I’ve mentioned my mom’s life-long bout with rheumatoid arthritis before. Through two shoulder replacements and many other reconstructive surgeries, she raised four girls, taught school, and bred Doberman Pinchers for spending money. As you might imagine, meals were simple at my house. Mom didn’t fry chicken, can pickles, or roll out biscuits. Instead, when Scarlett geared up to make a soul warming meal for our family, it was almost always a pot of chicken and rice. Hands down, this is the dish my sisters and I took away from our childhood and the only one that all four of us lovingly prepare for our children.     
As a chef, and arrogant daughter, I felt I could improve on my mom’s chicken and rice. I had watched her do it; I knew she was cooking that chicken way too long, and I believed the addition of a few aromatics would make what was already tasty blow people’s minds. So three years ago, when my 70 year-old, very frail mom went under the knife for her second shoulder replacement, I decided I would make her individual portions of chicken and rice to eat during her recovery. Before I go into the nuts and bolts of the debacle, just know that a lot of love and time went into the incident.   

Two days prior to her return from the Mayo Clinic, I made a rich, roasted chicken stock using backs, necks, feet, garlic, bay leaves and mirepoix. I chilled the stock overnight and scooped off the fat the following day. Then I covered 3 whole chickens with the gelatinous, brown culinary wonder and brought it up to a simmer. I simmered the chickens for 10 minutes, turned off the heat, covered the pot and let it sit for an hour. At this point I was feeling like a genius and had rewritten the “chicken and rice book” in my head for generations to come. Next I removed the chickens and tasted the broth. “Hmmm. It tastes like onions, garlic and roasted bones? Ok well, I’ll add some salt and black pepper.” Black pepper was, after all, the one spice my mom used freely. “Oh and maybe I should add some herbs, thyme and rosemary, just to round out that bulbous aroma?”   

I always felt like mom’s chicken and rice would have been better if it were just a little more soupy, so I dispensed with her measurement of 1 part rice to 3 parts broth and poured in 1 cup rice for every 4 cups liquid. I covered the pot, turned on the heat and went about picking the chicken from the carcass. These were some perfectly poached chickens. The juice and fat running between my fingers pleased me, patted me on the back even. My mom was going to be pleased. In 15 minutes I removed the lid and stared into what looked like dark stock with some rice floating in it. It was definitely too soupy, so I decided to just let it go a little longer. I’m not sure what I thought this would do and actually knew it was a bad idea, but I was feeling desperate and had forgotten how to cook.   Five minutes later, my rice had burst, broken its shape, the cardinal sin of rice cooking, AND it was still floating in cups of broth. This was not good and not at all what I had intended. In minutes I would have a nasty, country congee Scarlett would most definitely not eat. “Ok, so I’ll add all the chicken really fast with the heat off, cool down the broth and stop the rice from bursting any further. Maybe I can save this?”   

I most certainly could not save it. I did add all the chicken back to the pot, seasoned the hell out of the mess, and got the flavor at least to an acceptable place...for me. After chilling it down, I vacuum-sealed 20 or so 8oz portions for my mom, drove them over to her house and nestled them in her freezer. When my mom got home, she was thin, tired, and a little bit crazy-acting. I told her I had made chicken and rice for her to have through her recovery and she rolled her eyes. I overlooked it and carried on. A week later I checked her reserves to find that only one bag was missing.   

“Mom, don’t forget about that chicken and rice in the freezer. You have a lot of it.”    
“Ugghh. It’s not good. You can’t make it. Take it with you. I don’t want it.”   

Ok, so I knew my chicken and rice didn’t top the charts as far as versions of that dish go, but my mom was actually pissed off. I took the remaining 19 packets out of her freezer, put my head down, and walked across the yard to my house. You should know, I was six months pregnant with twins at the time and VERY emotional. Once inside my door, I threw myself onto the sofa, flinging frozen packets of chicken and rice all over the living room, and cried.   

I’ve grown a lot as a chef since that incident, and in part because of it. Once my mom recovered and I had my babies, I actually watched her make chicken and rice and took an honest interest in the food of my childhood. I learned that simplicity really is very hard to pull off and there are some recipes you just don’t mess with.   

In October 2013, I cooked a career-defining meal for folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. I literally worked for months to make this meal stand out in terms of technique, flavor, and emotion. I designed each course to honor one of the women who made me the person I am. For the second course, I made my mom’s chicken and rice. It was both the most difficult course to pull off and the most well received dish I served that day. My mom was there too and she loved it.   

Things I like to pair with rice.... just about everything in the edible universe. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.