Hot chicken salad: The old-fashioned pleasure of cooking for community

I wrote a book about the history of Cincinnati food that was published in 2020 – “Cincinnati Food: A History of Queen City Cuisine.” I’ve been doing a slow-motion, local-author’s version of a book tour ever since, speaking to groups around town: church clubs, retired people’s clubs, book clubs, classes, women’s clubs. And I always enjoy it. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

Not long after COVID lifted, I went to Northminster Church in Finneytown to talk to the 50-and-over membership group. As is often the case, I was invited for lunch before the talk. A member of the group did the cooking, and she had made delicious lasagna and roasted vegetables. She’d even done homemade focaccia, thick and pillowy and smelling delightfully of yeast and garlic. 

It was a lovely lunch; I always enjoy talking with the various people I meet on such occasions. And I remembered that I had been at this church before, a lot of years ago – before my kids were born, even, back when I spoke to groups on a very different topic: I represented the Sierra Club and spoke about climate change and how to reduce your personal carbon footprint. (Who knew it would be worse than ever?) 

What stuck in my mind about the former occasion isn’t surprising, because it’s how my mind works. I remembered the lunch we had that time, also cooked by a volunteer. It was a square of chicken casserole topped with potato chips, and a square of Jell-O with fruit in it, what used to be called a salad. Not the kind of food I ever make, nor that I have a nostalgic pull toward. But it had a kind of exotic blandness that I associated with other people’s mothers. The casserole was rich but delicate. And a Jell-O salad with fruit is a sort of secret guilty pleasure for me. Anyway, it’s stuck with me for 30-ish years. 

I told my hostess about that last meal, and she immediately recognized it. “Hot chicken salad! We’ve served it for years, but it’s originally the Cincinnati Woman’s Club’s recipe,” she said. And told me she’d get me the recipe. 

As it happened, my next speaking engagement was at the Cincinnati Woman’s Club, in their beautiful clubhouse in Clifton. Again, I gave my talk and was invited to lunch in the formal dining room. In a nod to the content of my book, the chef had made goetta to serve with an egg dish. I learned that the chicken salad is served at the dinner for the inauguration of a new club president, and traditionally served with green beans. 

I got the recipe, and I made it for dinner. It was good, though certainly it’s old-fashioned, which is now its appeal. It made me think about all the volunteer cooking done for women’s clubs and fundraising potlucks and church lunches and covered dishes brought to homes where there’s an illness or tragedy. Food like this used to be at the center of what used to be called fellowship and we now call building community. 

Or we call it mental health. 

In addition to a good stable relationship and close friends, we all need those next-level friendships, people we see from time to time on a repeating basis. We need people we catch up with and talk about what’s going on with us, even on a superficial level. It’s all human interaction and it’s all good. I still remember the desperate lack of that during the pandemic. 

Events like that, whether they feature hot chicken salad or focaccia, are getting old-fashioned. The philanthropy performed by community members is not the wave of the future. Mainstream church groups are dwindling in favor of megachurches or personal spirituality. Most groups that I talk to are what is called in journalism “a print audience.” Fundraising today is online, or on a bigger scale. But I don’t want anyone to give up on the idea of getting together in a group, whether it’s for figuring out how to endow a scholarship or just hear from a local author and have some lunch and enjoy each other’s company. 

So I’d like to salute everyone who ever cooked for a reason of community-building or fundraising by publishing this recipe.


CWC Hot Chicken Salad 

(from “Kudos to the Cook” by The Cincinnati Woman’s Club)

2 cups diced cooked chicken 

2 cups thinly sliced celery

½ cup grated cheese 

½ cup toasted sliced almonds *

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons grated onion 

2 tablespoons lemon juice 

1 cup salad dressing **

1 cup crushed potato chips 

Combine all ingredients except potato chips in a large bowl. Mix gently and spoon into a greased 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with potato chip crumbs.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until hot and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Serves 6 

* Slivered might work 

** For those of you under 40, salad dressing in this case means something like Miracle Whip. I, however, made it with mayonnaise.

Serve with green beans or Jell-O salad. 


Polly Campbell writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.


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