Flying the Coop: “Sins, like chickens, come home to roost.” – Charles W. Chestnutt
This is the story about how being polite can sometimes get you into big trouble.
Before we permanently moved from Nashville about seven years ago (my how time flies!), we made many weekend trips to oversee various work projects around the property, including our massive house renovation. We’d pack up the dogs and drive for seven long hours on Interstate 40 to get to our future home, veering onto I-81 just past Knoxville, until the highway ended, and we made our descent into the western North Carolina mountains on tree-lined rural roads from the edge of eastern Tennessee. I always dreaded the last few miles because our beagle, Sienna, would inevitably get carsick from the winding curves leading to our front gate. We cooed and stroked her from the front seat when she began to display the telltale signs of motion sickness; but, despite our encouragement, petting and pleading, she never could make it past the driveway, poor thing. Not the best way to end a long and tiring trip.
We always stayed at the main house, upstairs in Adam’s childhood summer bedroom – a small space, fitted with a full-sized bed that was barely big enough for two tall people and a couple of spoiled canines, but it was cozy, nonetheless. Downstairs in the galley-style kitchen, Adam’s mom always stockpiled the larder and refrigerator for our visits with company-worthy items, good chocolates and the now infamous chicken and grape salad.
You never really know how these things start – innocuous at first, but before you know it, you have the “snowball effect” and there’s no turning back on the avalanche. The first time we had The Salad, we did the polite and reasonable thing when she asked us how we liked it – we lied. I mean, it was okay as far as store-bought deli chicken salad goes, but certainly nothing to crow about since it was pretty bland, watery and overrun with large grapes that were way too big to be left whole. We didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, so we oooh-ed and aaah-ed, “Yummy goodness!” and thanked her profusely for it. Raised to be a good Southern Protestant, I was taught that a little white lie, in the context of being well-mannered to spare someone’s feelings, was totally acceptable. That actually, it was a gracious gesture to the person you did not want to offend when no good purpose could come from telling the truth. So, we thought, what harm would come from our fibbing with inflated enthusiasm for sundries provided by such a thoughtful hostess? If you answered, “A lot,” you would be correct.
It was a bird-brained idea from the start. From that moment on, the containers of that salad got bigger and bigger with each sojourn. She bought huge tubs of it (and they ain’t chicken feed, either). They were so enormous, in fact, it looked like she had purchased in bulk from Sam’s Club. The Salad was like a bad penny, always turning up, front and center in her Frigidaire, standing there in its own pool of mediocrity, as if mocking us – we, the charter members of the Chicken Salad Snob Society. One day, I was peering inside the fridge looking for a nosh to nibble on when his mom came into the kitchen. When she realized I was hungry, she immediately made a beeline for me and excitedly said, “Oh, darling! Have some chicken salad! Adam just loves it and practically insists that I have it for him whenever he comes for a visit!” Quick as a flash, she retrieved the behemoth plastic vat from the icebox and promptly handed it to me with an inaudible ka-thunk. I breathed in deeply and slowly, exhaling while smiling without teeth and defeated, pulled out a loaf of bread and made myself a sandwich. And a very large one for Adam, too, because there was no way I was going down this bloody lunchtime road alone.
This funny farce went on for months and it turned into quite the joke between my husband and me. We actually made a game of it each time we came home. We’d walk in, hug our hellos and then excuse ourselves to the kitchen where we silently opened the refrigerator door to see our comestible nemesis on the bottom shelf, quietly giggling while exchanging knowing looks that happens with silly little secrets. We were happy, happy campers when our house was finally move-in ready. Not just for the sheer joy of settling into our new place, but for the satisfaction in knowing that we would never, ever have to eat any more of that darned flippin’ salad.
Oh, but how the chickens do come home to roost. We recently hosted our teen-aged nephew for a few weeks after his stint with Outward Bound and, although he was staying at his grandmother’s house, would inevitably wind up at our place, wanting some chow or to play video games. Several days before his departure home to London, he showed up on our doorstep around noon, looking for grub. My duty as a good aunt (and hopefully, daughter-in-law) kicked in and I sweetly reminded the young boy that Mother Hen had thoughtfully filled her refrigerator with the makings for sandwiches just for him, including (can you guess?) The Salad. It was everything I could do to not slap my thigh repeatedly and burst out laughing. Oh, the irony! Here I was pushing the stuff on him! The 17-year-old’s shoulders slumped dejectedly and he unenthusiastically replied in his most delightful British accent, “Right. Perhaps that would be the wise choice,” before turning and heading back down the hill.
As I watched him slowly slink away, I mused, “Wise, no. Polite, yes.”
Created at New York’s posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1890’s, the original version of this salad contained only apple, celery and mayonnaise. It still remains one of the restaurant’s most requested dishes. I’ve taken this classic to another level, adding moist chicken, nutty pecans, lovely red grapes and savory onions – all tossed in a creamy dressing with a hint of sweetness. It’s completely fabulous. (No lie!)
Chicken Waldorf Salad
- 4 cups cooked, diced chicken
- 3 tablespoons chicken stock
- ½ cup chopped celery
- ½ cup chopped pecans, toasted and cooled
- ½ cup grapes, halved or quartered, depending on size
- ½ cup finely minced red onion
- ½ cup unpeeled apple, tossed in 1 tablespoon lemon juice, then drained
- ⅓ cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons cream cheese, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons sour cream
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
- 1 teaspoon poppy seeds
- ½ teaspoon celery seed
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In a large bowl, toss the chicken with the stock. Allow the chicken to sit for a few minutes until the liquid has been absorbed. Add in the celery, pecans, grapes, onions and the drained apple and toss to combine. In a separate bowl, combine the mayonnaise, cream cheese, sour cream, mustard, honey, vinegar, poppy seeds, celery seed and thyme. Whisk until smooth (I use my hand-held electric mixer to get it super smooth). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Gently fold the dressing into the chicken mixture until well-blended. Adjust seasonings, if necessary.
…from the Picture-Perfect kitchen:
Planning: Watch those qualifiers. There’s a big difference between ½ cup chopped pecans and ½ cup pecans, chopped. Make sure your cream cheese is at room temperature so it will incorporate smoothly in the dressing (I leave mine on the kitchen counter overnight to soften). The chicken salad will keep for several days, well-covered in your fridge. But chances are, it won’t last that long!
Product Purity: Homemade chicken stock is preferable but when choosing store-bought, opt for organic, as many national brands contain MSG.
Presentation: Pretend you’re at this salad’s namesake luxurious hotel and serve it on an elegant croissant with fresh fruit. In the summer when the tomatoes are at their peak, I like to serve it in a beefy beauty that’s been hollowed out for a lovely presentation. Lettuce, cabbage or radicchio leaves make stunning, edible bowls, too.