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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

A Formal Afternoon at the Triple-L Ranch

October 17, 2005

Last week I was the featured speaker at a ladies luncheon club.

A nice-sized group of 50 ladies were in attendance. The meeting was held in the formal living room of a stately 100-year old home in Brookhaven. Before the speech, the ladies were served tea, cheese straws, and finger sandwiches.

It was a Triple L lunch if I ever saw one: Ladies Lap Luncheon. All in attendance were dressed to the nines. However, the women in my life would be quick to tell me that it wasn’t a luncheon at all. The event was held at 3 p.m.; therefore it was a formal afternoon tea.

As I was signing books afterward the hostess asked if I would like a plate for the road. Being one who has never turned down food, I said, “Yes, thank you.” She went on to say that today’s menu consisted of “Cheese straws, grapes, petit fours, and chicken salad sandwiches.” At that moment another lady chimed in and said, “And the chicken salad has apples and pecans in it!”

On the drive home I began thinking of how chicken salad is dressed up or dressed down depending on the occasion. It was the 100 th anniversary meeting of the organization, which obviously explains the apples and pecans. Chicken salad is just “salad” until a hostess puts some fruit or nuts into the mix.

I love chicken salad. My grandmother’s chicken salad is still the gold standard by which all other chicken salads will be judged. On special occasions, or when an out-of-town guest was coming to her house, she added grapes to her recipe. On very special occasions she added chopped walnuts, too.

A few months after I opened my first restaurant I asked my grandmother for her chicken salad recipe. She said that she had never followed a recipe, but if I would like to come over she would prepare it and I could write down the steps and measurements.

She didn’t have to twist my arm. As a child I had spent many hours in her kitchen, sitting on a stool by the window-unit air conditioner watching her cook or helping to shell peas. That day I observed and notated as she went through the effortless steps that had been repeated hundreds of times in her 90-plus years of preparing chicken salad.

Typically she only used Hellmann’s mayonnaise when cooking. But for her chicken salad recipe she used Miracle Whip. I never thought to ask her why.

I returned to the restaurant and multiplied her recipe by a factor of ten and served the finished chicken salad in a cantaloupe half. That chicken-salad offering stayed on the menu for many years and we bring it back as a featured item on occasion. I also published the recipe in my second cookbook (sans grapes)

Some of my greatest memories are of lunches served in my grandmother’s breakfast room, just the two of us. No grapes, no walnuts, no cantaloupe, just chicken salad, white bread, sweet tea, and conversation.

That day turned out to be the last time I ever sat with my grandmother and watched her cook. Unfortunately, I became too busy with the restaurant business and she became too infirmed to work in the kitchen.

My grandmother was one of the most kind and gracious ladies I have ever known, and ten times the cook I’ll ever be. A competent hostess with an overly-generous spirit, she was one the finest examples of how to live a caring, productive and fruitful life that I will ever have. I would trade all of the upscale New York restaurant meals and all of the cookbook sales in the world to eat one more chicken salad sandwich with my grandmother, or to sit on that stool in her kitchen and watch her cook.

Today I eat chicken salad, often. But I never eat it without thinking of my grandmother and her kitchen.

And to the Climber’s Club of Brookhaven, happy 100 th anniversary, thanks for stirring up some great memories, thanks for the chicken salad, and don’t tell my wife, my mother, or Emily Post that I wore sandals to give a speech at a formal tea.

Mam-Maw’s Chicken Salad

1 3-5 lb Chicken
2 Carrots, peeled and quartered
1 Onion, peeled and quartered
3 stalks Celery
2 /3 cup Sweet pickle relish, drained
1 1 /4 cups Miracle Whip
1 /2 tsp. White pepper
1 tsp. Salt
3 Eggs, boiled and chopped
1 /2 tsp. Garlic powder
1 /2 tsp. Onion powder
1 cup Celery, chopped fine

Fill a stockpot one-half full with cold water and add carrots, onion and celery. Bring to a boil and add chicken. Return to a slow boil and cook until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken, let cool and chop or shred. Combine with remaining ingredients. Yield: 1 1 /2 quarts

On special occasions add: chopped grapes, walnuts, pecans, or apples. Capers can also be added in small amounts. However, if capers are used, do not add fruit or nuts.

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