The recipe I remember most from my childhood is my mother’s “Chicken and Rice and Everything Nice.” Her secret was to boil the rice in bouillon and then pour the chicken fat over the rice with seasoned salt. She usually served it with steamed broccoli, but the “everything nice” part went beyond that.
It was a plethora of intangible things, like her love for people, her compassion for our differences, and her basic nature to connect through food and feeding. She would get disappointed if someone showed up well fed because it was hard for her not to cook something.
There were many mornings when I woke up, and she’d ask if I was hungry. “Not yet,” I’d say, but in the kitchen I’d find an omelet and toast, “just in case.” That was Mom. She was programmed to feed.
We lived an hour and a half from New York City, near the beach and in the woods, where I was certain there were gnomes and leprechauns. My Greek immigrant family had worked their butts off to buy the place, but we were 20 minutes from the closest carton of milk and didn’t go to restaurants except for the occasional pizza. (I remember special outings to an Italian place called Franky’s with lovely plastic white and red checkered tablecloths.) My father believed that we had everything we needed at home, and in a way he was right, but that meant Mom was never taken out to dinner.
She raised four boys and three girls and fed countless neighborhood friends, so the kitchen was the heart of the house. How she managed all of that with a full-time job teaching classical music is beyond me. When I asked how she remained so calm and kind to us amid what must have been chaos, she said, “Dr. Spock and a class in Transactional Analysis.” As a result, she believed in saying “Yes” to children as often as possible. I learned all of this and more, from across the kitchen counter.
The kitchen was the social focus of parties and holidays, and where I wanted to be as I got older. It’s where the juicy conversations were happening. My mother and our posse of aunties were thinkers, educated and serious about their parenting philosophies. Most worked, but that didn’t mean they shied away from the kitchen. On the contrary, they owned it.
Mom was a Southern lady of northern European descent who played the violin and listened to opera, but she embraced my father’s Greek heritage in the kitchen. She also liked to explore cuisines, so while she would use JiaJia’s recipe for stuffed peppers, she’d drive more than an hour into Flushing, Queens, to get special ingredients for the dumplings she found in a magazine or cookbook. I smile imagining my sweet, classical music teaching, blond mother walking through this Asian enclave, looking for won ton wrappers or dipping sauce.
Now as a parent myself, I see so many more of her superpowers. Her approach to parenting was the same as her approach to cooking, filled with love and a deep desire to nurture. I learned from her the inherent pleasure of feeding people. I learned from her how we are all equal, and if we start there, everything should be all right.
She doesn’t cook anymore, but lives in a beautiful home that was formerly a girls school, built by the Vanderbilt family. It’s grand and lovely, and she is happy there, close to my sister and close enough for me to see her monthly. Best of all, she now gets served three meals a day in a restaurant with people who make her feel like she is the one receiving everything nice.
Katherine King is the founder of Invisible Culture, a consulting firm that specializes in cross-cultural workplace dynamics. She teaches Intercultural Training, Coaching and Consulting at Baruch College and is a Certified Process Communication Model® Coach. She also founded an American Friends fundraiser called Hantam NY around children and education. She lives in New York City with her husband and three sons. She can be found on Instagram and her Facebook group What's the Difference: Celebrating Diversity.
Chicken and Rice and Everything Nice
(There was never a recipe, just what I watched my mother do.)
3 1/2 lb. chicken
4 T. unsalted butter
seasoned salt, to taste
2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 c. raw rice (Mom used Uncle Ben’s Long Grain Rice)
Wash chicken, and pat dry with paper towels.
Put a pat of butter on each leg and thigh, with extra on the breasts.
Sprinkle with seasoned salt.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Roast until skin is golden brown and juices run clear, approximately 45 - 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, dissolve bouillon cubes in 2 c. water.
Add rice, and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes.
Remove from heat, and leave covered for 5 minutes or until water is absorbed. Fluff with fork.
Strain the chicken fat and juices, and drizzle some over the rice to lightly coat it.
Carve chicken into 6 or 8 pieces and serve with rice.
(Mom usually served this meal with unadulterated steamed broccoli, which was perfect, even for a kid.)