A low-country dish by way of East India, country captain chicken was my grandmother's go-to in the 1940s and '50s, when recipes for it popped up regularly in Junior League and community cookbooks. My grandmother, Helen Utley — who passed away when I was 12 years old — was so captivated by the flavors and comforting gravy-like sauce that she borrowed the recipe from a friend and put it into regular rotation at her dinner parties.
At the time, my mom lived with her brother and my grandparents on Unami Trail in Newark, Delaware, in a house my grandfather designed. There, Grandma often played hostess to many of Pop-Pop's colleagues as well as his neighbors and friends. She would serve Country Captain — bone-in chicken braised in a fragrant, curry powder–flecked tomato sauce — on a large platter, rimmed with a ring of white rice.
As a collector of stories like these (I'm one of the co-founders of a recipe and storytelling exhibit called Dirty Pages), I asked Mom if she knew anything about Grandma's recipe.
"I bet it's sitting in her old recipe box," she said.
The next day, we pulled out Grandma's battered red-and-white recipe tin decorated with kitschy illustrations of sage, thyme, and spatulas. It creaked a little when it opened and was packed solid with frail papers. Some were standard recipe cards, but most were pieces of scrap paper: worn-out envelopes, newspaper clippings, old voting ballots. Recipes were carefully written out in my grandmother's tidy, sharp-edged cursive. I pulled out a recipe for sangria that read "From the Kitchen of: Mickey" (my grandparents' next-door neighbor).
We shuffled through the papers until my mom found a folded, yellowing page filled front and back with a handwritten recipe for Country Captain. Under the dish was an attribution: "Mrs. Whisterby."
My mom's family home in Delaware had an L-shaped kitchen and in the corner alcove sat the washer and dryer, right across from the wall oven. Whenever Grandma entertained, Mom explained, Helen would throw a tablecloth over the washer and dryer and use them as a buffet. It was her way of extending their entertaining space, making the most of what they had.
Her story reminded me of the time my husband Dave and I lived in a tiny, 600-square-foot attic apartment in Boston. More than a few times during the years we lived there, I hosted dinner parties for eight or more friends, often using the sink in the bathroom to hold bottles of wine on ice.
I still love to entertain. What I really love is picking out just the right dish for whomever is coming over that night: Fried chicken and tomato salad for a group of girlfriends. Sausage ragu over a big bowl of pasta for our family-friend dinner nights. I'd always credited my mom, a serial event planner and party hostess, and my sister, a block-party organizing pro, for my entertaining genes. But now I know that my urge to invite guests into my home and feed them — regardless of how tiny the space — goes way further back, to a link in my grandmother's genetic code.
Last year, during the lull between Christmas and New Year's, the whole family gathered at my parent's house in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Since we were all in a festive mood and there would be a gaggle of kids and grown-ups at the table, I asked my mom if we could try making Grandma's Country Captain dish. She said yes, but was adamant that we stick to Helen's methods. I watched as she set herself the difficult task of decoding my grandmother's faded handwriting.
As my mother transcribed her mother's words, she remembered.
"Of course, it was dried thyme, not fresh. I don't remember her cooking with a lot of fresh herbs," she said. "And the bell pepper has to be green. Those were the only kind we ever used back then."
Like many of the recipes we uncovered from the box, this recipe didn't come with a lot of instructions; Mrs. Whisterby probably shared the details as Grandma wrote them down. One section read: "With brown paper + lid in oven."
"She had this oval roaster that I still remember," Mom explained, "and we would take a brown shopping bag and use the lid to make an outline of the pan. You cut that out and put that on top of the chicken before covering it with the lid. I don't know why we did it, that's just what we did." So I handed my kids a few brown paper bags, and they set to work cutting out rounds of brown paper.
When the chicken was finished braising in the oven, we opened the lid and lifted the brown paper to take a peek. A fragrant scent of curry filled the kitchen. At the very least, the paper provided a great reveal. We pulled the chicken pieces out of the pot and piled them onto large platters, and then finished the sauce with toasted almonds and dried currants. We created a ring of white rice around each platter, then poured the sauce over the pile of chicken.
We put out the platters like a buffet on the island counter — Mom's modern South Carolina kitchen is a long leap away from the dog-legged one of her youth — and everyone, even my picky 7-year-old son, piled their plates high with scoops of rice and chicken drenched in sauce.
As we feasted on Grandma Utley's go-to favorite that night — the sweet, tangy sauce warming us from the inside out — I could feel her spirit with us. I'm sure she would have been proud of my mom, sister, and me — three women who carry her energy and enthusiasm for gathering friends and family at the table. If Country Captain isn't a family legacy, then I don't know what is.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The Slow-Cooked Legacy of Grandma's Country Captain Chicken