My late, great, Great Aunt Arlene Becker Peoples (“Auntie”) was a force of nature. She was born in Georgetown, Texas on July 11, 1930. She grew up in Kyle, married a man who founded his own meat packing company, raised two girls (my cousins Phyllis & Stacy), divorced, and then proceeded to live life by her own set of rules. She flirted with the men, traveled extensively (Bali was her favorite), played Bridge, gave a helping hand to anyone who asked for it, and made Backgammon a contact sport. I really looked up to her in many ways.
She was a huge part of my life growing up. And, when I moved to Austin, she took me under her wing and made sure I was properly fed and clothed (she was a free laundromat). We also had epic Yahtzee battles that would go on for hours. I still use the microwave she gave Husband Steve & I as a housewarming gift.
She passed away December 24, 1999. Too soon. Way too soon. I still miss her every day. I could never thank her enough for all she did for me.
Above all, to me, she was a great home cook. Nothing too fancy, but wonderful, honest cooking. It wasn’t unusual for us to share a ham steak with German potato salad or buttered cabbage. And, of course, she always had Blue Bell Vanilla Bean in the freezer.
She did have three specialties that always stood out: Angel Biscuits (basically, a cross between a biscuit and a roll), Seafood Crepes, and Chicken Salad. She would always fix Angel Biscuits for special occasions and breakfasts when my family would visit when my sisters & I were kids. Her crepes were amazing. So amazing in fact that they became all anyone wanted her to bring to the bridge club luncheons. Needless to say, she got tired of them. My favorite was her Chicken Salad.
I’ve always called this dish Arlene’s Chicken Salad. It’s in the great tradition of Southern chicken salads in that it contains dressing, a sweet component, and a lot of chicken. Unlike most traditional Southern recipes, however, she never added eggs. She felt, as my mom does, and I do, there is egg salad, tuna salad, and chicken salad; they are all meant to be separate entities standing on their own never to mix. In other words, as great as eggs are, they don’t need to go in chicken salad.
Also, I’ve always loved her secret ingredient – Cool Whip®. I never knew if she came up with it on her own or learned it from someone or somewhere. But, it really doesn’t matter. It’s pretty awesome.
I have deviated from her original recipe in one major way – I use dark meat. In a true Southern chicken salad, you never use dark meat. Always poached chicken breast meat only. It’s more refined, I guess.
She was also very precise in how she chopped her pecans. She would cut it into 1/3rd’s lengthwise along the grooves, then tun it and cut it into 1/3rd’s again, making exactly 9 pieces. I asked her once why she did it that way. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but I’m sure it was something about appearances. It was all very German Efficient of her. While I am half German, I don’t have the efficiency or the patience genes, I guess.
This dish, of course, comes together pretty fast. Just pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store, cut up a few ingredients, mix, and voila!, dinner. And, you didn’t even need to turn on the stove.
A few notes:
1. I’ve never had this with anything other than red grapes. You can substitute another fruit such as apples, pears, or dried fruit if you like. Experiment.
2. If you don’t toast the pecans, it’s fine. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If you do, place the pecans on a baking sheet and place in a 350F oven for 5 – 7 minutes. Then, take the baking sheet out of the oven, spread the pecans out on a cool surface and allow them to cool before you chop them and add to the salad.
3. Speaking of #2 – pecans. Only pecans.
4. If you don’t have or don’t want to use Cool Whip®, you can use all mayonnaise. It just won’t be the same. DO NOT use Miracle Whip®. Gross.
Oh, and by the way. Auntie would never use low-fat or fat-free versions of anything. Her mantra in the kitchen was always “I don’t cook skinny”.
1 whole cooked chicken, skinned, boned, and meat chopped
3-4 cooked whole boneless skinless chicken breasts, chopped
2 c. seedless red grapes, cut into 1/4’s
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1 c. toasted pecans, chopped
1 c. mayonnaise, more if needed
1 c. Cool Whip ®, more if needed
Salt & Pepper to taste
Salad greens, optional
1. In a large bowl, toss together the chicken, grapes, celery, and pecans until well mixed.
2. Stir in the mayonnaise and Cool Whip ®. Mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add more mayonnaise and/or Cool Whip® if needed.
3. If you are using salad greens, place them on a serving plate and spread out slightly. Then, place a serving of the chicken on top. Serve with bread or crackers.