The one dish in the entire world that fully captures for me what it was like to be a kid growing up in rural Virginia is chicken salad. Not shrimp and grits, not cornbread, not pulled pork or any of the other classic Southern foods at which the region excels — just a bowl of chicken tossed with mayonnaise, onions, and pickle relish. It’s my mom’s recipe, and she serves it at every opportunity: It’s there at Christmas, it shares the table with the turkey at Thanksgiving, and no summer cookout is complete without it. I don’t recall my first taste of it; it’s just always been there.
I’d bring my mom’s chicken salad with me to school in a zippered cooler, where other kids would beg fruitlessly for me to trade lunches. My friends would ask for it when they came over to my house. One particular friend loved it so much that she pleaded for weeks with her mother to get the recipe so she could have it at home. When our mothers finally spoke and the recipe was safe in my friend’s mom’s hands, she refused to make it the way my mom did, choosing to chop the chicken instead of shred it, and leaving out the jarred relish. When my friend requested that the offending condiment be added, her mom replied, incredulously, “Who raised you?” (My friend and I remain close to this day; when she found out my mom’s recipe was being published, she said very seriously, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”)
The relish is key to this recipe—it adds sweetness and an acidic tang to cut the richness of the chicken and mayonnaise, while chopped hard-boiled egg adds an earthy texture. While as a kid I preferred the mixture to be a very white, mostly chicken-and-mayonnaise concoction, with the bits of celery and relish chopped down so small that they were almost undetectable, lately I’ve preferred it with more heft, keeping the pieces larger for texture and taste. Depending on what’s in the fridge I might modify it a little—a bit of mustard, maybe some chopped scallions. But Mom’s original version will always be my favorite—I wouldn’t dare suggest otherwise. This chicken salad is great on crackers (the way my mom likes it); for me though, there is only one option: stuffed into squishy potato rolls with a little extra dash of pepper.