Famous Beltway Chicken Salad: The Too Hot to Cook Series
For one hot, fragrant, lonely summer, I lived in the suburbs of DC. I was twenty and trying to figure out what would happen after college.
I dated a dark-eyed boy from Beirut who had shrapnel lodged in his calf, a fact which I managed imbue with both cultural gravity and romance for about a week, until some controlling, misogynstic commentary ruined it.
I worked for Hillary Clinton. We met only once, but it was over a piece of lemon cake, which happens to be my favorite sort of cake.
In addition to working on Pennsylvania Avenue, I worked scooping ice cream on Avenue P. I’d come home late, hot and sticky, my tee-shirt reeking of sweet melted cream. It was disgusting.
I also worked at a giant Mexican restaurant. The highlight —lowlight?— was when I had to be brought to the hospital because I’d spilled frijoles a la charra down the collar of my shirt, resulting in second degree burns.
The lesson? In the summer, DC is too hot to cook, or even carry food around.
But unlike New York in the heat, DC smelled good. Perhaps because of the thick quality of the air, rich cooking smells hung, waiting to be enjoyed. Spinach and artichoke dip. Roasting meats. But what I remember most about the food I bought that summer is the chicken salad sandwiches from right outside of the White House.
They cost somewhere in the range of $7 — not cheap for a 1993 intern — and were served on croissants. This is how I have been making chicken salad ever since, and now I’m going to tell you how to do it.
It’s a simple enough idea. Poach white meat chicken until just cooked in water, broth, or stock with peppercorns, onions, and garlic. Cool enough so that you can touch it, and dice or shred. Some people like big chunks of chicken in their salad. I just tear it apart, perhaps to get more surface area for mayonnaise to cleave up to. You could also, of course, use rotisserie chicken.
Mix in mayo. Add white pepper, and add salt. My current favorite is Maldon sea salt. (It’s finely flavored but not too big or too small or even more importantly, rock hard.)
Chop red onion and mix in. Chop a can of water chestnuts and stir in. When the salad is to your taste, add sliced almonds, and a handful of chopped tarragon. Sweetness, bite, and crunch from red onion, fragrance from tarragon, texture from almonds and water chestnuts: it’s a wonderful salad. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.