One of the recurring myth-tories of food history relates to Henry IV, King of France from 1589 to 1610. In 1598, after decades of religious wars across France formally ended with the Edict of Nantes, “Good King Henry” turned his attention to restoring the country to peace and order. He is famously said to have had as a goal "A chicken in every peasant's pot every Sunday." I have been unable to find any actual authenticated reference to this statement – perhaps if I could read sixteenth century French it would help! – but I live in hope that one of you with knowledge in the area can shed some light on the story.
Authentication is not necessary for the perpetuation of an intriguing or amusing story however, as we are all too well aware. The idea has been attributed, and has stuck, and an amazing number of recipes for Henry’s Poule au Pot are given in online and paper sources.
One of these completely unauthenticated ‘authentic’ recipes caught my eye recently because it is a rather anomalous inclusion in a book of recipes for boiled beef. The book is called 99 practical methods of utilizing boiled beef and the original recipe for stewed chicken, by the pseudonymous ‘Babet,’ was ‘translated from the French by A.R.’ and published in New York in 1893. The justification for including King Henry’s Poule au Pot, as well as the choice of 99 for the number of recipes, is elegantly explained in the Preface by a Mme. de Fontclose:
ARE you fond of boiled beef? Your only answer is a slight grimace. Words are superfluous. I can interpret your looks. And you, sir? you, madame? you, mademoiselle? you, baby?
Unanimously you reply, "No," a thousand times no, we do not like boiled beef, the bouilli as we call it at home. Yet — oh, the miseries of this life — we force ourselves to eat it at least once a week, with a resignation that our utmost endeavors fail to render a smiling acquiescence to the duty of economy. The pot-au-feu is truly delicious. As soon as it appears upon the table, our faces become illumined with expectation. We taste it; how savory it is, how delicately odorous. This is a dainty morsel, we exclaim. But suddenly monsieur's face loses its blissful expression; madame and mademoiselle suppress a sigh; baby makes a grimace; — to each has occurred the thought of the bouilli, the horrible bouilli, which is the price to be paid for the golden bouillon that makes our eyes shine, brings joy to our olfactories, and whets our appetite. Under the oppression of this sudden thought, all joy is banished, and the meal is finished in gloom.
The situation is trying. It is certainly hard that lovers of the pot-au-feu who cannot bring themselves to relinquish this savory and wholesome dish, should have to pay penalty for the indulgence by eating dry, tasteless, stringy meat, as offensive to the eye as to the palate. Some solution of the problem was needed. Babet has discovered it. Long life to Babet!
… In this book, monsieur, you will find revealed a secret which will make you wish to have pot-au-feu every day of the week. No more gloomy looks will greet the appearance of the meat which follows the soup. "What is this?" you will exclaim when the cook triumphantly places before you a dish whose savory odor proclaims its worth. Madame or mademoiselle smile mischievously, being already in the secret, if not the real cordons-bleus of the house, and only await your favorable verdict to announce that this is but one of many recipes, and that you need not
eat boiled beef prepared in the same fashion twice in the whole year. You cry in joyful amazement, "Truly this Babet is a marvel ! "
The suit is won. Readers of this little book will not, like the Bishop of Chalons referred to in the Memories of Saint-Simon, be forced to eat boiled beef au naturel for every meal, and be therewith content. All vegetables, condiments, and seasonings have been invoked to lend their aid in making the dish a delicious one, and after tasting Babet's seasonings, you will follow my example in modifying an old proverb to read : Seasoning makes the bouilli and the fish.
Babet deserves the thanks of all who found the pot-au-feu undesirable because of its cost, and because of the necessity of eating the insipid meat from which it was prepared. Babet has opened a new world to school-boys, boarders, soldiers, convalescents, heretofore condemned to perpetual boiled beef. Babet has lent material aid to the thrift of small households, by showing them how to utilize every scrap of the detested beef; and better yet, to Babet belongs the glory of having banished ill-temper from the family board, and contributed to the gaiety and laughter so essential to good health and well-being. Could humanitarian theories find a better application?
But, Madame, methinks you are puzzled over the number 99. Why not 100 recipes? you ask. Because, most charming of housekeepers, to you is reserved the privilege of completing the series by the invention of the one hundredth recipe.
And here is the recipe you have been waiting for:-
King Henry the Fourth's Recipe for Stewed Chicken.
The poule-au-pot, which good King Henry desired to have form the Sunday dinner of every peasant in the land, is a succulent dish too much neglected in these days, when dainty living is tending to replace the rustic cooking of the good old days.
But as the mere suggestion of a dish usually arouses a desire to taste it, we will give the recipe for the famous chicken, which, in spite of its apparent simplicity, is a choice morsel.
Get a good, fat hen, and buy it alive if possible, or at least, not drawn. Put aside the liver, gizzard, heart, lungs, head, neck, and wings, and any eggs which it may contain. Bone the head, neck, and wings, and mince the whole with ham, lard, bread crumbs dipped in milk, salt, pepper, spices, sweet herbs, parsley, and garlic, for we must remember that Henry the Fourth was a Béarnais, and that garlic is found in all the cooking of that part of the country.
When the hash is ready, add the yolks of eggs and put the stuffing into the hen. (Chestnuts and slices of truffle may also be put in the stuffing, but are not in the ancient, classic recipe.) Sew the opening, tie with string, and cook as follows:
All is in readiness for the pot-au-feu. Skim it, add the vegetables, and put in the chicken, which you allow to cook gently. Withdraw it before the flesh loosens from the bones, which would occur very quickly in the case of a young bird. From time to time lift it on a skimmer and prick with a knife, to ascertain the degree to which it has cooked.
Prepare upon a platter a bed of parsley, or, better yet, of cress. Take the hen from the pot, remove the strings, and lay it on the platter, sprinkling fine salt over it. It should be eaten very hot. The stuffing should be firm enough to cut in slices. The bouillon obtained by this process is exquisite, and the fowl loses none of its flavor. Taste it, and become convinced of King Henry the Fourth's solicitude for the well-being of the peasants of France.