Coq au vin, or, as my wife calls it Chicken à la Blah Blah Blah, is one of those many dishes that, by virtue of its French name, sounds luxurious, but whose English translation is not only humble, but almost off-putting. Your boss takes you out for a business lunch and you see coq au vin on menu, you think, “Well well well, someone’s getting a pro-mot-ion!” You see Old Rooster in Wine, and you think, “better start looking into moving companies.” Coq au vin is not alone in this. Practically the entire canon of classic French cuisine carries an attitude of superiority. Crème Brûlée? Well, happy Christmas bonus, friend. Burnt Cream? Sorry, but this year it’s Christmas cutbacks. Jambon Beurre? New office. Ham Sandwich? Shared cubicle. Pâté de l’oie et Canard à la Grand Mère? Whoa, you’re looking at the new VP! Duck and Goose Paste, Granny-style?’ ….of the mailroom.
Why are we such suckers? Why do we give a cul de rat for this arbitrary designation of luxury? There’s no need for it. It’s not like when a French person hears Coq au vin, they hear froufrou. They hear a dish like any other. They hear Chicken and Biscuits or Yankee Pot Roast. And that makes sense because coq au vin, while delicious, is just a dish, like any other. I bet many French people would look at our elevating coq au vin to the level of fancy cursive and starched tablecloths as a little ridiculous. Just as we would equally mock a French menu for bragging about Boeuf Braisé à la Yankee. You’d think, in our joyfully multicultural, 21st century embrace of a non-western America, that we would have overthrown this silly notion of French hegemony in the land of luxury. But no, we’re not even close to a revolution. If we were, the generic bar of soap I get at Target wouldn’t feel compelled to also fancy itself Savon à la Lavande.
When we elevate food from humble to haute, we make it unnecessarily intimidating. I would wager most Americans would feel a whole lot more comfortable attempting Chicken and Waffles than Coq au vin. I know I do. How hard could Chicken and Waffles be? It’s chicken, and, you know, waffles. Coq au vin sounds meticulous, and precious, like I might need to listen to a string quartet while I make it. But I promise you, Chicken and Waffles is about ten times more complicated, and will make about a thousand times bigger mess in your kitchen. Just the quantity of oil alone for Chicken and Waffles should be enough to make you say, “You know what? That old Julia Child cookbook my mom gave me could use a dust-off. Let’s put on some Bach.” Coq au vin, for all its eye-rolling Frenchy-ness, is an easy, one-pot dish, and not at all pretentious. Take it from me, the guy who used ‘hegemony’ in a food blog.
Coq au vin is a braise. Braise is another french word that basically just means simmer in some liquid, or in the case of Coq au vin, vin. You don’t have to use coq either; you can just use some chicken. You combine some aromatics, mushrooms, bacon, the afore-mentioned chicken and wine, you cook it for a while and then it’s done. I add two extra steps for finishing by cooking up a separate batch of carrots and pearl onions, and reducing the braising liquid to concentrate the flavors. I arrange it on a plate, then all I have left to do is eat it and practically fall over backwards, drunk with the complexity and layers of flavor at play in this classic dish. You know what I don’t have to do? Clean a waffle iron. Or sweep up a floury mess. Or dispose of a half gallon of frying oil. Instead I’m left with only one or two pots and the idea that I’ve gone and given myself a promotion to a luxurious level of happy with my humble dish of Chicken and Other Stuff, Boiled in Some Wine.
John Tufts is an award-winning actor and author. In addition to being paid to travel the world to wear tights and fight with swords, he has also written a book about the food of Shakespeare’s England called Fat Rascals: Dining at Shakespeare’s Table. His book is available at john-tufts.com/fatrascalsbook. His food history web series, “Eatso-Facto,” currently airs on YouTube. You can follow him on Instagram at @johnnymtufts. He lives in New York.