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Flock to the Fowl

Cobbled together from a mixture of French history and similar dishes that hailed from Europe, this chicken dish more than lives up to its name ("cordon bleu" means “blue ribbon”).

Tiffany Duncan
Tiffany Duncan
May 28, 2019

Before making chicken cordon bleu, I held the unexamined conviction that it was three things: French, fancy, and relatively difficult to make. I was also under the vague impression that this dish likely traced its origins back to some large flagstone kitchen deep in the heart of 17th century Europe, slaved over by servants and meant to please the palates of the ruling class. I also thought it was stuffed with blue cheese (spoiler alert: it isn’t).

Let me tell you, I could not have been further from the truth on all accounts. It’s laughable how wrong I was, and I’m willing to bet a lot of other people also labor under some of the same misconceptions I had until making it myself.

My first clue that I had gotten something wrong was how simple my shopping list was, with the major ingredients being only chicken, sliced ham, Swiss cheese, bread crumbs, and Dijon mustard. Huh. Not exactly the type of grocery list that makes you think of some genteel Frenchman eating it alongside goblets of the finest casked wine in the land.

My next clue that chicken cordon bleu was not the esoterically difficult undertaking I initially thought was when it wasn’t listed in my copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And then, as I started to prepare the dish, it started to seem like I was making something much more likely to be found at the Tulsa State Fair rather than the garishly-laden tables of European nobility — after all, chicken cordon bleu is essentially a wad of meat and cheese rolled up, deep-fried, and served with a mustard sauce.

Now, if that doesn’t sound American, I don’t know what does.

The real trick to this recipe is getting the rolls nice and tight.
The real trick to this recipe is getting the rolls nice and tight.

As it turns out, that was no coincidence; the dish seemed American because it is American. I did a deep internet dive on the history of chicken cordon bleu and proceeded to have my mind blown. The dish actually hails from the 1950s and ‘60s, which makes so much sense because I’d actually had a fleeting thought while making it that it had that decidedly misguided retro feel (you know, when for some forsaken reason it was fashionable to stuff anything and everything into places it shouldn’t go, like spam and mayonnaise inexplicably finding their way into desserts and Jell-O molds).

As I also shockingly discovered, chicken cordon bleu has nothing to do with the famed and elite French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. Zero. Zip. Nada. It isn’t some dish that was perfected within those hallowed culinary halls and copied the world over; instead, the exact origin/ creator of the dish is unknown. The best I can tell from scouring the internet, it’s a dish that was cobbled together from a mixture of French history and similar dishes that did hail from Europe, like “roulades” (roll-ups of meat) from Germany, France, and Italy that often-included stuffed veal or pork.

Translated, “cordon bleu” means “blue ribbon” which, historically, refers to Henry III of France in 1578, when he established the highest order of knighthood that was distinguished by the wearing of a blue ribbon/sash. These knights were highly honored dinner guests and were treated to only the finest in fare. Thus, the term “cordon bleu” is believed to have become synonymous with glamorous feasts and world-class dishes, which (and this is just a guess on my part) would have appealed to that strange and erroneous desire of the 1950s and ‘60s to fancify very ordinary ingredients into an unholy mashup, like hot dog fondue or ham-and-egg-stuffed cream cheese logs (seriously, Google retro recipes; there were some genuinely harrowing combinations).

The actual process of making chicken cordon bleu wasn’t nearly as complicated as I initially guessed. The steps are pretty basic: beat each chicken breast with a mallet or rolling pin until wide and flat; place thin slices of ham and Swiss onto each breast before rolling it up tight like a pinwheel; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes; batter and fry. I did end up having to bake them the rest of the way in the oven, but according to the recipe, this was normal. Actually, from all the recipes I read, the more nuanced way of making chicken cordon bleu seemed to be to bake instead of fry, anyway.

The real trick to this recipe is getting the rolls nice and tight. Watching some YouTube videos was helpful, but mine wasn’t as perfect as the recipe I was trying to follow depicted. A lot of my cheese also leaked out, but all in all, I was still pretty happy with the way the end product looked. And unlike tuna Jell-O pie, fiesta peach Spam bake, or some other ill-advised vintage dish, this one tasted pretty dang good. Plus, I happened to make this on my husband and I’s fourth wedding anniversary, so we got to enjoy it together.

Just call me June Cleaver, because I nailed this oft-misunderstood retro roll-up.