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Robert St. John

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

Maw-Maw's Chicken Scam

August 29, 2016

It’s time to come clean.

It’s a known fact, and I have written often, about my first experience cooking in a professional kitchen. It wasn’t until we opened the Purple Parrot in 1987, and after firing our chef on opening night, that I began cooking in a commercial kitchen. To that point, the entirety of my experience in a kitchen— professional or otherwise— was with an Easy Bake Oven when I was six-years old, oatmeal and cinnamon toast in high school, late-night beignets in a Fry Daddy, and Buttermilk Chicken in my college apartment.

All of the previous statements have been covered in various books and columns over the years, except for one— and that is the subject of today’s confession/column— Buttermilk Chicken.

I grew up with a mother who cooked well, and two grandmothers who were very good cooks. I had it easy. Except for the aforementioned oatmeal and toast, every meal I ate during my childhood was cooked by someone else. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just stating the truth. At 15-years old, my son has already cooked more than I had by the time I was 25.

As a sophomore in college, I decided to cook my then girlfriend dinner. Again, the extent of my cooking experience at that point was that I had asked for, and received, an Easy Bake Oven for my sixth Christmas, oatmeal, and toast. I don’t remember exactly, but I might have stretched the truth and told my girlfriend that I cooked often. There is no doubt that I outright lied and told her that the recipe I used was an old family recipe passed down from my grandmother. I called it “Mam-Maw’s Chicken.”

Actually I had found the supposed “Mam-Maw’s Chicken” in the only cookbook I had ever opened— Southern Sideboards, a legendary publication from the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. In that book it was called Buttermilk Chicken and it looked easy. The recipe listed just seven ingredients, one of which was the shortcut-ingredient-of-the-moment that was all the rage: A can of cream of mushroom soup.

So I cooked Mam-Maw’s Chicken for my girlfriend. I am sure that I backed the cribbed dish with several stories of how this cherished family recipe had been passed down from generations of St. Johns and how we ate it at every important family gathering. Truthfully, when I took the first bite of Buttermilk Chicken in my tiny college apartment, it was the first time I had ever tasted the dish.

Surprisingly, I did a pretty good job on this inaugural cooking effort. The recipe was a breeze— dip a few chicken breasts in buttermilk, then dredge them in flour, sautee and place in a casserole dish in the oven and dump a can of cream of mushroom soup mixed with more buttermilk on top and, voila! Mam-Maw’s Chicken.

She was impressed. Heck, I impressed myself. Nothing exceeds like the impressed. I cooked it again and again. Eventually we invited our friends to come over and try Robert’s grandmother’s famous dish that had been passed down from generation to generation. I was a one trick pony, but that didn’t stop me from basking in the glory of my perceived cooking prowess.

In those days, all of the big home football games for the state’s big three universities were played in Jackson. My girlfriend and I, along with our friends— Mam-Maw’s Chicken enthusiasts, all— headed down to stay at my girlfriend’s house for the weekend. My girlfriend’s mother, a gracious hostess and a sweet lady, decided to cook dinner for all of us that Friday evening.

My girlfriend’s mother owned a lot of cook books, I would say at least 80. Each of those cookbooks probably had over 100 recipes in them. Of all of the books, and all of the recipes, she picked— you guessed it— the Buttermilk Chicken recipe from Southern Sideboards which had been published just a couple of years earlier.

The dinner was in their formal dining room. Immediately after the entrée was served my girlfriend, and all of our friends, commented on the dish. “Mom, where did you get the recipe for Robert’s grandmother’s chicken?” she asked. “We love Mam-Maw’s Chicken,” the others chimed in. Busted! I began to sweat. The mother started to speak, then caught herself. She glanced over at me. I could see her making split-second decisions from my anxiety-filled seat next to her husband— my girlfriend’s father.

“Oh, Robert shared that with me earlier,” she lied. In that split second, she had figured out the sham I had been perpetrating and decided not to rat me out. From that moment forward, I considered that woman a saint, and still do to this day.

That experience became a lesson on honesty and gave me the title for my second book, Deep South Staples or How To Survive In a Southern Kitchen Without A Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup, which is partly what led to a future three-book deal I inked with Hyperion. Of those three books, one was a re-release of Staples, which included a re-working and updating of the famously filched Buttermilk Chicken recipe.

Last week I was serving on a panel at the Mississippi Book Festival and told the Mam-Maw’s Chicken story. Afterwards, as I headed to the book-signing table, a lady pulled me aside and told me that she had once asked the lady who submitted the Buttermilk Chicken to Southern Sideboards about the origin of the dish. The lady commented, “Oh, I just got that out of a magazine.” As it turns out, I was only a second-generation thief. It’s obviously in the recipe’s DNA. Feel free to use the recipe below and, keep the tradition alive. Call it your own. Or better yet, give the credit to your grandmother. It might not be a lie if you have permission.


Mam-Maw’s Chicken

(the updating of a cribbed classic)

8                       Chicken breasts, boneless and skinless (though I like the skin)

1 Tbl                 Garlic, minced

1 cup                Buttermilk

1 tsp                 Salt

2 tsp                Hot Sauce

1 Tbl                Worcestershire

2 Tbl               Poultry Seasoning

1 tsp                Black pepper

1 cup               Flour

2 Tbl               Bacon grease (or canola oil)

2 cups             Mushroom Béchamel Sauce

1 /2 cup          Sour cream

1 /2 cup          Green onion, chopped

Preheat oven to 350.

In a mixing bowl, combine garlic, buttermilk, salt, hot sauce and Worcestershire. Mix well and pour over the chicken. Allow to marinate for 1-2 hours. After marinating, remove the chicken and reserve the buttermilk marinade. Add the Poultry Seasoning and pepper to the flour. Place the bacon grease in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly flour chicken and brown on both sides in skillet.

Place chicken into a three-quart Pyrex baking dish. Combine marinade, Mushroom Béchamel Sauce, green onions and sour cream. Spread mixture evenly over chicken. Bake uncovered 25 minutes. Yield: eight servings


Mushroom Béchamel Sauce

(should be used as a legit substitute for canned cream of mushroom soup)


1 Tbl                   Olive oil, light

1 /2 cup             Onion, minced

1 /4 cup             Shallot, minced

1 /4 cup             Celery, minced

2 tsp                   Salt

1 tsp                    Garlic, granulated

1 /2 tsp               Thyme, dry

10 oz                   Mushrooms, cleaned, sliced (4 cups)

3 cups                 Chicken broth, warm

1 /2 cup              Butter

3 /4 cup              Flour

1 cup                    Whipping cream


Heat oil in a three-quart saucepot over low heat. Add onions, shallots, celery, and salt. Cook vegetables until tender. Add mushrooms and increase heat to medium. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken broth, garlic and thyme. Bring back to a simmer and cook 10 more minutes.

In a separate skillet, make a light-blonde roux by melting butter and stirring in flour. Add to simmering broth mixture. Cook three to four minutes and add cream. Freezes well.

Yield: two quarts


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