Saturday, August 30, 2014

Celery! Soup, Chicken Salad and Crunch!

I used to love it. The steam from the bowl as it rose up to my nostrils; the creamy warmth just a spoonful away; the green, floating slices of subtle crunchiness – Campbell’s Cream of Celery Soup, my favorite lunch after coming home from the morning session of Kindergarten at Macy Elementary School. If I was really lucky, Mom would also include a grilled cheese sandwich, but for the most part, just the soup was enough to make me one happy 5 year old. It was served in my very own Mary Alice Hadley bowl.

Mary Alice Hadley was an artist from Louisville, Kentucky and
one of my aunt's best friends. My aunt was one of the first retailers to sell
Mary Alice's wares in her shop in St. Matthews, Kentucky.

It had my name on the outside and ALL GONE on the bottom. Mom made it a game to get to the “All DONE”, making lunch not only filling but fun. I loved this soup; it was my favorite lunch, until…

…I spent a weekend with the babysitter from hell. Her name was Mrs. Marris. My parents were going away for a long overdue weekend away alone, and Mrs. Marris was to mind us. And mind us, she would. She minded me, especially.

My mother had selected Mrs. Marris from a child care registry which noted she was a church going woman, had raised a large family herself and was experienced in caring for infants – my sister was less than a year old at time. I was used to having neighborhood high school girls babysit. They would listen to rock and roll on my parents’ Hi-Fi, tell me all about their boyfriends - “You know the really cute guy who drives that cool Chevy?” -  and would put my hair up in pink sponge rollers before I went to bed so my extra-straight locks would be somewhat curly the next morning. Mrs. Marris was a different kind of babysitter. Everything with her was all peachy as my parents, waving and blowing kisses, drove out of the driveway, down the street and on to their weekend alone. (Elsie Smith, the housekeeper who was in our lives for 20 years, had not yet become that beloved family member, otherwise, Mrs. Marris would never have been a part of this story.)

The first hint of “a different kind of babysitter” came when a boy, a few years older and much taller than me, was dropped off at our house. It was one of Mrs. Marris’ grandsons and she had told his parents that she would watch him since she was already watching someone else’s kids. Once out of eye and ear shot of his grandmother, who was doting endlessly on my little sister, he called me names and teased me mercilessly, trying to illicit a dramatic response on my part that would no doubt cause his grandmother to leave the reverie of caring for the baby and get mad at me. I ignored him, which only made him all the angrier. Bullies are like that, aren’t they? 

As a last resort for my attention, Grandson from Hell grabbed a small chair, a special gift from a visit to Los Angeles’ Olvera Street  and threatened to break my chair, my chair, my chair!

A similar, more modern version
 of my  beloved chair
Grandson, seeing my pleading, anxious eyes, did whatever any self-respecting, overweight 9 year old bully would do – he sat on my chair. It broke. A flurry of frantic calls for “Grandma, come see what she has done!” brought me out of the momentary shock I experienced as I saw a favorite possession ruined . I screamed, and screamed until Mrs. Marris appeared.

Mrs. Marris was not pleased, not at all.  But it was not her devil spawn who felt her wrath. No matter how I tried to explain that it was he who sat in and broke my chair, the blame was all on me. Nope, no way, no how, would her grandson do such a thing. I was told to stay in my room, indefinitely.  I hated Mrs. Marris.

The next day, Grandson from Hell was gone and Mrs. Marris was in a far more conciliatory mood. Perhaps the little blighter confessed, but I’m sure it had more to do with Mrs. Marris wanting to receive a glowing review of her services from the eldest, and only articulate, Reilly child. I was served Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup for lunch that day. “Your mother said it is your favorite”, she said with a tone of voice bordering on fawning. 

“Oh, it is”, I replied with a sly smile. Once her back was turned, I took the lid off the table top salt shaker and proceeded to empty its contents into my blessed, long awaited bowl of Cream of Celery Soup. Sometimes you have to destroy the one thing you love in order to have some integrity. I took a taste. I didn’t scream, I didn’t make a sour face, I didn’t cry about the foulness of it or curse her repugnant grandson. I simply pushed the offending bowl of soup away from me with a look of indifference. Mrs. Marris became harsh now, a bit fed up with all the drama her stay at our home had created. “Why don’t you eat your soup?!” When push came to shove, I asked her to take a taste from my Margie bowl. Afraid that it might be contaminated but not wanting to lose face with a 5 year old, she gingerly took a spoon, dipped it so lightly into that murky, questionable cream of whatever, brought the spoon to her lips and immediately christened the contents “Inedible!" And then she said, with a defeated look," Margie, you may leave the table.”

Now, 50 years later, I have not had another bowl of Campbell's Cream of Celery soup. Try as she might, my mother could not get me to consume another spoonful of my once favorite luncheon item. As for Mrs. Marris? I am so over her!

So, how have I found my current celery love? 

At Camp Blogaway in May 2103, Duda Farm Fresh provided a prom dress showing of pink and green stalks. If these do not change your opinion of celery, I don’t know what will!

One of my favorite salads is Chicken Salad Veronique from the Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa At Home cookbook.

Chicken Salad Veronique

Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa by Margie MacKenzie, Nutmeg Kitchens

Serves 6-8, easily increased to serve any amount


4 whole chicken breasts
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 cups Red Flame Grapes, halved
2 cups chopped celery
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped tarragon, more for garnish
½-1 cup apple cider vinegar, depending on taste
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup toasted pecans or walnuts – optional


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Generously salt and pepper the chicken breasts and rub olive oil over them. Roast for 25-35 minutes, until the skin is golden and the flesh hits 160 degrees with an instant read thermometer. Allow chicken to cool. Chicken can be prepared one day in advance.

Once chicken is cooled, remove the skin and shred the meat off the bones. Dice the meat and set aside.

To assemble the salad:
Halve the grapes. Chop the celery – include some of the leaves for extra flavor.

For the dressing :
Place the mayonnaise, cider vinegar, tarragon and salt and pepper in a small bowl; whisk together and add more salt and pepper to taste (sometimes I even add a splash or two of hot sauce).

Place the cubed chicken, grapes and celery in a bowl; toss with the dressing. Refrigerate overnight, or up to 2 days. 

Allow the salad to come room temperature before serving. Garnish with chopped tarragon and optional nuts. Serve in a large serving bowl or on a platter on top of a bed of red leaf lettuce.

Note: If you don't want to go through the process of roasting and shredding chicken breasts, and you are a Costco shopper, look for vacuum-sealed packages of chicken breast meat in the deli refrigerator case, $11.99. This is meat from the plump, succulent, roasted chickens that do not sell on a given day. Costco birds have little additional seasoning so the breast meat is perfect for use in any recipe that calls for chicken breast meat. And it is REALLY tasty!! A great time-saver that provides excellent results!


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