The Divine Divan: Four Women and One Casserole

Like my sister and I, The Original Chicken Divan was not born in Kansas. Chicken Divan was the signature dish of the now bygone restaurant, Divan Parisien in New York City. But Kansas was where Marcile, my grandmother, made the dish and passed it on to my mother, Dana Claire–as we so affectionately call her when making fun of her Kansan roots. For this parting project, I wanted to write about the rejection and acceptance of heritage; how we see what has been given to us and take it, leave it, or change it. To accomplish this through the medium of food, I saw no option other than to conquer the family casserole–and to involve my mother, sister, and grandmother (through memory) in the process.

Dana Claire grew up in the 1950’s–when the era of the casserole was presumably ushered in. My grandmother’s recipe box from this time is packed tightly with torn and browned index cards and clippings; reading the names of what today we might consider atrocious concoctions of artificiality. Jell-o molds, cakes calling for mayonnaise, meat loafs, and, like the Chicken Divan, Campbell’s soup casseroles. Today that recipe box sits in my sister’s kitchen–on a rural and idyllic organic farm in Vermont. It is actual worlds and ages away from Kansas and the household which bore those dubious dishes, in the Eisenhower and JFK years – the times of Old Fashioneds in highballs and razor-sharp gender roles.

Today, my sister and her husband, an artisan cheese maker raise chickens and pigs and cows to eat, and grow from seed to harvest any vegetable that so strikes her fancy, from corn to kohlrabi. She is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and imaginative and hilarious food blogger; chronicling her new life as farm wife and all that which it entails. Her lifestyle, and the life which she has created through our mother’s example, is decidedly very un-Mid Western. In fact, it is quite possibly the antithesis of Mid Western, as stereotypes have come to define Middle America, the place where my mother grew up. The recipe box serves less function as a compendium of useable recipes and more of a Pandora’s box of humorous references to the past (example: “Recipe for Delicious Snack: crisco oil and ranch salad dressing poured over oyster crackers.”)

To accomplish this deep excursion into family and where we have come from, I enlisted the help of my mother for the recipe, and my sister for her opinions on the subject of casseroles, which I knew her to be very vehemently against. What came from this was a week of heightened communication amongst us all, living across the country from one another. Text messages, phone calls, photo sharing, and emailing–all especially in effort to really seize the spirit of my grandmother; a woman who lives on within each of us and deserves every drop of homage available. She was Kansan glamour at its height, and a thrill of a woman to be around. It became a project not just on how I felt about my family–but how we all felt about our family. And this was coming out because of a chicken casserole?

The author and former Editor-In-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, Ruth Reichl, wrote that “every generation declares its tastes–and its identity–by rejecting something that the previous generation holds dear.” These words are strong–and can even sound harsh–but they are true and beautiful in their truth. To compare with the casserole: each of us have taken the recipe and changed it to suit our own selves based on the parts we reject from the previous generation. My mother now would not dream of making the dish without free-range chicken, organic broccoli, her own curry powder found along her international travels from Turkey to Trinidad, and high-quality cheese made in Vermont. My sister, on the other hand, would not dream of making a casserole at all. Her own version of the project and musings on the topic can be found here. I found my place somewhere in between it all, resting right between the Classic Kansas and Nouveau New England. I used the traditional quality of my grandmother’s recipe, with ingredients found at my choice spots in San Francisco–Clement Street and Haight–and my mom’s directions followed to a tee (including the recommended glasses of wine while cooking.) Because as past results have proved–it is simply just better if you listen to your mother.

  • 2 bunches Broccoli, bought in the afternoon at my favorite market on the busy and fabulous Clement Street in San Francisco
  • 2 cups Jasmine Rice, from the same market amongst an expansive variety of rice choices.
  • 2 tbs. Curry Powder from the Caribbean (but sold on Clement Street as well)
  • 8 small Chicken thighs from Whole Foods Market on Haight Street (thighs because of their flavor; a good chicken thigh will make forever change your mind about what you thought you liked in breasts)
  • Cabot Cheddar, from Vermont of course
  • Potato chips
  • One can of the infamous (and necessary) Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup
  • The juice of one and a half lemons – found and picked on Golden Gate Avenue.

Step 1

Pour a glass of wine

Cook 2 cups of rice (I like organic brown short grain) boil 5 cups water- pour 2 cups rice in, come to boil again, reduce to simmer, cook until water is gone

Step 2

Cut broccoli (preferably organic) into pieces like this – also slice stalks thin they are good and crispy

Steam broccoli for 5 minutes- no more- want it crisp- I like to arrange it so the stalks are down

Step 3

Brown chicken in about a tbs butter- it makes it nice and brown – don’t crowd the pan or it will steam it not brown it – cook in 2 batches- I like to use boneless and skinless organic thighs (juicy and good) but any cut will do

Step 4

Pour another glass of wine

Make sauce of 1 can cream of chicken soup, one big spoon of mayo, 2 tbs curry powder and juice of about 1 1/2 juicy lemons- it must be lemony- taste it

Step 5

Place in baking dish – rice, chicken, broccoli – pour sauce over the top, cover with grated sharp cheddar (not orange) and crushed potato chips.

At 350 degrees, cook 45 minutes or an hour if your chicken has bones in it.

In France, the word divan refers to a meeting place, which is exactly what this project became for my family. Through the course of its progress, my mother in Vermont has found photos of my family I’ve never seen, and sent them to me in California. She has told my sister stories of my grandmother that no one has ever asked for. Jordan and I have communicated more in the past week than we do in many months sometimes. A part of our family history has been shared that might never have made it beyond my mom otherwise. It’s likely we wouldn’t have opened that recipe box, and learned to face our own rejections of heritage–which we show in our comedic reception of casseroles, meat molds, and jell-o salads–and our exodus from the Mid West. These rejections are not completely unfounded, but also not necessarily fully understood.

It takes distance to realize where you’ve come from. It takes more change to notice any change. For me, moving to California was partially to leave Vermont, just as my mother had left Kansas. I certainly wasn’t the only pioneer to move westward, but at times it felt on par with treason leaving what was Yankee and familiar. It took the distance between San Francisco and Vermont (3,023 miles) to actually know more about Vermont and New England. And the more I changed with that distance, the more I recognized it.

With food, we can put feelings in a place. We can harness these bigger ideas: heritage–the acceptance and rejection of it–and change and family dynamics and history. It is a meeting place.Through food we greatly associate identities to ourselves, and through cooking and writing about food we establish an understanding of what identity even is. Food, in many ways, is a measure of our civilization. It is a meeting place that brings together more than ingredients; and the casserole with those many layers–whether homegrown on a farm, or bought at posh grocery stores in the city, or from the mega mart in Wichita–did its part to once again bring my own family together. To a place we could all meet.