I’ve mentioned my mom’s life-long bout with rheumatoid
arthritis before. Through two shoulder replacements and many other reconstructive
surgeries, she raised four girls, taught school, and bred Doberman Pinchers for
spending money. As you might imagine, meals were simple at my house. Mom didn’t
fry chicken, can pickles, or roll out biscuits. Instead, when Scarlett geared
up to make a soul warming meal for our family, it was almost always a pot of
chicken and rice. Hands down, this is the dish my sisters and I took away from
our childhood and the only one that all four of us lovingly prepare for our
As a chef, and arrogant daughter, I felt I could improve
on my mom’s chicken and rice. I had watched her do it; I knew she was cooking
that chicken way too long, and I believed the addition of a few aromatics would
make what was already tasty blow people’s minds. So three years ago, when my 70
year-old, very frail mom went under the knife for her second shoulder
replacement, I decided I would make her individual portions of chicken and rice
to eat during her recovery. Before I go into the nuts and bolts of the debacle,
just know that a lot of love and time went into the incident.
Two days prior to her return from the Mayo Clinic, I
made a rich, roasted chicken stock using backs, necks, feet, garlic, bay leaves
and mirepoix. I chilled the stock overnight and scooped off the fat the
following day. Then I covered 3 whole chickens with the gelatinous, brown
culinary wonder and brought it up to a simmer. I simmered the chickens for 10
minutes, turned off the heat, covered the pot and let it sit for an hour. At
this point I was feeling like a genius and had rewritten the “chicken and rice
book” in my head for generations to come. Next I removed the chickens and
tasted the broth. “Hmmm. It tastes like
onions, garlic and roasted bones? Ok well, I’ll add some salt and black
Black pepper was, after all, the one spice my mom used
freely. “Oh and maybe I should
add some herbs, thyme and rosemary, just to round out that bulbous aroma?”
I always felt like mom’s chicken and rice would have
been better if it were just a little more soupy, so I dispensed with her
measurement of 1 part rice to 3 parts broth and poured in 1 cup rice for every
4 cups liquid. I covered the pot, turned on the heat and went about picking the
chicken from the carcass. These were some perfectly poached chickens. The juice
and fat running between my fingers pleased me, patted me on the back even. My
mom was going to be pleased.
In 15 minutes I removed the lid and stared into what
looked like dark stock with some rice floating in it. It was definitely too
soupy, so I decided to just let it go a little longer. I’m not sure what I
thought this would do and actually knew it was a bad idea, but I was feeling
desperate and had forgotten how to cook.
Five minutes later, my rice had burst, broken its shape,
the cardinal sin of rice cooking, AND it was still floating in cups of broth.
This was not good and not at all what I had intended. In minutes I would have a
nasty, country congee Scarlett would most definitely not eat. “Ok, so I’ll add all the
chicken really fast with the heat off, cool down the broth and stop the
rice from bursting any further. Maybe I can save this?”
I most certainly could not save it. I did add all the
chicken back to the pot, seasoned the hell out of the mess, and got the flavor
at least to an acceptable place...for me. After chilling it down, I vacuum-sealed
20 or so 8oz portions for my mom, drove them over to her house and nestled them
in her freezer. When my mom got home, she was thin, tired, and a little bit
crazy-acting. I told her I had made chicken and rice for her to have through
her recovery and she rolled her eyes. I overlooked it and carried on. A week
later I checked her reserves to find that only one bag was missing.
“Mom, don’t forget about
that chicken and rice in the freezer. You have a lot of it.”
“Ugghh. It’s not good. You can’t make it.
Take it with you. I don’t want it.”
Ok, so I knew my chicken and rice didn’t top the charts
as far as versions of that dish go, but my mom was actually pissed off. I took
the remaining 19 packets out of her freezer, put my head down, and walked across
the yard to my house. You should know, I was six months pregnant with twins at
the time and VERY emotional. Once inside my door, I threw myself onto the sofa,
flinging frozen packets of chicken and rice all over the living room, and
I’ve grown a lot as a chef since that incident, and in
part because of it. Once my mom recovered and I had my babies, I actually
watched her make chicken and rice and took an honest interest in the food of my
childhood. I learned that simplicity really is very hard to pull off and there
are some recipes you just don’t mess with.
In October 2013, I cooked a career-defining meal for
folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium
in Oxford, Mississippi. I
literally worked for months to make this meal stand out in terms of technique,
flavor, and emotion. I designed each course to honor one of the women who made
me the person I am. For the second course, I made my mom’s chicken and rice. It
was both the most difficult course to pull off and the most well received dish
I served that day. My mom was there too and she loved it.
Things I like to pair with rice....
just about everything in the edible universe. Breakfast,
lunch and dinner.