There are those to whom we are related. There are those with whom we choose to associate, cultivating cherished friendships. Then there are those whose friendships with us are so close, so strong, that the bonds feel familial, even though they're not.
That's Jack and Luta to me and to my family: relatives though not technically relatives. In many ways, they're the grandparents I never had.* (Half of my grandparents passed away before I was born; the other half passed away when I was very young.) Roughly a generation older than Mom and Dad, Jack and Luta met my parents when they all found themselves living in an apartment complex in Ohio in the early 1970s. As we would learn was her style, Luta knocked on the door one day, not long after Mom and Dad moved in, proclaiming, "Hi, I'm Luta, and if you'll open that door I'll come in and introduce myself." Mom opened the door. It has stayed open for 37 years.
Jack and Luta were Texans, and they spent most of the time that I knew them living in Dallas and El Paso. After they left Ohio (after they met my parents) and moved back to the Lone Star State, we would load up our cream-colored station wagon and drive through the night on marathon road trips to visit them each year. We'd stop in exotic places like Vicksburg, MS, where we visited a mansion that had a Civil War cannonball still lodged in one of its walls. Ever the enthusiastic tour guide, Luta would -- as Jack would fondly state -- "drag us all over Texas" (and beyond). To Eisenhower's birthplace:
And, when I was really into rock collecting, she (and Jack!) made sure I got to visit a place where they would let you pick out a geode, then split it in half for you so you could enjoy the matching halves of the colorful, crystalline stone. Those were some of the most memorable trips of my life.
When all I used to eat were french fries, she didn't try to feed me anything else.
And then there's the way she refused to stand on ceremony. She never saw a person to whom she wouldn't speak, if she felt like it. No one was a stranger to her. Once, in the grocery store, a particularly cute baby in a stroller caught her eye. With a fervor most reserve for their own grandchildren, Luta approached the bewildered mother and proclaimed, "Oh, that baby is so cute I could just kick him up and piss him!" Her zeal got the best of her brain's and tongue's abilities to form letters into words in the correct order. The mother scooted her cart quickly into the cereal aisle away from the crazy Texan lady.
You might be able to imagine that Luta was a gifted, if no-nonsense, cook and hostess. Her food was delicious and her parties perfect, but everything was prepared with the greatest of ease. She took a little help from the store before Rachael Ray turned those seven words into a curse. Take this Chicken Divan recipe. Luta could have used a French mother sauce (Mornay) in the casserole, as the original dish does. Luta could make a mother sauce, make no mistake about it. However, Luta had better things to do, such as plan our next excursion to Juarez, Mexico, to get our nails done. Or, tutor one of the many Mexican kids (her "children") that she helped during her decades of volunteer work. Girlfriend didn't have time for sauce Mornay.
What follows is Luta's recipe for Chicken Divan, which she gave to Mom and which Mom cooked so much in the '70s and '80s that I actually believed the dish was named Chicken Dianne. Maybe I needed a hearing aid of some sort, or perhaps this belief was but one by-product of my self-centered youth. At any rate, this dinner epitomizes everything that is so right (delicious, rich, creamy, easy, salty, cheesy) yet so wrong (calories! fat grams!) with mid- to late-20th-century casseroles. As far as sentimentality goes, this one can't be beat. It's childhood in a baking dish. Its flavors, while not culinarily complex, per se, are pleasing. How can they not be? If you don't find all that mayo and cheese and chicken pleasing then perhaps you need your head examined. Plus, the critical inclusion of the broccoli means that you are getting some vegetable nutrition, swimming around down there underneath all those less nutritious elements. Some beta carotene fighting the good fight, though outnumbered by a much larger army of cholesterol milligrams. I will say this: don't skimp on this recipe. Don't try to make it with fat-free cream of chicken soup, or low-fat mayo. The sauce breaks and the texture is wrong and it's just...not very 1970s. Shove in all the fat grams you can, just don't make it every night.
I mean, Luta was not a very moderate personality. She would agree that there's no point in half-assed Chicken Divan.
*I speak of Jack and Luta here in the past tense. Jack passed away some time ago. Luta resides in a nursing facility in El Paso. We still write back and forth to each other, and she still lovingly addresses us all as her "Ohio children." I refer to her in the past tense only because this post refers to trips that took place in the past, to good times passed together, to experiences that cannot happen again. Though her faculties are diminished somewhat, Luta is still very much with us. I'm not sure if she's up to dragging us out for Tex-Mex, but past tense she ain't.
Adapted from Luta Roberts' recipe
For the chicken:
2 chicken or vegetable bouillon cubes
1 large carrot, cut in half
Half an onion, cut in half
1 celery stalk, cut in half
6-8 whole black peppercorns
3 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
4 whole chicken breasts, poached, cleaned and sliced
For the sauce:
2 cans condensed cream of chicken soup
1 c. Hellman's mayonnaise
4 t. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
For the casserole:
3 10-oz. packages frozen broccoli spears, defrosted in the microwave
1 c. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 c. Panko bread crumbs
2 T. melted butter
Poach the chicken. Fill a large pot about halfway with water. Add the bouillon cubes, carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns, flat-leaf parsley and chicken breasts. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Allow the chicken to simmer in the broth until it's cooked through, about 25 minutes. (You can use a probe thermometer to check the temperature if you'd like -- it should be at 161 degrees F -- but since this is a casserole, the chicken will spend additional time in the oven so I don't worry about specific temp. Just make sure it's cooked through.)
Remove the chicken from the broth. If you are a picky chicken person, as I am, now is the time to remove any of the less appetizing parts of the breasts -- gristly bits, vein-y bits, what have you. If you are like my husband, and you can use your mouth to make an entire chicken breast, on the bone, disappear with nary a trace left behind, you can skip this onerous step. Up to you.
Slice the chicken crosswise into pieces about 1/2" thick; set aside until it's time to assemble the casserole.
(A note about the broth: refrigerate it overnight, skim the fat the solidifies at the surface, strain the liquids away from the solids through a cheesecloth set in a wire mesh strainer set over a large bowl or liquid measuring cup, and you have yourself a nice -- if simple -- chicken broth. Use it anywhere you'd use chicken broth. Or freeze it in ice cube trays, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, for use somewhere down the road. But definitely don't throw it away. That would just be wasteful, and Luta would not approve.)
Assemble the Chicken Divan. Layer the defrosted broccoli spears in the bottom of the buttered casserole dish. Place the poached chicken slices on top of the broccoli, then pour on the sauce. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese in an even layer on top. Mix together the Panko and the melted butter; sprinkle this mixture on top of the cheese.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until the casserole is piping hot and bubbly. Like a lasagna or a deep-dish pizza, it's best to let the Chicken Divan sit for about 10 minutes before scooping out a serving, otherwise, you end up with quite the runny mess. But if you can't wait, you can't wait. Who am I to judge?
Serves about 8. And, as did most dishes in the '70s and '80s, it makes great leftovers!