Mayonnaise is an instrument.
When I asked my friends if they’d heard of a main course that consisted of chicken in a chicken soup-and-mayonnaise sauce with a topping of crisps and cheese, the reaction was broadly of horror. There is disagreement among my relatives over the origin of this family favourite, known only as “Chicken Dish”. It features one of my favourite cooking phenomena – tinned-soup-as-sauce. My granny asserts that my great-auntie Hazel is the source of the recipe. Indeed, Hazel makes a similar Boxing Day dish that consists of turkey; tinned mushroom soup; curry powder; and mayonnaise. It’s fantastic. However, my mum, a woman with the type of incredible memory that can be both a blessing and a curse, suggests that the recipe was from the Forres Round Table. Round Tables were clubs for local business-owners, formed for the purposes of socialising and collecting money for community causes. My granda was a member of the branch in his northern Scottish town. Research reveals that the organisation still exists today, with The Round Table Great Britain and Ireland Facebook page describing its purpose as “Fun Friendship and Fundraising & the odd beer.” In the 70s, entrepreneur members would draw straws to decide which course they would make for the affiliated dinner parties. Through this association, or the female equivalent Ladies’ Circle, is probably how my granny first encountered “Chicken Dish”.
One of my friends disgusted by the dish, a PhD student who would prefer to remain nameless, recounted a time when she was served a pasta bake with a topping of crisps. "One of the worst meals she’d ever had", she said. In what was likely an attempt to end the conversation she directed me to the Instagram page @dailyvintagefoods, where I spent some time. Their “Tuna’n Waffles” is absolutely something I would eat and enjoy, and also involves a soup sauce. The combination of soup and mayonnaise in “Chicken Dish” strikes me as particularly 70s British, evocative as it is both coronation chicken and prawn cocktail. There is also truly no seasoning in this main course, so readers with more developed palates will have to look elsewhere.
Jack Monroe’s Tin Can Cook – a cookbook I coveted from the title alone – somewhat inevitably features a pasta dish with a mushroom soup base. It is delicious, and cheap to make, though I had to endure the judgement of my flatmates for eating something so undeniably grey. Jack Monroe’s ethos as a food writer is that of cooking on a budget, and one of the strongest cases for soup-as-a-sauce is its cheapness. If I haven’t persuaded you to try this retro method of cooking yet, perhaps this can be an opportunity for gratitude towards the migrants of this country who brought flavour to the British mainstream in the decades since my grandparents’ dinner parties.
My Google searches for similar recipes to “Chicken Dish” have proved mysteriously fruitless. If a chicken-and-egg dish inspired Paul Simon to write Mother and Child Reunion, perhaps this processed version will catalyse similar creative breakthroughs. I have recorded the recipe for posterity below, should you wish to try this 70s classic for yourself!
Campbell's Cream of Chicken Condensed Soup (or similar tinned soup)
Finely chopped red pepper
Ready salted crisps
If you’ve roasted the chicken prior you can use the remaining oven heat to cook the dish like a good housewife. Otherwise, preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan). Make the sauce by mixing equal parts mayo and chicken soup in a bowl, adjusting the ratio to taste. Stir in the vegetables, and pour the mixture over the chicken in a baking dish, ensuring the meat is covered. Top with alternating layers of crushed crisps and grated cheese before baking for 35 minutes. Serve with boiled tatties – ideally of the Duke of York variety. Enjoy in front of Strictly Come Dancing for that authentic winter-weekend-at-home feeling.
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