What's The Difference Between Nixon Chicken And Chicken Divan?

In the mid-twentieth century, the United States reached peak casserole status. Recipes for all kinds of concoctions abounded as American home cooks sought easy-to-prepare, filling meals. Some have rightly stood the test of time, while others have thankfully fallen out of favor. And then there are the casseroles that seem to be mirror images of each other, just under different monikers. Chicken Divan and Nixon chicken are two such examples. Looking at recipes for each side-by-side may recall those "spot the difference" games you'd find in the back of a children's magazine. However, the two dishes are different enough in both preparation and provenance to warrant their own spotlight. 

A typical Chicken Divan recipe combines chicken breast, broccoli, parmesan, and a white sauce to bind it all together. It's the older of the two casseroles, created at New York City's Divan Parisien Restaurant likely sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. Its signature sauce was once a scratch-made Mornay, but, as the recipe filtered into domestic kitchens where the desire for simplicity was strong, store-bought stand-ins like sour cream, mayonnaise, or canned cream soups were substituted.

Nixon chicken, as you may surmise, gets its name from the 37th President. It was allegedly a favorite of the chief executive and his family, and alternately gets credited to either his wife Pat or one his daughters, Julie or Tricia. It too contains chicken along with broccoli, onions, cheese, eggs, and cream of mushroom soup.

A portrait of changing tastes

These two casseroles, so seemingly similar, have considerable differences that help paint a picture of American gastronomy in the 1900s. As technology entered the home at a stunning pace and more women engaged in work outside the home than before, trends in cooking moved away from elaborate preparations that might take all day. Instead, meals that could be quickly assembled and served surged in popularity.

At its genesis, Chicken Divan was a meal worthy of a restaurant rather than an easily-whipped together weeknight casserole. Chefs likely called on their training to build traditional béchamel and mount it with parmesan, poach chicken and shred its meat, steam broccoli, and top it all off with buttered bread crumbs before baking to golden brown. These were not steps that many cooks at home — then or now — likely wanted to take.

Nixon chicken is the logical conclusion to this trend. It isn't all pulled from the pantry, but it certainly doesn't shy away from store-bought items, and there's nothing wrong with that. Chicken and broccoli can easily be poached in the same pot, making cleanup a snap. Quality mayonnaise from a jar adds luscious richness, while canned cream of mushroom soup adds easy savory flavor. Nixon chicken is a hallmark of an era; a culinary postcard from the late 1960s and early 1970s.