being served with the accompaniments. In Argentina, a battered boneless chicken breast or cutlet is served with a fried egg on top and creamed corn on the side. Where or how these variations which differ so widely came from or how they developed is unknown.
And with that being said, here is my version of Maryland Chicken served with Corn and Crab Fritters.
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 whole chicken (3 to 4 pounds), cut into 8 serving pieces, backbone reserved
4 slices uncooked bacon
Vegetable oil, for frying
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for basting
1 1/2 cups whole milk
Add the buttermilk and the chicken to a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place the bowl in the refrigerator. Brine the chicken for several hours or overnight for best results.
Remove the chicken from the brine. In a shallow bowl, season flour with salt and pepper. Season chicken lightly with salt and pepper and dredge each piece in flour, shaking off excess. Reserve seasoned flour.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Fry the bacon until crispy and brown. Place the bacon on paper towels to drain the fat and set aside. Pour off grease into a heatproof container and set aside. Return skillet to burner.
In a large cast iron skillet, heat 1/4 inch oil over high heat to 350°F. Carefully lay chicken pieces in hot oil, skin side down, and fry until lightly browned, 1-2 minutes. Using tongs, turn chicken and brown lightly on other side. Turn chicken once more so that it’s skin side down again and cover skillet. Cook, covered for 2 minutes. Remove cover and continue frying chicken, turning as necessary, until will browned on both sides and just cooked through, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer chicken to a wire rack set over a baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with salt. Brush with melted butter. Transfer to oven and bake until internal temperature reaches 180° (about 35 minutes), basting frequently with butter.
Pour off the oil into a heatproof container and return skillet to burner. Add butter and cook until melted and foamy, whisking to scrape up any browned bits. Add 2 tablespoons of reserved seasoned flour, whisking to form a paste. Whisk in milk and cook until a smooth gravy forms that coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes. Season gravy with salt and a generous amount of black pepper.
Place the chicken onto serving plates and ladle the gravy on top. Serve with corn and crab fritters, collard greens and mashed potatoes, if desired.
Corn and Crab Fritters
Makes about a dozen, 2-inch fritters
1 can sweet corn, well drained
3.7 ounces fresh crabmeat, picked
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/8 cup fresh chives, finely chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
Cooked bacon, reserved from above, crumbled
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil for frying
Finishing salt such as Maldon or Fleur de Sel
Add the corn, crab, cheese, basil, parsley, chives, flour, cornmeal, bacon, egg and black pepper into a bowl and stir well to combine.
Prepare a paper towel lined wire rack.
Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium heat until shimmering.
Add the fritter mixture 1 heaping tablespoon at a time to the pan and fry until golden brown on one side.
Gently flip the fritter over with a spatula and give it a light press to flatten it out, and then fry until the other side becomes golden brown and crisp.
Drain the fritters on the paper towels, and then sprinkle with finishing salt before serving.
Apicus. Roman cookery book: A critical translation of The art of Cooking. New York: British Book Centre, 1959.
Beard, James, and Earl Thollander. James Beard’s American Cookery. Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The 1896 Boston Cooking-School cook book. New York, NY: Gramercy , Reprinted 1997.
Farmer, Fannie Merritt. Food and cookery for the sick and convalescent. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1904.
Fellows, Charles, Anne M. Cranston, and Elanne C. Callahan. The culinary handbook: The most complete and serviceable reference book to things culinary ever published. Chicago, IL: Published by The Hotel Monthly, 325 Dearborn Street, Chicago, 1904.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender is the Night. New York: Charles Scribner, 1934.
Greco, Thomas J., and Karl D. Spence. Dining on the B&O: Recipes and Sidelights from a Bygone Age. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Howells, Marion, Vyvyan Beresford Holland, and Andre L. Simon (eds). Ma Cuisine: Auguste Escoffier. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1965.
Lee, Hilde Gabriel. Taste of the States: A food history of America. Charlottesville, VA: Howell Press, 1992.
Mariani, John. The encyclopedia of American food and drink. New York, NY: Ticknor & Fields, 2013.
Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Stieff, Frederick Philip. Eat, Drink & Be Merry in Maryland. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
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