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.




Unknown said…
You are the best, Rach! I am rolling again.
So proud of you, my dear. Love you, Aunt Wanda
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