by Susan Saperstein
There is one thing we know for sure about Chicken Tetrazzini: it was named for famed Italian opera soprano Luisa Tetrazzini. Everything else is up for grabs - including whether to use chicken, turkey, or salmon.
Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941), called “The Florentine Nightingale,” was a world-renowned opera star who was a favorite of San Francisco audiences. Chefs often named dishes for prestigious clients at their restaurants. You may recall our story in the July issue of GuideLines about the creation by the Palace Hotel of Green Goddess salad dressing, named for a play entitled The Green Goddess when its star, George Arliss, was a guest at the hotel. In other restaurants, Lobster Newberg was first named Lobster Wenberg for Ben Wenberg--until the restaurant had a fight with him and decided to reverse the letters. And Eggs Benedict was named for either Mrs. LeGrand Benedict or Mr. Lemuel Benedict. A great star like Luisa Tetrazzini would have been another such inspiration.
But just what chef she inspired remains in doubt. One theory has the chef at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City, Mr. Pavani, creating the dish to honor Luisa Tetrazzini’s January 1908 New York debut singing Violetta in La Traviata. It is likely she stayed at the Knickerbocker at Broadway and 42nd Street; many opera singers in that period did, and in fact Enrico Caruso became a resident, moving his family there to be near the Metropolitan Opera. Although the Knickbocker no longer exists, one can still find a locked door at the Times Square subway station platform with the name Knickerbocker above it, where at one time a stairway led from the subway up to the lobby of the hotel.
A few historians claim that master French chef George Auguste Escoffier invented Chicken Tetrazzini, but it is not mentioned in his cookbooks. Some sources say that a recipe for Chicken Tetrazzini appears in the Christian Science Monitor in October 1908, and in the Chicago Tribune in 1911. Various other people claim their relatives invented it at the turn of the 20th century.
Supporting San Francisco’s claim to the recipe is James Beard, who believes that the dish was created at the Palace by Chef Ernest Arbogast. Arbogast, who retired after twenty years of service at the Palace, is also know for creating Oysters Kirkpatrick -- oysters dipped in a sauce of ketchup and butter, covered with bacon, topped with Parmesan cheese, and baked. That 1900 invention is named in honor of hotel manager Colonel John Kirkpatrick.
It is possible he created Chicken Tetrazzini in 1904 when Tetrazzini sang to great acclaim in San Francisco and was featured in daily articles in the San Francisco Chronicle. Or maybe Arbogast gave the dish its official name after the 1908 New York debut when Tetrazzini had a second triumph in San Francisco. Another possibility is that the dish was premiered after Tetrazzini gave her famous outdoor Christmas Eve concert in 1910 before an estimated quarter of a million people at Lotta’s Fountain. That concert came about when two New York impresarios began feuding over which controlled her New York opera contract. When they attempted to get an injunction to prevent her singing in any theater until their legal squabble was settled, Tetrazzini, who loved the worshipful audiences in San Francisco, headed to the City vowing to sing in the streets if she had to. Although no injunction was issued, she carried out her promise with the open air concert that has become legendary.
One final aside: Besides both claiming Chicken Tetrazzini, the Palace and Knickerbocker hotels also share an artist---Maxfield Parrish. The Palace still features the mural The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and the Knickerbocker had Old King Cole.
Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Fran-cisco, Frances de Talavera Berger and John Parke Custis
Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food, Arthur Schwartz
Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.
Diners at the Palace Hotel, 1934
Crowd gathered at Lotta’s Fountain to hear Luisa Tetrazzini sing on Christmas Eve 1910.
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