Aunt Judy, please close your eyes when you read this story. For this is the story of the chicken that killed Grandpa.
Well, the chicken didn’t actually kill Grandpa, but the morning after Sam Silk suffered a fatal heart attack in 1971, my mother said, “It must have been the chicken.”
“The chicken” was Rosa de la Garza’s Texas chicken, a recipe my mom had clipped from some magazine or other and Scotch-taped onto a page in a big orange plastic binder that held all her favorite recipes.
I grew up with my two younger brothers in the San Fernando Valley, but my mom, Joan, a passionately devoted cook and eater who has a list of things she won’t eat as long as your arm (brown soups, risotto, tofu, arugula -- in fact, salad in general -- hummus, tahini -- in fact, anything from the Middle East, anything Greek, anything breaded or fried), refused to entertain the idea of eating or exposing us to Mexican food when we were kids, claiming that “good Mexican food” was an oxymoron. She also maintained that “yogurt makes you go blind.”
And so, though she was immediately attracted to Rosa de la Garza’s Texas chicken when she clipped it from that magazine, filled, as the recipe was, with wonderful late summer vegetables -- zucchini, fresh tomatoes and corn cut off the cob -- Joan was bothered by the tiny matter of two jalapeno chiles. She had never before cooked with jalapenos, or as they were referred to in the recipe, “small hot green peppers, chopped (optional).”
That “optional” got under Joan’s skin too. She made the dish the first few times without the jalapenos and then, I don’t know, maybe she was swayed by the sight of jalapenos in the produce section. In any case, one night, the night Grandma and Grandpa were coming to dinner, she decided to make the chicken with the jalapenos.
That, she said the next morning, was what must have killed Grandpa.
Still, the jalapenos stay
The years passed, and the lethal lore of the dish never got in the way of our enjoyment of it. Joan made it every couple of weeks during the blissful, long summer squash season, referring back to the recipe in the orange binder every time, though she did start riffing on it, adding chopped ginger, a little more garlic, and crooknecks and pattypans to keep the zucchini company. She insisted on going to Maria’s corn stand, on the corner of Hayvenhurst and Burbank, for the best corn.
Surprisingly, she kept the jalapenos in. And she always called it not Rosa de la Garza’s Texas chicken, but the chicken that killed Grandpa. Unless, of course, Grandma was around.
One of the things she loved about making the dish was that after browning the chicken, you add all the chopped vegetables and corn and no liquid, then put the lid on the pan. The pan never came close to closing because there were so many vegetables piled in. Yet it cooked down until the lid closed by itself, and the vegetables and chicken simmered into something marvelous, with plenty of sauce. It was easy and delicious, and she always served it with Uncle Ben’s rice.
As my brothers and I grew up, learning to cook along the way, we all made the chicken that killed Grandpa part of our own repertoires, tweaking it to suit our own tastes.
The original recipe called for browning the chicken in lard, butter or vegetable shortening; I started using olive oil instead. And the recipe didn’t actually have you brown the chicken. Instead, the first step was “Heat the lard in a large casserole and add the chicken. Sprinkle with salt to taste and cook until the chicken loses its raw look.” Ooh, that raw look. Then you were to add spices and garlic, cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes, then add the squash and onion.
Where’d it come from?
This didn’t make any sense to me. Why not brown the chicken properly, remove it and deglaze the pan before proceeding? And wouldn’t lots of chopped cilantro added toward the end be great? Even after developing my own version, I continued to love Joan’s too and I loved teasing her about having cut the recipe from McCall’s magazine, from which she clipped many a dish, though it seems mortifyingly unsophisticated to her now. She has always insisted it was from the New York Times magazine, which happens to better fit her self-image as a cook. Since she’s a pathological revisionist historian (she recently started perpetrating a tale in which my youngest brother, John, requested a Swedish nanny when he was 3), I hassled her afresh about it just about every summer.
Last month, when the summer squashes and corn and tomatoes started looking so good, I asked Joan if she still had the original recipe -- I was sure it was from McCall’s. “No,” she said. “It was the New York Times magazine.”
“Mmm hm,” I said.
And then I thought, why not set the record straight? “Let’s find the orange binder,” I ventured. Years ago she had typed her revised version of the recipe into her computer and always cooked using that. She hadn’t seen the binder for years.
I thought she’d balk, but she was game.
The orange binder was gone, replaced by a blue one that she found on a shelf. And there was the recipe, a bit yellowed, but in surprisingly good shape.
And darned if that didn’t sort of look like a New York Times magazine typeface. Could she have been right all these years? In the Internet age, it wasn’t hard to find out -- nor to get a copy of the original article and recipe.
As it turns out, the recipe was indeed from the New York Times magazine -- it accompanied a Craig Claiborne story called “Chicken Is Champ.” The one-paragraph feature starts out, “Year in and year out, there is probably no single food served more often than chicken. Countless people for one reason or another have an aversion to lamb or pork or beef or fish and all forms of seafood. And veal is still relatively unknown to many people in this country.”
How far American cooking -- and American food writing -- has come. Oh, Mr. Claiborne, all those years, everyone thought you were God!
OK, Mom. For the record: You were right. Aunt Judy, you can open your eyes now.