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Vintage Kitchen: Chicken à la King

Chicken à la King.

The name suggests something fancy. Decadent. My friend lived in a neighborhood where the houses had elevators. As her mom drove me across town to my own modest home, where I had to walk up to my bedroom like a sucker, I tried to look in the windows of her neighbors. I imagined families sitting down at long tables—the kind where people would have to stand up and walk to the other end of the table to pass the salt—in their opulent dining rooms, eating chicken à la king.

Whatever that was.

I had no idea. My own knowledge of any à la king’s existence was based only on popular culture. Specifically in “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie exclaims his family would not have turkey à la king after the Bumpus’s hounds ran through his home, taking the bird with them. His disappointment was palpable. Between Ralphie’s reverence and a French-sounding name that included the word “king,” I assumed only the most well-off people were able to sup on such decadence.

How the dish came to be is up for debate, but most theories show it originating in the late 1800s or early 1900s, made for a well-off man by the name of Keene, or another by the name of King, depending on which folklore you wish to follow. My youthful supposition was correct: made with sherry and bechamel, chicken à la king was an haute comfort food served at upscale restaurants. Over time, it gradually transitioned into a more accessible and filling dish. By trading out rich cream sauces for a time-saving cream of mushroom soup, it became an easy dish for midcentury mothers to throw together ahead of time, creating a hearty meal for a hungry family. Over time, it faded from menus, and eventually out of most home kitchens, perhaps in favor of lighter fare.

I was reminded of chicken à la king when I bought 1958’s Good Housekeeping’s Casserole Book at an estate sale earlier this year. The well-worn cover features a curious dish called “Golden-Topped Baked Beans,” which includes a topping of oranges and canadian bacon. In an interesting food-staging choice, the pictured dish is overflowing, spilling down the sides of the casserole dish and onto the table below. How could I resist?

The book is filled with interesting recipes. The beefy and cheesy “A Man’s Casserole” looked delicious, but I assumed I and half my coworkers, as women, would be precluded from eating it. I eliminated “Shrimpalaya” from the running because it was not, as the name suggests, a shrimp-heavy jambalaya. It has peppers and tomato, sure, but it also calls for ham, bacon, parmesan cheese, and macaroni. That recipe was misleading. Who do those cookbook writers think they are?

I’m still pretty upset about that one.

Ultimately, I chose Chicken and Ham à la King for its name recognition and general appeal. After January’s Winter Salad debacle, I needed to win back my coworkers’ trust. Chicken and Ham à la King was the perfect amount of vintage, inoffensive, and simple.

The recipe calls for:

2 cups cooked chicken
¼ cup sliced boiled ham
¼ cup pimentos
½ cup green pepper strips
2 tbsp butter
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
2 3-oz cans of mushrooms, undrained
½ tsp salt
⅛ tsp pepper
Green pepper rings

After cutting the chicken and ham into bite-sized pieces, I combined them with the pimento, and set it aside. Then I took a saucepan and cooked the pepper strips in butter for about five minutes.

I’m not a fan of peppers, but butter has the amazing ability to make anything look, and smell, more more appealing.

Then I added the undiluted cream of mushroom soup and the mushrooms. Once all the saucepan ingredients were well mixed, I layered the casserole dish, first with the meat, and then with the sauce. Repeat.

The recipe suggests baking the chicken à la king in a 2-quart casserole dish. I used a 1.5 quart dish, because I like to live on the edge. Plus, that’s what I had available. Besides, a smaller dish increases the possibility of overflow, which, if the cover of the cookbook is any indication, the cookbook publisher feels is a sign of a good meal.

Look at that. They’re not wrong.

The casserole baked at 450 degrees for 45 minutes, until the top was golden brown and the sauce was bubbling-hot.

Chicken à la King is traditionally served on top of some sort of carbohydrate. Noodles, perhaps, or less frequently, rice. The casserole recipe made no mention of such a step, only to garnish with green pepper rings. The one person I found in the office who had eaten the dish before remembered fondly his mother’s recipe, which was spooned over toast. So that’s what we did.

Reviews of the meal were generally positive. Certainly moreso than my last attempt at a vintage recipe.

“This is awesome.”—Hannah

“It’s kind of like chicken pot pie, but without the crust. It’s really good.”—MJ

“Is there enough for seconds?”—Kyle

“Why is this cheesy? Are you sure you didn’t put cheese in this?”—Erica

For the record, there is no cheese in the recipe, but it did have a definite cheese-like quality, which was offputting for at least one person. But there was enough for seconds, which many people took advantage of.

Chicken à la King is certainly not the home-kitchen staple it once was, and even less so in the commercial kitchen, but given the response to this simple, creamy dish, I refuse to believe it’s been completely eliminated from our collective kitchens. Does chicken à la king still make an appearance at your dinner table?

Perhaps it’s time for a comeback.

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