Chicken Salad Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Photo by Jordan Arnold on Unsplash
From an early age, I was taught to eat the food that was put in front of me. No matter what it was. My mother was determined to raise polite girls who showed appreciation as dinner guests. We would roll up to a friend or relative's house only to be gently reminded by my mother that, “Even if you are served dog food, eat it, smile and ask for seconds.”

My mother was not someone I wanted to challenge. So for years, I ate whatever was served without questioning it, my mom, or the person serving one.

Until one day, I met chicken salad.

Chicken salad would become my lifelong nemesis. As far as I was concerned, and with the deviled egg running a distant second, chicken salad was the very worst thing to have to put into my mouth and feign flavor bliss. It was the official food of my very worst nightmares and if I was going to stay in the South, I needed an avoidance plan.

Many of you have likely gasped at me mentioning my distaste for not one, but two traditional southern dishes. I get it. It’s a shock to find out that the people you thought you knew have dark secrets. What’s next, you might be thinking? Sweet tea? Fried chicken? GRITS!!!???

I swear on the Bill Gaither choir that I mostly don’t have any more southern confessions. Mostly.

Why do I have a lifelong dislike of chicken salad? Of course, it must be some offensive ingredient.

Was it the chicken? 
“Her grandma probably didn’t know how to season it. Gotta season the chicken.”
The mayonnaise? 
Shaking head, “Didn’t use Dukes.”
The other random (and always different) ingredients?
“Well, she hasn’t tried my chicken salad yet.” 

The answer is...I don’t know why I don’t like it. It smells funny. Also, there is something about the combination of cold meat, mixed with an ever-changing combination of other things swirled together and doled out with an ICE CREAM SCOOP (desecration) and then sculpted (Jesus take the wheel, they sculpted it). Plus, people that like chicken salad, LOVE chicken salad. I’m sorry, but it’s a cult. I love you, but. you. are. in. a. cult.  (and Molly, you in danger, girl).

And even though my great grandmother Anna Mae is probably turning over in her grave as we speak, I just could never bring myself to fake liking chicken salad. Stick it in a thousand pastry swans, I will never like it. Go away, Sam I Am...I'm not your project.

When I was young, it wasn’t the most difficult thing to get around. Chicken salad was a ladies lunch type of food or it made its appearance on the potluck table among a cast of thousands. The southern food competition was fierce and with the main ingredient being mayonnaise, everyone understood you avoiding it if you even hinted at a war story involving room temperature mayonnaise and your insides.

But as I got older and my friends were all getting married, it became very clear where chicken salad chose to make its mark in our civilized society. Chicken salad craftily played itself to the adult female crowd. All this time, I thought I was dodging these to-add-grapes-or-not-to-add-grapes landmines so that I could hit adulthood and declare my disgust for the food openly. And live authentically for once - unless living authentically was bad manners.

But she was waiting. On the table of every graduation party, every bridesmaid luncheon,
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash
every time someone busted out pastel streamers, chicken salad was there, making her promises about being universally loved by all women. She clung to her self-proclaimed “crowd pleaser” title and became the food anti-mascot of my twenties.

I truly believe I was the skinniest I’ve ever been in my twenties because I spent an impressive portion of the decade side stepping chicken salad.

No disrespect to our fair maiden, Atlanta’s Swan House. She is majestic and regal, but when you are anti-chicken salad, there are only so many lunches where you can sustain yourself on a frozen fruit salad and two cheese straws. I attended every single event, searching for an ally plate to slip my chicken salad timbales fashioned into a swan onto. It was always a covert operation that could only be done with very specific, and forgiving friends. Or even better, if I was sat among a group of strangers, I could build a quick rapport and guiltlessly offload the item with the knowledge I’d never see these people again, and if it was the black sheep aunt from Wisconsin who was chicken salad neutral, even better.

If I found the crowd to be particularly pro-chicken salad, those hostiles who perceived negative chicken salad sentiments as blasphemous, my tactics would have to be taken up a notch.

I’d have to stage my plate.

Moving food around a plate in an attempt to make it look “enjoyed” is a fine art. Southern kids raised in the world of “eat what you are served,” have this skill as fine-tuned as our ability to play in trace amounts of snow every 2-3 years.

First, you have to show that you enjoyed the food. Your plate scene can’t be viewed as someone who “tried” the chicken salad and did not like it. No, it is much more complicated than that. It must look like you very much “enjoyed” the scrumptious ladies luncheon staple (lies), but are such a wispy girl with a dainty appetite that you simply couldn’t finish it all (still more lies).

Such intricate plate staging, while never allowing for a conversation lull, is a fine art. The talent for which is sharpened through motivation by the deeply rooted and, oh by the way, irrational southern fear of sharing with someone that you actually don’t like something. Wait a minute, to their face?

Feigning one’s love for chicken salad while never allowing it to pass your lips is so much harder than avoiding something like deviled eggs...and here are some reasons for this - all rooted in science.

Deviled eggs are a side item. Different rules apply entirely. Most notably, never in the history of a potluck has someone managed to get every offered dish on their Dixie Paper Plate. You can skip it with promises to add it to your “second round” and no one will ever know.

Also, if you skip side items, you are once again seen as a dainty, wispy girl with a bird-like appetite.

An early coven of Southern grandma witches (all named Mildred) decided a long time ago to classify chicken salad as a main dish. Chicken salad is the centerpiece and you can’t have a plate with no centerpiece - even I know that that’s problematic as the side dishes would clearly be lost.

Side dishes are meant to surround the main dish and sort of do jazz hands around it, blessing its faultlessness. With no focal point for the side dishes to do jazz hands, chaos ensues.

