Chicken À L’Orange

Exploring the immigrant culinary fusion of A Russian Jew Cooks In Peru.

With Thanksgiving approaching, some of us might be anticipating a smaller gathering than we had in pre-pandemic days. With a smaller group, and the most expensive turkey in holiday history, chicken can come to the rescue! This 1970s chicken à l'orange recipe from the AJHS archive is a tasty, retro poultry option for a celebratory meal or a casual weeknight dinner, and I hope you’ll give it a try. The original calls for a frying chicken (the broken down parts of a whole chicken) -- you can feel free to use a whole bird, but I prefer thighs. 

This recipe comes from A Russian Jew Cooks In Peru (1973), by Violeta Autumn, a noted architect and the third woman to graduate from the University of Oklahoma’s architecture program. Her work was part of the organic architecture movement, pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1959, she designed her home and studio, the beautiful Cliff House in Sausalito, California, which was featured in several magazines at the time. She was also an artist, interior designer and a cookbook author! 

A Russian Jew Cooks In Peru is a funny and fascinating cookbook, beautifully hand-illustrated by Autumn. Born Violeta Eidelman in Chiclayo, Peru, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Violeta moved to the United States as a teenager and became an American citizen in the 1960s, and her parents moved to Panama. A Russian Jew Cooks In Peru is a collection of her mother’s recipes and attempts to capture what Autumn saw as an ephemeral culinary practice of immigrant culinary fusion. “The immigrant never loses his traditional ways,” she writes in the preface, “but he does assimilate the new, and so manages to create something unique which lives as he lives and then it’s gone.” The book is dedicated to her mother, “who fortunately permitted small kibitzers in her kitchen”, and contains my favorite line I’ve read in any cookbook, historical or otherwise: “the empanada is the South American knish”. 

While her cookbook contains plenty of bread and dessert recipes and I am a baker at heart, this chicken à l'orange recipe exemplifies the project of this cookbook. Duck à l'orange, of course, is a traditional French dish (we are instructed by A Russian Jew Cooks in Peru under the title of this recipe to “pronounce [it] Frenchy”). This twist not only substitutes chicken for duck, but adds two ingredients you won’t find in a Julia Child recipe: soy sauce and ginger. So, not only is this dish a Russian Jew Cooking In Peru, it’s a Russian Jew Cooking A French Dish In Peru With Asian Ingredients, and the explanation lies partly in American immigration law. 

Autumn mentions in the preface that Russian Jews were moving in large numbers to South America in the “late twenties and early thirties”, after the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, or Johnson-Reed Act, which put unprecedented immigration restrictions in place for the Eastern hemisphere, requiring visas for the first time and establishing a severely restrictive and arbitrary country-specific quota system. Passed largely as a xenophobic and anti-Semitic reaction to turn-of-the-century migration booms from Eastern and Southern Europe, Jewish immigration was heavily restricted by these quotas. The Russian quota, which affected Violeta Autumn’s family, the Eidelmans, was cut in 1924 to 2,248 annual immigrants (and had not been restricted at all prior to 1921). Migrating for personal, political, or financial reasons, or to escape persecution, South America became a major destination for Jewish immigration as the United States remained closed off with eugenics-based quotas until the mid-1960s. 

Johnson-Reed was certainly not the first time that racism had informed immigration policy. In the nineteenth century, after the construction of the trans-continental railroad, American immigration policy began to exclude Chinese migrants, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943’s Magnuson Act, however the Magnuson Act maintained a ban on property/business ownership by Chinese people in the United States and set a quota of 105 visas for Chinese entries per year (compared to, for example, a British quota of 65,721 at the same time). Chinese people and other groups of Asian migrants, ultimately also excluded on the basis of race due to the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone, found their way to South America as well.

This recipe recommends a side of rice, which itself arrived in South America from Asia with Spanish colonizers. In immigrant neighborhoods in Peru in the 1920s and 1930s, groups of people from all over the world, excluded from entry to the United States, were sharing flavors and foodways. Violeta Autumn called this recipe chicken à l'orange, so we see it as a riff on the French, but we could just as easily see it as a spin on “陳皮雞”, or ‘tangerine chicken’, a citrusy chicken dish from China’s Hunan province (and a possible root of the Chinese-American orange chicken take-out superstar). Just as Autumn said, this cuisine hybridizing Russian, Western European, South American and Asian influences is not only maintaining traditions but forming something totally unique. 

Something about anything “à l'orange” feels very ‘60s or ‘70s to me, but the soy and ginger give the sweetness of the dish some complexity and help modernize the flavor. The orange flavor, which comes from zest and juice, comes through, and lowering the oven’s temperature mid-way through cooking helps keep the meat perfectly tender and juicy. I adapted the recipe only slightly to update it, but if you wanted to lean into the Chinese influence of the dish and add some spice, a chopped red chili in the marinade (or some red pepper flakes) would be delicious. I highly recommend this and hope you enjoy!


Chicken À L’Orange 

From A Russian Jew Cooks in Peru (1973) by Violeta Autumn
Adapted by Aurora Clare

2 - 2.5 lbs skin-on, bone-in chicken parts 
1 tbsp soy sauce
tbsp minced ginger 
2 tbsp vegetable oil 
1 tbsp honey 
1 tbsp dry white wine
Zest of 1 medium-sized orange (about 1.5-2 tbsp)
Juice of 1 medium-sized orange
Salt and pepper to taste

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Prepare marinade in a large ziploc bag by combining soy sauce, ginger, vegetable oil, honey, wine, and orange zest. Add chicken to marinade and gently massage to coat. Allow chicken to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour and a half. 

Preheat oven to 400℉. Remove chicken from marinade and place in cast iron skillet or other baking pan - allowing excess to drip off but retaining any sauce clinging to the chicken itself. Discard extra marinade. Bake at 400℉ for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 300℉ for 10 minutes or until meat thermometer reads 165℉ when inserted into the meatiest part of the chicken.

Remove from heat and squeeze juice from one orange on top of chicken. Broil for 2 minutes or until nicely browned.

Serve with steamed white rice.

About the Author:

*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Aurora loves to bake, and especially loves to put food in broader historical context -- she catalogues her historical sweet tooth on Instagram at @historybakes.


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