Searching for the History of Your Grandmother’s Best Recipe, Chicken Marsala

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Campbell's. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Great eating means great recipes. Together with Campbell's Sauces, we present "The Source," where we look back at the origins of some classic preparations, from around the country and around the world.

Everybody loves Chicken Marsala, but nobody is quite sure where it comes from. Is it Sicilian? In a way. French? A little bit. American? Sort of. What's clear is that the best version is made by your nonna. In this edition of "The Source," we search for the roots of Chicken Marsala.

Plus, here are five things you didn't know about Chicken Marsala.

1

The town of Marsala is found on Sicily's western tip. It served as a major port city after the fall of the Roman Empire, called by Arabs "the port of Allah," or "Mars-el-Allah." Many of Sicily's early culinary traditions can be traced to Arabic influences.

2

Marsala sauce might be traced back to the introduction of French chefs into high Sicilian culture in the early 1800s. Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily — a sister to Marie Antoinette — imported French chefs because she didn't believe the local cuisine to be sophisticated enough for her court. Gradually, the French word for the chefs, monsieur, transformed into the word monzu. Noble houses employed these French monzus, or master chefs, in their kitchens as a status symbol.

3

The classic way to make Chicken Marsala is to flour-coat and sauté the chicken, then remove it from the pan and make the sauce. But it can also be made by simply braising the chicken in a mixture of Marsala wine, butter, olive oil, mushrooms, and spices. Although it has Italian roots, via those French chefs, it has become a truly Italian-American dish now, served at Italian restaurants across America, but it's hard to find in restaurants in Italy.

4

Although those outside Italy tend to buy Marsala wine for cooking only, it actually rivals some of the best fortified wines, such as Madeira or sherry, and is billed as an aperitif in Italy. (That isn't to say that Marsala isn't gaining popularity stateside — the Pantone color for 2015 was Marsala, and more restaurants have added it to their wine lists.) The popularity of the local wine began with an English merchant, John Woodhouse, who believed it to be so good that he founded a wine making and exporting business in the late 18th century. Marsala can only be made with indigenous Sicilian grapes, either red and white, and brandy or a neutral grape spirit, and aged like a sherry. Most Chicken Marsala recipes now substitute Marsala for dry white wine.

5

Although it's not impossible to find Chicken Marsala in Marsala today, the city's food scene reflects more of Sicily's melting pot culture. You'll more likely find Mediterranean-style seafood, couscous, caponata (eggplant with tomatoes and peppers), Baroque-style pastries, and yes, even some Italian-American red sauce dishes.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Campbell's. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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