The congealed salad would jiggle aimlessly.

The coleslaw already suffering from a crippling inferiority complex would think it needed to rise up to the centerpiece occasion but would ultimately crack under the pressure - coleslaw will never be as great as potato salad, after all, much less match the fame of this southern icon.

The random cheese cubes would wander the perimeter of the floral plate with no purpose

Don’t get me started on the morale of the deviled eggs I’d have to put on my plate to throw off suspicion - after all, they already know I don’t like them.

Even the sweet tea would pucker and lose its flavor. Oh sure, we’d all take polite sips and try to act like it was sweet enough, but we’d secretly be blaming the failure on that one lady from joy club who always waits to add sugar once the tea is cooled.

See. It’s a dilemma. A delicate balance. The balance of the entire ladies luncheon gets thrown off when one person can’t handle the chicken salad. It would be a blessed hot mess.

So why don't I just have the courage to proudly declare my personal distaste when asked instead of this complicated long con I'm playing?  

I wasn't drug up. That would be rude.

So, for now, I’ll continue scooping the offending salad-you-can-sculpt onto my plate and comment on how wonderful it is while I secretly stage my plate accordingly. Side note: don’t look my way while gifts are being opened.

No balance to restore, I won’t rock the boat, but my relationship to chicken salad will remain, for now and forevermore, complicated.



Hometown Blues

I've never really left the area where I grew up. So many people I meet are geographically nowhere near where they started. Sometimes I envy their new adventures. I never intentionally decided to stay, but I guess I just never really left - there was never a reason to go, so I didn't.  I spent one year of college in Tennessee (my first freshman year - there were 2.5 freshman years if you're counting - my parents were). Also, I'm technically raising my family in an adjacent county.

But for the most part, I still navigate the same curves, hills, and streets where I learned to drive.  I didn't leave and yet sometimes, it feels like a completely different place. A few of those curves have been improved. One bridge in particular that used to terrify my mother has now been made safer and easier to navigate and I do miss the adrenaline I would get taking that curve in the dark woods, over the creek at night. Kids these days - they'll never know.

When my parents and grandparents would talk about the changing landscape of their hometowns, it was because land and trees and forests were overtaken by suburban sprawl. Perfectly good green spaces were sacrificed for businesses and tract homes. My own family built our home in a brand new development, sacrificing "family land" for stucco, fancy brick designs and incredibly clever mailboxes that totally lacked functionality, not to mention they would fall over even if you BARELY touched it with the car. It was 1988 and the Atlanta suburbs were beginning to burst. Homes were being designed and built everywhere it seems. Homesteads and farms were sold off to developers for homes left and right...and why not...the Baby Boomers were raising families - times were good.

But the wave of change that crashed over my childhood and teenage years was on land already developed. Now as I drive the same path that I used to take to my best friend Jenny's house in my mom's old Audi 5000, I strain to remember the original houses that existed before they were torn down and small mansions erected in their stead. As the homes are being upgraded, the businesses for which buildings were built are long gone and have since either fallen too far from code or have been five other "concepts" since the 90's. The family-owned video store I used to work at is a restaurant, but it was three other things in between. I vaguely remember the gas station that is now a Zaxby's and an old Blockbuster became a gold exchange before settling on a dental practice. Only, one of the three dry cleaners we owned is still a dry cleaners. One is a sub sandwich chain that I recently went into and bored the teenager behind the counter to tears with my stories of the "good old days."

Even the old skating rink where I spent MANY weekends turning circles to pop music, wearing blue eye shadow, a Forenza shirt with rolled sleeves and Exclamation! perfume in the hopes that some boy would notice me...even that place has had a few iterations, one as a restaurant, before becoming a Goodwill.  To me, it will always be Sparkles.

Most days I don't really think about how much the "old town" has changed. It definitely feels more crowded. Less people that grew up here going about their day with no appreciation for it's past - and why should they care really? Most days I am too busy to look up and be nostalgic. I'm in that time in my life where full days fly by. I follow children, keep a house, a job and crawl into bed a little later than I should each night with nothing significant to show for my day except the fact that we made it. But other days, I notice it. I try to remember what everything looked like. I try to remember being 16 (minus the horrible bangs and angst) and heading out with $20 that would more than cover an entire evening of fun which might include an arcade (you see, kids, an arcade is when your screentime was managed by quarters and whether or not you had a ride).

Today we cleaned out my dad's closet. We took a lot of his things to MUST Ministries, but we took other bags down the street to Goodwill. It was overwhelming to think that almost 30 years ago, a carefree pre-teen zipped around in that very building with big dreams, bigger hair and so many ideas...and today, that woman left a piece of her dad there in that very same place. It was a sad full circle moment that I've been trying to shake all night.  Maybe it was the collision of the happiest times with one of the saddest. I think my dad would have gotten a kick out of it actually - there was a moment when the building was sort of the new Houcks - and my dad loved Houcks.

The old town has changed a lot. That girl has changed a lot. The sadness I feel is because those times were good ones. The heartbreak I have is because my dad was SO amazing. On these days when I feel the weight of grief crashing in on me, I force myself to stop looking back...instead I look down, at the two children I am eternally grateful to be able to raise. It feels like a circle, because life is a circle.

I hope, now that it's my turn to be the parent, that I'm doing a good job. I hope I'm creating a life in a place that they are not hurried to escape. I hope they feel the freedom to leave if they must, and though the landscape will most certainly change, I hope they drive through the streets of their childhood one day smiling about all the good times.  And, one day, if they have to leave my things at a Sparkles - I hope they know that it's okay to let go a little - and that THAT is where I'd want to be anyway.

Just don't forget to bring my blue eye shadow and hair crimper.