Mom’s chicken was her signature dish. Roast chicken is a simple dish to make, yet it’s not easy to get right. Cook it too long, and it’s dry, losing all its flavor, and if it’s not cooked properly, it’s salmonella on a plate. After my Mom had passed, when friends and family would call to check in on me, one of the first things they’d remembered about her was her Greek Chicken. As a working mother, with loads of Mom guilt she’d carry with her Monday through Friday, every Sunday, she’d roast a chicken for us. It was an all-day affair. The house would fill with the sharp and tangy aromas of garlic, lemon, and oregano.
So, it didn’t surprise me one bit that during these condolence calls, a silence would descend, and then, they’d say. “Her chicken. It was the best I’d ever tasted.”
Roast chicken is a humble yet, nourishing just like my mother was. In true Mary Dellos fashion, she didn’t leave me any instructions for her funeral. And when I would bring it up, she’d refuse to discuss it. Death was not on her agenda—living was. We held her celebration of life service atChicago Botanic Gardens because it was one of her favorite places. As a family, together, we created so many sweet memories there. The days were always all sun and smiles. When my daughter, Alena, was three, we took her to the Botanic Gardens. We have photos of Alena bent over the flowers inhaling the scents, ready to devour them. My favorite picture is of my Mom with her gleaming white puffy hair, oversized wrap-around sunglasses, lightening up the already shiny day with her million-watt smile. And in this photo, Mom’s holding Alena’s tiny hand supporting her, as Alena tenuously balances on a garden’s narrow edge with her bouncy ponytails blowing in the breeze.
In her day, Mom was an avid gardener. During the summer, she’d spend hours in her city garden tending to her tomatoes and cucumbers. My favorite thing was to take one of her juicy tomatoes sprinkle it with salt and eat it like an apple. When the Chicago days grew short and grey, she’d care for her flowers and plants indoors. For me, gardening and caring for plants came later in life. It has now become a mid-life interest. Together, every spring, my daughter and I create fairy gardens with an array of plants, flowers, and fairies. This year we added a pond with two swans and mini-lavender plants.
Along with flowers, Mom really relished the simple pleasures in life; a steamy cup of coffee, a delicious meal made with love, a book that transported her into another world, and a good conversation that left you a better person for having it. For her to be profoundly happy, time with her loved one was all she needed. Honestly, she never sweated the small stuff or the big stuff, for that matter.
She’d light a cigarette and say, “Amy, (she never called me by the given name Amelia because she preferred the shortened American version) it’s all a part of life,” and turn up her all-time favorite Maria Callas singing Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”
Whenever I’d find myself upset about something, worrying over something inconsequential, which was often, she’d say, “It’s not worth getting your bowels in an uproar about it.”
Since Mom passed, I’ve had loved ones reach out and tell me how much my Mom had meant to them. For many of the people who knew her, she was like a second Mom that they could confide in and get advice knowing that she’d never judge them. Mom was so easy to talk to and pour out your secrets to. She took people in without judgment, listened with her entire heart, and always gave the best advice. Her chicken was another way for her to comfort and console anyone who landed on our doorstep. Mom was one of my favorite people on the planet. She was good company, always ready to tell me about a good book she read or chat about politics. I don’t think it was a coincidence that her dementia took hold when our former, I shall not mention his name, rolled into the White House like a grifter at a five-dollar-a-hand poker table.
She wasn’t perfect. She smoked too much. It drove me crazy that she didn’t take better care of herself, especially that she never drank an ounce of water. Her most egregious dietary offense—she regularly ate Chicago-style hot dogs. We would bicker about her diet and smoking all the time. At the same time, she lived until eighty-seven, so maybe there are healing properties in hot dogs? And when it came to selecting gifts, she was terrible at it. One year, I was eighteen, a freshman in college, and she gave me a bright purple Heathcliff sweatshirt with “Scorpio” written underneath in glitter that my eight-year-old self would’ve loved it. Now, looking back what I remember is my reaction and how I caused her face to fall.
Poor eating habits and silly gifts aside, she brought so much light into our lives and gave good hugs; in the end, it didn’t matter. The simple joys in life are what matter most, she taught me that lesson, in the way she chose to live her life.
This quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch always reminds me of Mom and during her last week with us, I read it to her.
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I chose this quote because, in today’s selfie-obsessed, look-at-me do this Tick Tock challenge world, it’s the people like my Mom who lived quiet lives behind the scenes that truly make the world a kinder, softer place to live. Everyone who came in contact with was better for knowing and loving her.
When I make this recipe, it’s like she’s still with me. The scent of a roasting chicken makes me feel connected to her and the generations of women in my family who made it before me. It’s as though they’re reaching across space and time and whispering words of love and comfort into my ear. Since family and friends have been asking me, I’ve included her recipe for Greek Chicken. The family secret is —there’s never too much fresh lemon juice.
Momma Mary’s Greek Chicken Recipe
Yields 6 to 8 servings
● 5 to 6 lb whole roasting chicken
● ½ cup of Greek olive oil
● 3 to 5 garlic cloves chopped
● 2 lemons
● 1 tablespoon of oregano
● Salt and pepper to taste
Step 1 - Clean and dry the chicken.
Step 2 - Give it a name. (We loved names like Percy, Ethel, or Gertrude)
Step 3 - (Optional- this is my addition to the recipe) Salt Brine submerged in water with ¾ cup of Kosher salt overnight. Drain and pat dry.
Step 4 - Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Step 5 - Season chicken with generous amounts of salt and pepper. Set chicken aside.
Step 6 - Make marinade mixing olive oil, juice of two lemons, and oregano. Place the chicken on a roasting rack inside a roast pan. Bathe the chicken with the marinade. Can put lemon rinds and whole garlic cloves inside the chicken.
Step 7 - Cook for 1 - 1 ½ hours until the juices run clear. Let chicken rest for 10 to 20 minutes before cutting or serving.