In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, he tells the story of in his childhood, going to bed while his parents were throwing parties, unable to fall asleep, waiting for his mother to come say goodnight to him.
Sometimes he’d still be awake when she’d come, and she’d give him a madeleine, that sweet cookie becoming the last thing he’d taste before drifting into dreams.
So powerful was the memory of those madeleines, that years later, tasting a bit of one, it was as if he were transported back to his bed chamber, sitting with his mother before bed.
I’ve had my own Proustian moments—you probably have, too. Once, someone in the store was wearing my mom’s perfume, the one she’d worn when I was a child.
And just then, in moments, I was at someone’s funeral, waiting for my parents, remembering someone who’d died.
The thing about these involuntary memories is that they hit you without warning, when you’re not expecting them or planning for them. For me, last weekend, they came in the form of a new recipe for chicken.
My grandma was a brilliant home cook, so skilled that she baked stacks of cookies for friends every Christmas, finding her food more appreciated than any other offering.
She even ventured into catering at one point, creating tall wedding cakes of impressive beauty. She, like many stay-at-home women of the 1950s and 60s, clipped recipes from newspapers, magazines.
She hand-wrote suggestions in her cursive penmanship. And when I visited her, she always cooked for me.
Many of her meals were memorable, but there’s one, her barbeque chicken, that especially stands out.
It was tender—so tender—and packed with flavor. She served it with white rice, on clear glass plates, while my brother and I sat on her sofa and watched I Love Lucy.
When she died, my family inherited everything she owned, which wasn’t much: old clothes, boxes of newspaper clippings, a few books, photographs.
And, importantly, a few card-sized boxes of recipes. They’re like a biography of a life: the clusters of delicious, unhealthy ingredients transforming into low-cholesterol finds as she developed high blood pressure and other problems.
I’ve gone through them all, even organized them with neat dividers, but I’ve never found a recipe for her barbeque chicken.
The directions couldn’t be simpler: dump these four ingredients (Coke, chicken, BBQ sauce, ketchup) into a slow cooker, and put it on medium heat for 3 to 5 hours.
That’s it. Always inspired by the easy, I decided to try it.
While the ingredients baked in the crock pot, I started to notice something wafting into the upstairs hallway: it was the smell of my grandma’s house, it was her barbeque chicken, I was on the sofa watching TV and she was bringing me a clear glass plate.
I know this isn’t her recipe. For one, she didn’t have a crock pot. For two, she didn’t cook with Coca-Cola.
Nonetheless, this easy, easy, could-not-be-simpler, impossible-to-mess-up chicken is the spitting image, I’d swear up and down, of my grandma’s dish.
Eating it Saturday night was like eating with my grandma, which, when I think about it, was a remarkable gift.
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna has a Masters in Writing through Depaul University. Her mantra? Restoring order and celebrating beauty through creative content, photography and food. Shanna's work has been featured in Bon Appetit, The Kitchn, MSN.com, Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Houzz.com, Food News Journal, Food52, Zeit Magazine, Chew the World, Mom.me, Babble, Delish.com, Parade, Foodista, Entrepreneur and Ragan PR.