It’s become a tradition on this blog to dedicate a post every Columbus Day to Italian-American dishes like the iconic “Sunday Sauce” or the San Franciscan fish stew Cioppino. This year, we present Chicken Parmesan. While Sunday Sauce and Cioppino remain pretty much staples of the Italian-American community, it’s hard to think of an Italian-American dish, other than pizza or perhaps spaghetti and meatballs, that has become more of a fixture on the tables of Americans of all stripes than this one.
This transformation is, in many ways, typical of the changes in the diet of the Italian diaspora in America, in particular the way in which the community embraced meat. The traditional diet of poor southern Italians—who made up the vast majority of immigrants to the US—was largely vegetable based. (Think of last week’s post on scarola aglio olio.) In the old country, meat was a special treat reserved for Sundays and holidays, but the New World brought work and income enough to indulge several times a week, if not every day. The ‘native’ cookery was mostly meat-based, and the consumption of meat was, besides a way to delight in their new-found prosperity, a way for Italian immigrants to integrate into the larger culture. And although we now know better, at the time meat was considered a much healthier, more ‘nutritious’ option than vegetables.
In any event, on to the dish. You proceed very much as if you were making eggplant parmesan, only you substitute chicken breasts, pounded thin, for the eggplant slices. You also need to make some adjustments to account for the particular ways in which chicken breast behaves: The chicken breasts are placed side by side, or just slightly overlapping, since they are served whole, and the sauce is fully cooked and rather thick, as the dish spends only 5-10 minutes in the oven, just enough to melt the cheese and warm everything through.