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A Signature Dish

(by Cathy Alter)

That I have no natural instincts toward cooking is my mother's fault. When asked to submit a recipe to the PTA cookbook, she sent me to first grade with instructions for making a Fluffernutter sandwich. "If God had wanted me to cook," she once proclaimed while opening a 12-piece bucket from the Colonel, "I would have been born with Teflon hands."

She was a working mother, the only one among the mothers of my friends who worked outside of their split-level homes. As soon as my brother and I were out of diapers, she opened a woman's fashion boutique in our sleepy Connecticut suburb. In the land of Peck ‘n Peck and Pappagallo shoes (both retail bastions to preppy style and sensible shoes), Artichoke, Inc. stood as a beacon to the hip, independent women of our town. There were racks of denim maxi skirts, obscure French labels, and Native American jewelry hanging on a wall made of cork. My mother, a six-foot-tall beauty with black hair and red lips, employed her most stylish friends (who often began life as her customers), ran a yearly Godfather sale (“Make me an offer I can’t refuse”), and referred to her markdown rack as “The Unloved Ones” (spelled out in pink felt letters glued onto a green felt banner). As her objectively less glamorous daughter, my mother's store was a lesson in the good life: cool friends, fabulous wardrobe, and the idea that a woman could be the boss of her own empire. It did not involve frying anything up in a pan.

Artichoke was where my mother truly fed her soul, and the bacon that she brought home, in the form of Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza, or Chinese takeout, was what fed ours. My father, who grew up on mayonnaise sandwiches after his own father died and his mother took a job working night shifts at a hospital, wasn't about to complain. I thought that all families ate like ours, until I invited a friend over for dinner. As we sat down to a feast of salami subs, my friend picked up her paper plate and asked, "What is this?" Her mother, we discovered, served her exclusively home-cooked meals on actual dishes.

My mother could cook, begrudgingly. The kitchen noise I remember most is a dull pounding, which signaled her signature dish—veal—flattened and breaded and tasting faintly of lemon. The side dish was always green beans, the only vegetable my father would eat. I wasn't crazy about this meal, but then again, my mother wasn't cooking it for me. My father, the original mayonnaise kid, was her favorite patron.

So, I wasn't surprised that when my husband and I were dating, my mother urged me to find and cook my own signature dish. Unlike her feelings for my first husband, my mother adored Karl. A fellow boutique owner here in D.C., he and my mother would bond over ready-to-wear and Mongolian cashmere. I liked to joke that Karl was the daughter my mother never had. Secure in the life she had built with my devoted father, she had wanted the same happiness for me.

And so, I did like she said, and I cooked for Karl: a chicken dish courtesy of my best friend Gail, something she called Corn Flakes Chicken. "Even you can't screw this up," she told me when I called for the recipe.

And I didn't mess up, despite the stress of handling raw chicken (a foreign object until I gave my baby his first bath and felt like he'd slip through my fingers as well). When I phoned my mother to tell her about my own happy customer, she said, "It makes a difference when you cook for someone you love."

I never got to make my signature dish for my beloved mother. She succumbed to dementia nearly five years ago. The Artichoke experienced an earlier demise, closing when my mother could no longer sign her staff's paychecks without my father's help. Married myself now for almost 14 years, I've taken all the things I've learned from her out of the kitchen and brought them into my own. She didn't teach me to cook, but, from her style, sly wit, and immense sense of fun, she taught me how to sizzle.


Cathy Alter is a journalist and author who lives in Washington, D.C. Her books include Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush; Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood; and Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over. She is a faculty member and nonfiction advisor at Johns Hopkins University. She can be found at

Corn Flakes Chicken

1 bottle (16 oz.) Kraft Viva Italian Salad Dressing (or any Italian dressing with lots of stuff floating around inside)

1 box (21 oz.) Corn Flakes Crumbs

1 - 1 1/2 lb. chicken pieces (I like boneless, skinless chicken breasts)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Pour dressing into one bowl and Corn Flakes Crumbs into another bowl.

Dip chicken pieces in the dressing, both sides, and then in the crumbs, both sides.

Place on a baking tray.

Make a paste out of the leftover dressing and crumbs, and mush on top of each piece of chicken.

Bake for approximately 25 - 35 minutes, until crispy and golden.


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