Sauce Louis and chicken divan recipes bring a touch of retro cooking

A short tour of retro cooking here, which might be just the thing if you’re in search of comfort food.

‘Tis the season for Dungeness crab, our country’s most popular crabmeat. The origins of the recipe for Crab Louie (sometimes Louis) are unclear, although most sources say it came from our West Coast. No surprise there, as California and the Pacific Northwest are the richest sources in the United States for Dungeness.

The Olympic Club in Seattle, Wash., claimed provenance beginning in 1904 with a story that the visiting tenor Enrico Caruso ordered it off the menu so often during his tour there that no crab was left in the pantry.

Two slightly later origin stories, both dated 1914, place its invention at Solari’s restaurant in San Francisco or by Louis Davenport, owner of the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Wash.

No matter its beginnings, the salad called Crab Louie always is to end up including lettuce, crabmeat, halved hard-cooked eggs, cold poached asparagus spears and tomato, all slathered with Louie (sometimes Louis) sauce, a sort of savory Thousand Island salad dressing.

When researching the origins of Crab Louie, I thought often of my mother’s recipe for her “Sauce Louis” which gave me my first definition of the color pink. And some of my first kitchen tears: I remember grating the onion half on the small holes of the box grater to come up with the requisite two tablespoons of “onion juice.”

Being Belgian, she constructed a faux-Crab Louis salad on which to slather her Sauce Louis that was centered around shrimp rather than crab. (With celery instead of asparagus and the whole Lilly Pulitzer, pink-and-green thing topped with some black olives.)

Sauce Louis occasioned research on the origins of Chicken Divan, another favorite of my mom and as comfortable a food as we kids can remember. This is really retro food, folks. But make a big casserole of Chicken Divan right now, in the middle of this so-alone time.

Where Chicken Divan got its name, very few seem to be certain. Fact-checking doesn’t make sense when one source, for example, proffers the idea that this simplest, gooiest, most down-home of home cookings is named after the “divan,” or the French word for an Arab sultan’s chambers, hence “a great hall or meeting place,” hence the “reclining couch” therein. Pish posh.

The original recipe may likely have sprung from the hands of a home cook, a Mrs. Fletcher, who won a recipe-writing contest held in 1955 by the Divan Parisien Restaurant at the Chatham Hotel in New York City. Prize money: $5. (About $50 dollars today. Still, woo-hoo.)

Anyway, for all of the 1950s and 1960s, Chicken Divan was a runaway buffet blowout at parties and family gatherings all over the United States. This, I know.

It also was one of my mother’s great soothings to those in need of comfort and care. I remember schlepping casseroles of it over to nearly any mom of our acquaintance who had just come home from the hospital with a new child. Because we were Roman Catholic, this seemed to occur weekly.

Sauce Louis

Makes a bit less than 2 cups. From Madeleine St. John.


  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup chile sauce (NOT ketchup)
  • 2 tablespoons grated onion juice
  • 1 cup whipping cream, whipped into soft peaks
  • A few drops of lemon juice, to taste


Combine all ingredients together and refrigerate until serving time.

Totally Retro Chicken Divan

I’ve constructed my mother’s recipe as best as I can remember, having watched it being made dozens of times. In alternatives to the classic recipe, she did not make a base of béchamel or Mornay sauce, nor use only grated “Parmesan” cheese. In classic 1950s fashion, she used cream of mushroom soup and grated cheddar cheese.

Also as a turn on the classic recipe, she added cooked rice to stretch it and give it more heft. It’s best if the broccoli and rice are prepared just underdone because they will spend some additional time cooking. Makes 1 large casserole; serves 6-8.


  • 4 cups cooked broccoli florets (steamed fresh or cooked frozen)
  • 4 cups cooked boneless chicken breast, large dice or shredded
  • 4 cups cooked white rice
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese (the orange kind)


Lavishly butter a 9×13 baking dish. In a large bowl, mix together the broccoli, chicken and rice. Heat the mushroom soup with the mayonnaise and sour cream, stirring, until you make of it a sauce.

Put the chicken, broccoli and rice mixture in the baking dish and pour over it the sauce, nudging the sauce down into the other ingredients. Coat the top evenly with the shredded cheese. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until the cheese begins to bubble.

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