Food & Drink

Singing the praises of tetrazzini

Several months ago, Sally Arias called to ask whether I was interested in looking at an old cookbook collection that belonged to her late mother. Arias gave me her mother's box of handwritten recipes and newspaper clippings.

The box's contents were better than any cookbook.

Arias' mother, Kathryn Rogers of Evanston, Ill., must have loved crabmeat dishes and chicken tetrazzini. She had dozens of recipes for both.

When the January issue of Southern Living featured comfort food, I was reminded of those recipes for chicken tetrazzini.

Even though a few of the recipes had been streamlined by using cream of mushroom soup instead of making a sauce from scratch, the dish still takes a while to make.

Dozens of Rogers' recipes were clipped from The Chicago Tribune and women's magazines, but the majority were typed or hand written by her friends. The recipes for chicken tetrazzini were similar — cooked chicken (or turkey) combined with mushrooms, a cream sauce and spaghetti. Some had a touch of sherry added, others called for pimientos instead of peas, and the cheese was American, Cheddar or Parmesan. Those that called for a cream soup used mushroom or celery, with sour cream added.

Just like fashions, cooking styles come and go.

Chicken tetrazzini was one of the first dishes chef Susan Licholat learned to cook.

"It's an older recipe, but I was surprised when I looked at it again. It's valid for today's cooking," she said. The chef at Natural Bridge State Resort Park, Licholat said she would rate the dish as moderately easy.

"It's not super easy, but it doesn't require any technique," she said.

Like many recipes, chicken tetrazzini has a rich history. In Guidelines, a newsletter for San Francisco City Guides, Susan Saperstein said chicken tetrazzini was named for famed Italian opera soprano Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941). She was a world-renowned star who was a favorite of San Francisco audiences.

Chefs often named dishes for prestigious patrons of their restaurants, and one theory is that the chef at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York created the dish to honor Tetrazzini's January 1908 New York debut singing Violetta in La Traviata.

A few historians claim that master French chef George Auguste Escoffier invented chicken tetrazzini, but it is not mentioned in his cookbooks, Saperstein said.

James Beard supported San Francisco's claim to the recipe. He thought the dish was created at the Palace by chef Ernest Arbogast. It is possible, Saperstein wrote, that Arbogast created chicken tetrazzini in 1904 when Tetrazzini sang in San Francisco and was featured in daily articles in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Decades later, the dish makes an interesting story as well as a great home-cooked meal.