Reviews: Books of General Interest

Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favorite Dish

Uffindell, Andrew. Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favorite Dish. London: Frontline Books, 2011. 286 pages.  ISBN# 9781848325784. Hardcover.  £20/$39.95

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up a copy this book.  The title was a bit vague and the synopsis on the flap of the front cover did not help.  I have never been interested in reading cookbooks or histories of food, so I approached it with little enthusiasm.  What I found was a fascinating read about Napoleon and what he ate, the French food of the Napoleonic Empire, and the impact of chicken Marengo on French cuisine over the past 200 years.

Mr. Uffindell begins with an examination of the myths that surrounds the dish and matters related to it. . . Was Napoleon really fed the dish, known forever after, as chicken Marengo, on the night of his victory on that battlefield on 14 June 1800?  He then expands his study to other legends that surround the Marengo Campaign, including whether Napoleon really crossed the Alps on horseback? Which of his generals were the most responsible for winning the battle – Desaix or Kellermann?  Did Napoleon steal the glory that should have been theirs?  Mr. Uffindell also looks quite extensively on how Napoleon manipulated public perception of the battle to ensure that he was portrayed in the best light.

The author also looks closely at the dish that became forever associated with the battle and how it evolved over the past two centuries. Interestingly, it grew more popular after the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and in many ways became synonymous with the rise of haute cuisine throughout the world.  He implies that British tourist were directly involved with the spreading popularity of the dish, which never declined, and was still being served well into the late 20th Century.  The dish has shown up as airline food, fast food at train stations, and was even fed to astronauts on the Soviet space station.  In the late 1980s, the U.S. Army experimented with it as a possible choice in its combat rations (MREs)!

Mr. Uffindell also discussed in great length on the myths surrounding Napoleon’s food and drink.  Did he drink hard liquor?  Was his public image of a man who ate the simple food of a soldier really true?  What his favorite foods were and which ones did he disliked? The answers may surprise the reader, for the picture he paints of Napoleon dining in private was quite different than the Napoleon at state dinners.

The book closes, quite appropriately, with a recipe for chicken Marengo.  The ingredients are in both metric and imperial measurements.

It is difficult to categorize what kind of book Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo is. It is a combination of a campaign study, a biography of a man as seen by what he ate, and a history of a recipe that has been tried and tested over 200 years.  Above all else, it is an entertaining book that will be appreciated by both the serious Napoleonic scholar and those who enjoy good food!

 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2011

 

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