(by Alana Ballantyne)
My mom was gifted in many arenas of life. She was funny. She was smart. She could build a toothpick suspension bridge for a fifth-grade art project with the best of them. But she was not a great cook. She didn’t even have the sweet, bumbling ineptitude of someone who enjoys the process but is untalented. She just hated to cook and made no effort to hide that fact from anyone. Unfortunately for her (and everyone who ate her concoctions at our home in Rochester, Michigan), the majority of the cooking responsibility fell to her.
Mom’s approach to dinner can be best described as “economic.” She strongly favored efficiency and ease of preparation over trivial matters like taste or aroma. One of her staple dishes on the more edible end of the spectrum consisted of thawed, precooked Costco chicken breasts, placed in a greased glass pan with an entire bottle of Italian dressing dumped on top and cooked until bone-dry. We ate “Mom’s Chicken” pretty much every school night. My father would choke his portion down in dutiful silence, but my brothers and I had not developed a sense of self-preservation. One of us (usually me) would say, “This doesn’t taste like you put any love in it.”
“Well, I didn’t,” she would sniff.
“Nana’s chicken tastes like love,” I would say, impishly.
“Well, Nana can feed you dinner every night, and we’ll see if it tastes like ‘love’ then,” was her response.
That exchange usually devolved into laughter or exasperated silence, depending on how jam-packed the week had been. And our weeks were often jam-packed. Both of my brothers traveled for sports, and I was in every extracurricular activity under the sun. Somehow, Mom managed to coordinate three vastly different schedules, across multiple states, many of which conflicted with one another. I honestly don’t know how she did it. She not only knew of every practice and appointment, but where and when it took place, and directions on how to get there.
And no matter how hectic or unmanageable our lives were, she made a point of gathering us together at the end of the day for dinner. We would discuss our challenges, our worries, and our little triumphs, over Mom’s Chicken, pretty much every night. Many a childhood trauma was dealt with in my mom’s economic, efficient way.
I have inherited my mother’s apathy towards cooking. I actually have a stunning ability to ruin almost every recipe, even if I am reading step-by-step instructions. But one thing that I can make is Mom’s Chicken. I add a little salt and pepper when I make it now, and I try not to bake it as long, but it remains substantially unchanged. Over the years I’ve realized that I was wrong as a child; it does taste like love.
Alana Ballantyne is a freelance journalist and short story writer, currently pursuing her J.D. at Michigan State University. Her website is alanaballantyne.com.
6 – 8 frozen precooked chicken breasts (Costco preferred)
1 bottle Italian salad dressing
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Thaw chicken breasts and place in a greased pan.
Pour dressing over chicken, dispersing evenly.
Add salt and pepper.
Bake for approximately 25 minutes.