I write today, singing the praises of food. To invoke the well-known opening line of Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged that if some occasion exists, you can be sure my family is celebrating it with food. So Dear Reader, here is the place where I introduce you to the insanity that is my family. And by insanity, I mean absolute mania. We have a real passion for food, and its significance is great. Ah yes, food… *sigh* How we love thee! Food isn’t just necessary to biological living. No, no… no, no. We believe food is required to truly LIVE. Food is revered. It is savored. It is holy. Food is life itself.
Every relative I know has some eerie connection to food. Besides just eating the stuff. Obviously. They either worked in the food industry in some form, or they studied food in college, or they owned a food establishment, or they mastered the art of cooking pretty damn well. To wit, I own more cookbooks than I know what to do with. Making every recipe contained in these weighty tomes in my lifetime is most certainly out of the question. I just enjoy collecting and READING them. Crazy? Maybe. Fascinating? YESSSSS. Hey, we know and love our food.
Food is everything. Everything we do, every reason we come together, involves some food. I long ago realized the reverence bestowed upon even the most humble of family meals. Nothing in our family is commemorated without some dish or meal lovingly prepared. It’s just who we are. We celebrate promotions, awards, new jobs, good grades, major and minor accomplishments. We honor birthdays, holidays, the start of seasons, traditions. We break bread with any family visiting town. We gather for the good news and the bad. Any milestone in any one of our lives is not too small a reason. Food is how we express our love, gratitude, empathy, joy. Preparing a special dish is code for “Hey – I kinda like you. I appreciate you.” One of the greatest things I can ever do for you is make you something to eat. If I haven’t yet and I’ve known you for some time, you should be worried. The making and giving of food is something personal, shared between us, the quickest way to convey my affection.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be included in one of our family gatherings (whether at home or out at a dining establishment), then you know what I’m talking about. Food and family are so deeply connected that I can’t separate one from the other in most of my memories. Perhaps, more importantly, they’re connected to my greater sense of well-being. If ever I feel down, time spent with my family – especially around a table, sharing a meal – instantly comforts me. This simple ritual feeds more than my stomach; it feeds my soul. It means being surrounded by the faces of loved ones, passing around platters and bowls, the expectant smiles, the cozy smells of home-cooked food, the shared laughter. Mom’s emphasis on family and our traditions is something for which I am eternally grateful. I already know I will miss this more than anything once she is gone.
That’s a long way to go to tell you how much I love food. But it’s not just me. It’s everyone in the family. We all share this passion for food. Anyway, to illustrate exactly how something like food in our family can truly get out of hand, I present Exhibit A: The Thanksgiving Chicken Salad. Yes. That’s correct… chicken salad on Thanksgiving. Oh, why not.
This particular ode to food started with a flash of inspiration. A simple, unfussy recipe for chicken salad. Many years ago, Mom started serving chicken salad as part of the Turkey Day line-up. We definitely had all the traditional fare (still do). Because we never ate until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Mom felt we needed a little something “extra” to tide us hungry kids over. As for the origins, guess what? This, my friends, is a Sandy original. Through trial and error, she decided this was what she liked best. (And I agree.) Thus, the Pre-Thanksgiving meal was instituted and a new tradition was born. Little did she realize the monster she had created…
I remember those wan, early years. We’d fight over that damn chicken salad, because Mom only made a small serving of it and it was TASTY. It was merely an appetizer, after all. Naturally everyone in the family loved it. Demand skyrocketed. It quickly evolved from the tiny Tupperware bowl to the ginormous glass cake pedestal it’s served on today. It’s like some religious statue now, and we WORSHIP at the foot of it. Oh, it’s as big a production as the main meal. At precisely 11 am on Thanksgiving, an array of serving platters appears on the kitchen table – one with veggies, one with assorted cheeses and ham roll-up thingies (recipe for that some other day), one with chicken salad, one with crackers, so on and so forth. Family call ahead and ask – When are the trays gonna be out? What time should we come over? We almost – almost, but not quite – look forward to it more than Thanksgiving itself.
This, my friends, is our love affair with food. The obsession has no limits. I’ll never forget one year in particular. Mom experimented with a slightly different version of her signature chicken salad – she’d followed a recipe from a local restaurant – adding only a few additional ingredients, including green onions, a little Dijon mustard, and some Worcestershire sauce. My brother Ben almost had a cow. The tirade went something like this (and I’m censoring): “What?! You can’t do that! Where’s YOUR chicken salad? THIS isn’t chicken salad. Only YOUR chicken salad is allowed on sanctioned holidays. This is Thanksgiving, for Christ’s sake. Why would you tamper with such goodness? You can’t make revisions to this without prior approval. I mean, What. The. Hell?!” Or some such nonsense. I’m really not exaggerating here. Soooooo, never again did that version appear on Turkey Day… or really ANY day thereafter. Only the tried and true. :)
I’m a little more open-minded and don’t mind an add-in or two. I do think some interpretations of chicken salad are awful and downright nasty. Big gloppy scoops of shredded nothingness. Too much mayo. Not enough chicken. Unidentifiable chunks of who-knows-what. Two key things make this recipe especially delicious: the size of the dice and the sweet relish. Even though I like my “add-ins” I’ve included here, something about its plainness makes it win out. I really like it best unadorned. It lets the true star of chicken salad shine through – the chicken!
So I whipped up some of this for my Dad on Father’s Day. Simple and delicious. Just like the title says. :) With some hearty multi-grain bread, sliced tomato, and crisp lettuce. Even better with the bread toasted, I think. And again, I had Quality Control (aka Mom) taste-test it first. She held her right hand up in the universal OK sign. Wonderful, she said. That’s some high praise, right there. :) I realize what an amazing feat this is – making all this stuff. Even though DNA has given me a clear advantage, I have a long way to go to be anything like Mom. She is one-of-kind.
A Very Simple, Yet Simply Delicious Chicken Salad
4 chicken breasts (WITH the skin and bones – I know, yuck!)
1 small sweet yellow onion
4 stalks of celery
1 T. peppercorns
Wash the chicken. Cut all the veggies in big pieces. Throw it all in a giant pot. Cover with water. Bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to medium or medium low. Let simmer for about an hour (mine took 50 minutes). Depends on how big the chicken pieces are. Remove chicken and place in a bowl to rest and cool down.
***Do NOT discard the liquid! Very important, and almost the best part of this recipe. You now have some glorious golden chicken stock to use in all sorts of things. Mine yielded about 2 quarts this time.
Now comes the truly disgusting part of this recipe… Pull the skin off the chicken (gross). Remove the bones (even grosser). You should be left with some good meaty bits. Dice into ¼” or ½” chunks. A small dice is key; it allows you to truly taste the chicken without gagging on large unwieldy pieces, but it’s not completely shredded (hate that too). And you can appreciate any other ingredients you may wish to add (more on that later).
Add 1 cup mayonnaise and ½ cup sweet pickle relish to start. Some salt and pepper to taste. Stir together carefully. Refrigerate.
Some notes from Mom (or things that no one ever divulges):
I’ve learned chicken salad is really best to make the day before you want to eat it. The mayo soaks into the chicken. Then you can adjust the next day. I added another ½ cup mayo and 2 more tablespoons of relish the next morning. Perfect.
MB’s Add-ins (taste-tested and approved!):
Halved red grapes, diced celery, and sliced almonds
Diced red peppers, slivers of green onions, and chopped cashews
Chopped walnuts and fresh parsley
Sunflower seeds, a squeeze of lemon juice, and fresh dill