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Chicken Salad for the Heart

May 12, 2010

My Mama used to make chicken salad all the time.  She and my ornery grandmother Francis would lock this old metal meat grinder down to the kitchen table and start tossing on pounds and pounds of boiled chicken.  White meat, dark meat, gristle — all of it went through that grinder and came out looking like the death of  hamburger.  They would guard the old gray crank  like a family secret, warning everyone off for fear of lost digits and bleeding to death in a big bucket of ground up blah.

The chicken would typically be bought on sale and by bought, I mean that they would clean out the meat counter if the price was right.  After being ground down, it would be packaged and put in the freezer for chicken-salad-making at a later date.  The chicken that remained would be pulverized by bony knuckles and crooked fingers with pickles and mayonnaise until it resembled a dense beige brick of pickle-speckled tastiness.  Something about the way my grandmother used her hands turned the  texture of the meat from rubbery to silky, a transformation only she could elicit.

That was the chicken salad of my childhood.  Always served on toast.   Always tasted like love.

As I got a bit older, the chicken salad became something of a morph between the old-fashioned kind I was used-to and a Waldorf Salad, which I hated with a passion.  I longed for the smooth chicken spread and the sweet-and-sour homemade pickles, but that was not to be.  Experimentation was all the rage in the kitchen and the chicken salad began looking more and more alien to me at each sitting.   The tang of the pickles no longer tickled my tongue, pickles being so everyday and all, and were replaced by odd and raw things like cucumbers and shredded carrots and little cubes of zucchini.  The real crime of it all was the addition of grapes — sour, green soggy grapes that made me long for nothing more than a crisp pickle.

This chunky chicken salad also posed a problem on the toast.  The sharp vegetables would poke through the bread and once the grapes made it soggy, the whole thing would just fall apart.  The decomposition of the bread only made things worse, because then they went to serving it stuffed inside a raw tomato or on a fat old lettuce leaf.  What a mess!  My favorite sandwich devolved into a hooty-flatooty real salad in no time.  A true southern tragedy.  I mean, the heart wants what the heart wants!  And the heart wanted it the old way!

As a grown-up, I tried making it the same way my Mama and Grandmother had made it when I was a girl, just without a deadly grinder or any homemade pickles.  The result suffered.  I tried dozens of jars of pickles from the grocery store and farmer’s markets and people who still put them up in the summer, but never fell on the secret.  Never mastered the texture.   I got close, but nothing was ever quite the same.

And since one failure begets another, I finally gave up and began playing with the “advanced” version.  After much trial and error, I found some satisfaction with this combination of ingredients:

granny smith apples and cucumbers

the whites of green onions and lemon zest & juice

shreds of radicchio and chopped, toasted walnuts

lots of seasoned and roasted, chopped chicken breast


Instead of using straight mayonnaise as the base, I do something that will probably freak you out.  In the blender I whip up olive oil, apple cider vinegar, dijon mustard and a couple of ounces of cream cheese.  I know.  That sounds crazy.  After all the flavors make merry for a few hours, the cream cheese flavor disappears, but the super creamy nature remains and it clings right to the ingredients making other condiments unnecessary.  Finding the balance of flavors that suits you takes a bit of work, but if you already have a nice dressing that you love, I’m sure it would work perfectly!

toasted bread – a must!


It’s not the chicken salad I grew up on, but it is the chicken salad my children are growing  up on and they love it!  No special techniques, no special ingredients, and no celery — just the same old-fashioned love that made me big and strong.  The recipe may have changed, but the tradition lives on.

and the heart still wants what the heart wants

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharon Kay permalink
    May 13, 2010 6:19 am

    Hey, Darlin’! My recipe isn’t as clearly defined as yours since I don’t usually do anything the same way twice but it wouldn’t be chicken salad without apples and nuts.
    The food that my grandmother made that lives in my memory is black walnut candy, if you can cal that a food. What made it special? We wandered the woods gathering the nuts, dried them in the driveway and cracked them with a hammer on her back stoop steps. Oh my, I’m getting teary…
    Do we pass on little pieces of ourselves when we cook with love? Sounds rather cannibalistic, doesn’t it? Ha!

  2. Tanya permalink
    May 13, 2010 1:44 pm

    As much as I intrigued by your delicious looking recipes, I am even more in love with you ability to tell a story that tugs at the heart, makes you laugh, and wince all at the same time. Next time you make this yummy looking chicken salad save me a bite!

  3. May 13, 2010 9:08 pm

    Hey Girls!

    Thanks Tanya 🙂 You are so sweet. I’m really trying to put all of this together so that if the kids ever want to know more. They probably won’t, but I’ll have provided a bit of history. Maybe after I get enough together, I’ll bind them into a story book or something for them. They won’t give a hoot now, but when they are my age maybe they will wonder.

    Sharon – that is hilarious. I think about that all the time when I’m eating out. Clearly we’re eating skin particles and all sorts of other things off of the people who prepare our food. All I know is they hardly ever know how to do it right. There must be a DNA connection that makes our relatives food taste better to our palate. Of course, that kind of works in reverse sometimes, too. I’ve heard. hahahahahahah!

    Thanks again! 🙂
    Love you both!

  4. May 18, 2010 7:08 pm

    I would like to volunteer my services as a tester for your beautimus food. You know me well enough to know this offer is all about you, okay, maybe not. But, if I can ever be of service.

    • June 14, 2010 6:20 pm

      HAHA! Just saw this. You are hilarious! I think you would make an AWESOME taste tester because you like everything I make!!!!!! Instant validation 🙂

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