Austin360Cooks: Would you eat chicken salad with this secret ingredient?

I got an email from a reader named Gerry McKee last week, who had a sweet story about about chicken salad to pass along to a generation of people like me who love hearing culinary tales like this.

I guess it’s proof that if you ask for the secret ingredient, you better be prepared to find out what it is.

I had to share this family story with you about my aunt Georgia.

My grandparents’ families were large, sometimes 75 people, so bringing a favorite dish was a lot of work. Everyone had special potato salad, but one aunt had a chicken salad that everyone tried without success to make, and she never told anyone how. She never made it in front of her family, it was hers alone, and every family get-together was the same un-ending “please tell me.” She never did.

Finally, in her older years, at a July Fourth party, she agreed to the “if you are gone, it will be lost” argument. All the ladies gathered around, pen and paper in hand and eagerly started writing down her exact directions, which they promised to follow to the letter.

Everything was hand chopped, with chicken boiled on the stove, de-boned by hand, etc. Many oh’s and ah’s, over minor steps, and then she revealed the 30-some-odd year secret.

She had her local butcher finely grind up 1/4 of the total meat from beef tongue to the point you could not tell it was there, and mixed it in so well no one ever could detect it, not in all those years. The flavor blended in.

I had eaten and loved this dish for twenty years myself, it was really a standard mix with the tongue giving it the mystery flavor that stood it apart. I was there watching this, and what happened next shocked me.

For a few seconds, the relatives sat in stunned silence. Then, first one relative spoke up, then the next. It snowballed.

Tongue…The nerve. How dare you.

Families are funny, though this bordered more on tragedy. This loving woman had been the most popular in the group, and the other women turned into a bunch of clucking hens, many who grew up on farms eating everything grown and all parts of the animals they raised, the lessor parts ground up into meat loaf.

I had plenty of this delicious salad that year, and alas, my aunt brought it to the family gathering only one more time, then gave up as few ate it. Wives threatened husbands.

I spoke to her a couple of years before she passed, by now she could laugh and drew her strength from the shocked looked on the women’s faces when they heard the word “tongue.”

She bore no grudges, considered it their loss, still fixed it for her family and a few friends where they lived, and took pleasure in that. She then proudly told the secret ingredient so others could make it taste just right and helped them perfect their attempts. She offered to fix a batch for me if I would let her know when I was coming back to town.

And it was the best chicken salad I have ever eaten.


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