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In Search Of Sloppy Chicken

And the memory of my mom long gone.

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Halsey Berryman
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My mother didn’t cook. Oh, don’t get me wrong. She was a proper 1960s/’70s housewife and put a hot dinner on the table every night of my childhood. But I can’t call it cooking in good conscious. I’m pretty sure she neither liked nor had an affinity for cooking. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved it. Mom opened cans of vegetables, broiled large pieces of beef, roasted whole unseasoned chickens and made enough instant mashed potatoes for anyone’s lifetime. 

Once when she came to my house for Thanksgiving, long after I was grown, she raved about the “real mashed potatoes” despite the rest of the holiday spread I’d served — along with homemade pies. I actually thought we didn’t have access to fresh potatoes as a child growing up in Long Island since the only time I ate them was at my aunt and uncle’s in Jersey. 

Truth was, my mother didn’t see the need for peeling potatoes. Even my ex-husband once commented incredulously after a holiday dinner at my parents’ home: “Instant potatoes on Christmas?” 

But that was who she was. There were a few things Mom made that I did like. Her chili con carne over elbow macaroni was a favorite, as were spaghetti and baked ziti. Her own mother-in-law, who lived with my parents before I was born, may have had a hand in her Italian dishes since my father was Italian and my grandfather likely would have taught his German bride how to cook the food he liked. I also did OK with the kids food — hamburgers and hot dogs.

And since I loved vegetables and salad, I never went hungry. But rare London broil and unseasoned lamb chops, mom’s signature go-tos, went down hard. And my mom, being part of the clean-plate generation, insisted I sit at the table hours after dinner was served trying to choke down remnants of the now cold meat I didn’t like warm. (I’m checking my privilege at the door on this one; I know there are worse things in childhood than being force-fed London broil!)

But who can account for a kid’s taste buds? Eventually the dog found solace under my dinner seat. One thing my mom made that we all liked though, was a dish called Sloppy Chicken. Recently my brother and I discussed this dish, both admitting our fondness for it. I went so far as to search the internet for any such recipe, and came up blank. From what we remember, Sloppy Chicken consisted of chicken pieces — thighs, breasts, legs — baked in a casserole dish in the oven and coated with an orangey-slippery sauce.

We likely had it accompanied by Rice-A-Roni and the infamous can of corn, peas or lima beans. The intriguing part of Sloppy Chicken is the sauce. Clearly, mom did not invent or create recipes from scratch. (Hello? Instant mashed potatoes, remember?) Yet, I can find no reference in the “Betty Crocker-era” recipe database to determine what it could have been. It was not bright red or thick like pasta or marinara sauce. It wasn’t the color of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, nor any type of canned tomato paste or sauce. It was light and slippery and orange, and there wasn’t that much of it. It stuck to the chicken, certainly, but the casserole dish wasn’t swimming in the ginger-colored gravy. 

My partner suggested Manwich sauce, the canned sloppy joe sauce, due to its orangey tint, and I think he might be on to something. Manwich, as I learned, was introduced in 1969, which fits our timeline of eating Sloppy Chicken in the ’70s. Plus, mom did call the recipe “sloppy.” (Perhaps because it contained sloppy joe sauce?) On a side note, we never ate sloppy joes!

I don’t think my dad thought much of “sandwiches” for dinner. I did find reference to a dish called Sloppy Joe Chicken and Rice Bake — in which chicken, Manwich, chicken broth and rice are baked in a casserole dish. Though different from ours, maybe my mom did adjust the recipe, recreating something new. 

I always thought I was nothing like my mom. After all, I was adopted and sure that I loved both cooking and baking, unlike her. It means something to me to find the pleasure in a good recipe, enjoy the oohs and aahs of family when they really like something I make, and celebrate the satisfaction that food comforts and sustains. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have a partner who appreciates food and lends his sous chef skills to my dishes regularly. 

Even my kids occasionally call and ask for a favorite recipe. “What’s that homemade Hamburger Helper dish you used to make?” my daughter asked not long ago. Or, “What goes in Taco Casserole?” For someone who didn’t think I was anything like her, some of my ’90s feed-the-family recipes rival my mother’s ’70s ones. Only I made them from scratch rather than from the box. 

I never came home from school to fresh baked cookies or spent a Saturday morning in the kitchen with her whipping up a cake. We dropped by the bakery or bought Entenmann’s instead.

But I did cook and bake with my own kids. They both still recall the homemade pot pie I baked without first precooking the vegetables — and the subsequent trip for takeout. I hope I baked enough cookies on ordinary Saturdays and spent enough kitchen time where they stirred and cracked eggs that they’ll have memories to look back on.

My mom has been gone for over 25 years now. I’m rounding a corner soon in which I’ve almost lived in the world without her as long as I did with her. I haven’t eaten instant mashed potatoes in a long, long time. But this week I’ll buy some Manwich and try to recreate a little dish called Sloppy Chicken. Not because it was a winning ’70s recipe or my mom was the best cook ever, but because eating it again just might fill me up like when I was a kid sitting with the dog under my seat.