When Craig Claiborne, the late New York Times food editor, published his mother’s Chicken Spaghetti in the Times, he popularized a dish that embodied America’s family table at the middle of the 20th century. Like so many supper table classics of its day, however, Chicken Spaghetti was more an idea than actual recipe. No two cooks appear to have made this luscious mélange of spaghetti, sauce and shredded chicken the same way. Each brought his or her own touch to it, and not even its three principle ingredients were absolute.
Take the sauce: some cooks used a meatless tomato sauce flavored with chicken broth; others added ground meat or Italian sausage. Some were heady with wine, while more timid cooks added only a touch of sugar. Enriched variously with velvety béchamel (sometimes instead of tomato sauce), ricotta or cottage cheese, it could be jazzed up with pimiento-stuffed green olives, black olives, diced bell peppers, water chestnuts, ginger and even jalapeno peppers. Many a pan of Chicken Spaghetti was generously blanketed with Cheddar, but just as many were topped with Parmesan and mozzarella or had no cheese at all, topped instead with buttered crumbs or slivered almonds.
Perhaps its most famous variation, Mrs. Claiborne’s, best sums up its variables. It included meat sauce, béchamel, celery, bell peppers and mushrooms and was laced with generous layers of Cheddar. This simpler but equally sumptuous version is based on memories of my first Chicken Spaghetti, made by Mary Lynne Heyl, a fabulous cook from Aiken, S.C.
—By Damon Fowler