Holly A. Heyser
It's fascinating to what lengths we will go to recapture a taste of our childhood, especially as we approach middle age. With the passage of so many years, those early memories are always in soft focus, the music of the period wafting in and out of hazy scenes we can only imperfectly recall. Food becomes the anchor, the one vivid thing within the clouds.
Shining through is this recipe, a rich, ruddy chicken casserole my mum called "Saturday Chicken." I remember loving this dish, which we would often have on days other than Saturday—a fact that confused my little brain. Should it be called Tuesday Chicken, then? No, mum said, it's always called Saturday Chicken. But why? It just is.
The flavor of this dish, which we always ate with baked potatoes, is instantly recallable even 30 years later. Mushroomy, creamy, "red," and a little burnt-crispy. We always savored the caramelized skin of the chicken pieces that rose from the simmering sauce like islands in a lava flow.
Mum grew busier as I grew older, as did I. I can't exactly remember the last time she made Saturday Chicken for me, but it has to be before 1990. Over the years the dish faded in my culinary memory, but it never quite flickered out.
When I started my blog in 2007, I thought one of the things I wanted to do was resurrect mum's best recipes. I haven't gone through all of them, but I have made mum's lasagna, her unbeatable Swedish meatballs, and my favorite Christmas cookie, mum's walnut snowballs. But to each of those recipes I've added a bit of myself, whether it's my choice of meat (usually wild game) or altering the flavor slightly with an unexpected herb or spice. I am a reasonably good cook, so they've all worked.
But Saturday Chicken confounded me. I had no idea how it was made. So I called mum to ask. "You're not going to like it," she said. Why? How bad could it be? I mean it didn't have globs of mayonnaise in it or those broken up potato chips all over like her tuna casserole, which is a war crime of a recipe.
Holly A. Heyser
Then I heard the words: "It has canned, condensed cream of mushroom soup."
Nooooo! Really? Honestly? Yes, she said, and Saturday Chicken cannot be made any other way. I hung up the phone, crushed. I can honestly say I have never cooked with cream of mushroom soup in my entire life. I know lots of people swear by it, and I don't look down on them for doing so, but I hate the stuff. It is everything I despise about 1970s cooking, everything I despise about many modern wild game recipes, which rely heavily on it. Cream of mushroom soup is the Lord Voldemort of my cooking world: It is That Which Shall Not Be Named.
So I let Saturday Chicken go for a long time. Then I watched an episode of the TV show Top Chef in which the cooks were required to make something delicious out of junk food. And then another episode where everything they had to use was canned. Watching these challenges, I realized I needed to get off my high horse, suck it up, and use the damn cream of mushroom soup. Just do it, as Nike would say.
So I emailed mum for the recipe, promising to use That Which Shall Not Be Named. She sent it, word for word, from her favorite cookbook of the time, The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. She also sent a commentary about how she too, over the years, had tried to improve the recipe by switching out canned or powdered ingredients with fresh and natural ones:
Must use Campbell's canned regular mushroom soup not their new variety as it isn't the same consistency—definitely not organic mushroom soup as that doesn't work at all much to my dismay... I tried using fresh garlic rubbed all over the chicken instead of garlic powder and it didn't work as well as the stupid garlic powder did... Good luck! As you said this is a garbage recipe but it works!
Sigh. So I went to the supermarket to buy Campbell's condensed cream of mushroom soup. My hand actually wavered when I reached for it, and I kept looking around when it was in my basket. I felt an overwhelming need to explain myself to strangers: "No really, I am making a retro recipe. I don't actually cook with this stuff." I realize it was a total food snob move on my part, but hey, it was what I was thinking at the time.
Back in the kitchen, I decided to make the recipe just as it was written, with two modifications: First, I was going to put the parsley in at the end, not in the beginning, as I am not a fan of parsley cooked for 90 minutes. Second, I had no chicken. So I would use pheasant legs instead. Saturday Pheasant.
Making Saturday Chicken (or pheasant) is ridiculously easy: Mix the soup and the cream, use plenty of garlic powder and paprika and lots of parsley. In the oven it goes, and you bake it for 60 to 90 minutes, depending on how tough and old your birds were.
When the dish came out, it looked pretty much as I remembered, although I think mum let the sauce cook down even more, to the point where some parts of the chicken burned. It definitely smelled right—like paprika, roasted bird, and mushroom.
Holly A. Heyser
I served it over mashed potatoes and took a bite. There it was! That thick, ultra-rich, and tangy sauce, a little sweet with paprika, a little meaty from the mushroom soup. I took another bite. And another. Soon all that was left were bones.
And then I felt my age. This, my friends, is a gut bomb. Cream + condensed cream of mushroom soup = lots and lots of calories and fat. Uffa, but this is rich! I felt sorta like you do after Thanksgiving dinner, tryptophan seeping into my veins. Mussst ... sleep....
I know you're asking yourself: So, Mr. Fresh-Local-Wild Food-Smarty Pants, bet you liked that cream of mushroom soup, eh? Well, yes. I did. In that recipe. But I still won't be buying canned soup anytime soon.
Saturday Chicken is a wonderful blast from my past, a brief flirtation with being an eight-year-old in 1970s New Jersey, a savory slice of memory. But it's not who I am anymore. I neither possess the metabolism to eat the dish on a regular basis, nor the desire to cook with any products that come in a package—no matter how time-honored, or sustainable, or earthy-crunchy or whatever. It ain't me, babe. No, no, no it ain't me.
What they say is true: You really can't ever go home again. And I'm okay with that.