By: Elizabeth Webber Akre
You know how certain regions have specialties like barbeque, chili or crab cakes? Each version of a dish is different. It all depends on where you are and who’s in the kitchen. Chicken salad is one of these foods. The first time I went out to Colorado, my sister’s friend asked me what I’d like to do for lunch. I casually said something like “Oh, you know, something simple like where we can get a sandwich or some chicken salad or something.”
<<crickets and tumbleweeds>>
I was quickly informed by my sister that “out there” nobody knew what chicken salad was. I found that so curious, but it caused me to start observing where, when and how I saw chicken salad prepared and served. And, like barbeque, chicken salad is as varied as the people who make it. Here in the South, it appears on almost every menu that serves lunch or casual dining. We make it for our picnics, church gatherings, bridal showers and a quick weeknight supper. You’ll find it on crackers, in a half of a cantaloupe, stuffed into a tomato, on a croissant, on lettuce, on bread or in a phyllo shell. But the real diversity involves the ingredients.
Here’s something you may not know about my sister and me. We hate celery. We have a seething loathing for celery. Unfortunately for us, the rest of the world seems to think these heinous stalks are a requirement in many dishes, chicken salad included. I was in a nice restaurant in the Vista for lunch one day. They had a chicken salad croissant on the day’s menu, and I asked my waiter if it had celery in it. He didn’t know, so he went to the kitchen to ask. He came back and very excitedly said “Yes! It does!.” Oh great, I’ll have the turkey reuben. But, I get it, most of you like the stuff, and I’ve learned that I just have to ask and see if it’s in there. Another common ingredient is onion. I’m not a fan of this one either. Raw onion just seems too “in your face” for chicken salad. There are some, like my mom, who will take one bite of raw onion and not finish the sandwich. So, she’s learned to ask.
One of my favorite preparations includes tarragon mayo, pecans, green grapes and, occasionally, some pineapple. Other times I like a simple chicken salad with mayo, salt & pepper. But over the years, I’ve had some really creative ones, as well. For instance, curry, apple and raisins are nice complements to chicken. Or, slivered almonds added to the simple salt and pepper variety. Or the old fashioned kind with pickle relish and hard-boiled egg mixed in.
The point of all this is that to me, chicken salad has always been a mainstay “around here.” I love the fact that no matter what restaurant you choose or whose house you might be visiting, it’s going to be different every time you have it. It’s the perfect salad for a light lunch, an elegant finger sandwich, a dip for crackers, or to roll up in puff pastry and serve as an hors d’oeuvres. I hope this simple little dish has finally made its way out West. Those Coloradans would gobble it right up. They’d probably dig some Southern mustard-based barbeque, too!
Elizabeth writes Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef). For more thoughts, stories, musings, and opinions about food, please visit and subscribe. Eat, drink and be merry!