Chicken Chicanery: A Discourse (Kinda) on the National Origins of Chicken Parmesan and Why on Earth It’s Called Chicken Parmesan in the First Place

Chicken Parmesan carved out a place on Italian restaurant menus around the middle of the last century. The thing is, it’s not from Parma and by all evidence it likely originated outside the Italian borders. Most recipes call for mozzarella and/or provolone with a slight few tossing in Parmesan as a finisher. Shenanigans! It’s half-truths and misappropriation nestled in a lightly salted bed of al dente angel hair.

There are people with what sounds like a marvelously fun job if you’re into musty old books and getting shushed by librarians because you’re cursing at the disorder neglect has imposed on the obscure corner of the research wing you inhabit regularly fun. They scour old cookbooks and menus, literature, and diaries looking for the first mention of a particular dish. Imagine these food historians as a better fed version of Oxford English Dictionary etymologists.

Those slightly overweight sneezy people have pinned the first appearance of Chicken Parmesan in Italy as being somewhere in the mid-1950s. That’s two or three years after it popped up roughly simultaneously in the US, Argentina, and Australia – the three top destinations of the 23 million people fleeing miserable poverty beginning after the end of WWI and ending around the mid-1950s. It’s what’s know as the Italian diaspora.

Italy has it’s own misnamed Parmesan dish that no doubt gave birth the New World version. It’s called Melanzana alla Parmigiana, or Eggplant Parmesan as we know it, assuming we don’t speak Italian. If any of you do speak Italian feel free to choose.

It’s not from Parma either. They aren’t as high on Eggplant up there as they are in the South. Malanzane alla Parmigiano likely comes from Sicily and Calabria. So how did Parma get all the credit?

There are two theories that both rely on a common habit we language speakers have of changing words over time. It’s the same mechanism that allowed the Indo-European word “pater” to morph into the German “vater,” the Spanish “padre,” and the good old fashioned American Talk “father.” It’s like a big game of telephone played out over a whole world.

The first theory is based on the name of the casserole dish that is used to cook the eggplant in traditional eggplant parmesan, the damigiana. It’s not a great leap that over time damigiana elides to Parmigiana. The second theory relies on that same tendency toward elision. The eggplant in Melanzana all Parmigiana is often layered like roof tiles. Italian for roof tiles? “Palmigiana.” Both explain the mis-appelation satisfactorily.

As to claims of Italian heritage, we have a few things to sort out. As I mentioned earlier, Chicken Parm appeared contemporaneously in three countries that took in millions of Italian Immigrants. I’m not sure how eggplant grew in the areas around Buenos Aires, New York City, and Melbourne but I’m guessing that whatever supply met the pre-diaspora population demand was not enough to satisfy the post Azzurri invasion. Canny farmers would realize there was money to be made, but replanting crops is not an overnight task. I can see the immigrants looking to adapt familiar recipes to available ingredients.

I also don’t think that Chicken Parmesan was discovered independently in diverse locations like Newton and Leibniz with Calculus. My suspicion is that it spread via post. Not everyone leaving Italy went to the same place as the rest of their friends and family. It’s easy to see a brother in the US send his brother in Australia or Argentina a what we’ve been up to letter that would have included recipes that reminded him of what was good about the old country. This is all supposition, but I think it’s reasonable supposition.

So the question is, do Italian speakers who grew up in the Italian culture but invented a dish using traditional Italian ingredients outside of the country of Italy get to refer to it as Italian food? I say yes, but I understand a purist choosing “Chicken Parm is not Italian food!” as a hill to die on. There’s nothing wrong with being categorized as Italian-American cuisine. I like Tex Mex too.

But if you deny Chicken Parm Italian heritage, you have to revisit melazane alla Parmigiana. If I want to be pedantic (And I do. I always do.) I might point out that since we know eggplant Parmesan has been around since at least 1837, it can claim to be of the Italian peninsula, but not of the nation of Italy which began as a collection of unified city states in 1848 and didn’t resemble what we now think of as Italy until 1870. That means it was invented by a bunch of Italian speakers who grew up in the Italian culture but invented a dish using traditional Italian ingredients outside of the country of Italy.

Again, they were on the Italian peninsula so maybe I’m pointing out a distinction without a difference, but I like doing that sort of thing. Pedantic is cool.

Call it what you will, we have both and we’d be glad to, in a not judgmental to your face way, serve them forth.

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