An American in Paris
At the height of the Depression in Canada in 1937, a Canadian Pacific Railway hotel in Regina, Saskatchewan offered this menu:
The Hotel Saskatchewan was built in 1927 in the boxy, neo-classical style popular in the 1930s and 40s. It was a Regina institution for decades. The “Sask” was a charter member of the CPR hotel chain that dotted the trans-continental line and helped link Canada’s regions. This railway-hotel network did much to foster the expansion and growth of Canada.
Today, the Sask is owned by Temple Hotels, a unit of Ontario-based, publicly-traded Morguard Investments.
The menu, sourced from the nypl.org digital archive, reflects a diversity of influences. There was B.C. planked salmon, pickerel fillets from northern lakes, and Britannic standbys such as liver and bacon, beefsteak, and lamb with chutney.
There were home-style, North American foods like tomato soup, ham steak, potato salad, and shortcake. The unusual-sounding sauerkraut juice probably owed something to Central and East European immigration, encouraged by the federal Liberal Party before WW I, especially to develop farming.
Continental dishes appear too, some from the French repertoire. One is “Stuffed French Mushrooms With Noodles, Chimay”, offered as a main course.
Chimay? Those who know beer well will immediately think of the noted ale made in Chimay, Belgium by Trappist fathers. They also make cheese in the same cloister.
Chimay beer was commercialized early on to support the monastery’s works. But was it well-enough known by the 1930s to feature as an ingredient in a hotel dish in distant Regina? Not at all.
Chimay in the name had to mean something else, yet explanations don’t come easily. The Hainault region in Belgium with its main cities of Mons, Tournai, and Charleroi is not a gastronomic centre, at least not in international eyes, despite – or perhaps because of – the famous Spa.
The region does not attract the bon ton in a way to suggest local dishes were named after a film star or opera diva.
Chicken Normandy, peach Melba, veal Marengo, Saratoga chips – these make sense. What could the monastic hamlet of Chimay, dominated by a mouldering castle and old European line, have to do with prosperous bourgeois eating, in Europe much less Canada?
I examined this question, and found that almost certainly the CPR’s dish was named for Clara Ward, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay (1873-1916).
Ward was born in Detroit, Michigan of a rich industrialist family. She married the Prince of her title at only 16 or 17 (accounts vary). Her background and eventful life are set out in a number of sources including this well-referenced essay.
Only the second American to become a princess, the union with a Belgian prince twice her age did not last. She took up with no less than King Leopold II, a cousin of the Prince, and ended by marrying three more times.
She had a stage career as well and may have worked as a courtesan.
A chocolate cake is named for one of her husbands, Rigó Jancsi, a Hungarian Romani violinist. See this recipe for Jansci cake, contributed to the Food Network.
It is almost certain in our view that the Princess inspired all dishes in the standard repertoire named Chimay.
Ward and Jansci were known to frequent the fashionable restaurants her position and money gave access to. Then, as now, restaurants proud of their rich and famous patrons named dishes after them, or a place connected to them.
The Chimay honorific was added not anywhere near Chimay the village, but in Paris restaurants, in all likelihood.
There were Princesses of Chimay before Clara Ward, but they are unlikely to have inspired the dishes termed Chimay. These emerge after Ward left America, encouraged by her ambitious mother.
“Eggs Chimay”, or oeufs à la Chimay, is another such dish. One or two mentions, including a 1975 New York Times recipe, terms it “Eggs in the Style of Princess Chimay”. So that seems pretty clear.
The recipe blends minced egg yolk with a duxelle, which is mushrooms cooked in butter and minced. The mixture is stuffed in the hollow of the boiled egg white. A Mornay sauce with Parmesan is poured on top, and the eggs glazed under the grill. It is served as an appetizer, generally.
Here is another recipe for eggs Chimay, from the blog Yes Chef, No Chef.
Another Chimay dish is Chicken Chimay, which features the noodles mentioned in the CPR’s 1937 menu. A recipe from Escoffier illustrates what he called Chimay Pullet or Chimay Poularde (p. 496).
The CPR’s dish appears to adapt two classic Chimay dishes to come up with a third. Instead of eggs, mushrooms were stuffed, perhaps with minced chicken, and were likely glazed with Mornay. Noodles were served alongside.
Needless to say, no Chimay or other beer is dashed in any of these. “Chimay” is used in an entirely different sense. This can lend confusion in 2018 as, if you google dishes for chicken or eggs Chimay, newer dishes pop up quite unconnected to Eggs Chimay or Chicken Chimay.
This is because Chimay beer has been applied to kitchen uses in the last 30 years, the period in which the small brewery revival encouraged interest in the Trappist beers. (There are about a dozen such breweries today).
Finally, there is an interesting Toronto connection to Clara Ward. An article by Anna Passante explains that Ward spent most of her youth in the city.
Note re images: the first and last images were sourced from the NYPL menu archive linked in the text. The second image was sourced from the website for Chimay beer, here. The third image was sourced from this informative web page on Clara Ward. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.