I was surprised last week when one of the teachers made a sarcastic comment about American cuisine and used chicken and bananas as an example. I whispered to the person next to me “what is she talking about?” “Maryland Chicken,” he answered, his tone indicating that this should have been obvious. I grew up in DC, a couple miles from the Maryland border. Maryland is knows for crab cakes, not bananas and poultry.
During a lecture on wine pairings, another teacher was discussing the difficulty of pairing wine with certain foods. There it was again: her example was strange American foods like Maryland Chicken. I asked someone else this time, thinking maybe I had just not understood the first time. Again, “chicken and bananas” was the explanation I got.
I turned to Google and was surprised that the top hits were in fact about this absurd dish being linked to my neighbor state. Had I been living under a rock? But then I got suspicious. The top hits were all UK websites: BBC, Jamie Oliver and British fast-food chain named Maryland Chicken. I realized that Google was telling me what it thought I wanted to hear — but Google thinks I am British! To get around the filter bubble, I called my sister in DC and asked her to run the same Google search. She got none of these sites. If she searched for chicken and bananas, she got curry recipes as opposed to the “American” recipes I was getting in the UK. An informal (and statistically meaningless) survey of my facebook friends from Maryland confirmed what I suspected: none of them had ever heard of this dish.
A 2001 Washington City Paper article on the Maryland chicken industry gave some context. To the extent that there is something known as Maryland Chicken in Maryland, it seems to be really good buttermilk fried chicken made with local birds. Usually accompanied by gravy. No mention of bananas. There was also a rather successful fried chicken chain called Maryland Fried Chicken. It was at its peak in the 60s and 70s — in Florida. They specialized in “broasted” chicken, which is awesome and, as you might have guessed, does not involve bananas.
I only found two relevant mentions of bananas with fried chicken. Wikipedia says that “The dish known in the UK as Chicken Maryland, popular in the 1960s, consisted of fried chicken (often in breadcrumbs) served with sweetcorn fritters and fried bananas.” An About.com article on French food mentions that Chicken à la Maryland (a classic buttermilk fried chicken) was popular in the early 1900s served with bananas, a major import into Baltimore Harbor. Assuming this is accurate, it does seem that over time the Americans were happy to leave the bananas where they belonged — off the chicken. Only in the UK is anyone still making “American”-style chicken with bananas. It probably says more about UK cuisine than American. If you are dying to revive this back home, you’ll probably have to try Jamie Oliver.
I guess this mysterious food misnomer shouldn’t be a total surprise. I think it’s pretty common that foods get attributed to certain locations by historical accident. My husband, a native of St. Louis, swears that no one in St. Louis knows what St. Louis style ribs are, even though restaurants across America serve them proudly. As my cousin aptly pointed out, Americans love their French Fries, but they likely came from Belgium.
Fun fact that I can’t leave behind: Chicken a la Maryland was served for lunch the day before the Titanic sank. No confirmation on whether this version included bananas, but I would note that the Titanic was a British, not an American vessel.