Recently, while looking at a hospital menu I was surprised to see chicken-a-la king was one of the choices for patients for the next day’s lunch. That really caught my interest.
You see, until recently, I had not eaten chicken-a-la-king since the night of the 1955 junior-senior prom at Sparta High School. At least it was supposed to be chicken-a-la-king.
Although it did not seem like it to me at the time, ours was a very small high school in a very small town.
Most of us, like me, were country kids. Regular fare on our home table was Grandma’s fried chicken, butterbeans, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes and my Aunt Belle’s biscuits. On Sundays we had dessert, too,
The Junior-Senior Prom was the biggest event in the school. It had to be special.
Each year, the junior class was responsible for raising the money to pay the costs. I was a junior. Members of the senior class were special guests. We had never heard of students buying tickets to the prom.
With a class as small as ours raising that money was not easy. We sold chances on cakes, sold magazine subscriptions and did most anything else imaginable.
There were only 22 in our class. The prom was planned by committees of class members who would bring their suggestions to the entire class during homeroom for our approval. Both decorations and music were well discussed before a decision was made.
There was not a question about where the prom would be held. It was in the school gymnasium. Probably none of us ever had a fleeting thought of it being anywhere else.
A very important committee was the menu committee. For a formal party — the only one in Sparta each year — Grandma’s fried chicken, butterbeans, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes and Aunt Belle’ biscuits would not do.
There had to be something ritzy to eat with the girls dressed in our formal gowns and the boys in their white dinner jackets.
When the committee suggested we have chicken-a-la-king it sounded as magical as prom night was supposed to be.
Probably the fancy name was what sold it to the class. There was no discussion. It was approved unanimously.
I voted for it although I did not have a clue as to what chicken-a-la-king was. Probably no one else in the class did either. It just sounded prom worthy.
For some reason, on the day of the prom, I went to the lunchroom just after the school day ended. The mamas who were there to do the prom cooking were in a quandary.
On a lunchroom table was the menu, chickens and other things from the grocery store. But not one of them knew how to make chicken-a-la-king. I expect most of the moms were like the students. They did not know what chicken-a-la-king was either.
One of the mamas suggested they call the home economics teacher. Young, pretty and in love, Grace Benton had already left the school to get herself ready for the prom.
She and her future husband, Roy Callaway, were two of the chaperones. I doubt chicken-a-la-king was what she was thinking about at the time.
After the frustrated moms called Miss Benton she came back to the school lunchroom and gave them hurried instructions about how to make the main dish.
That night the menu was printed on our individual prom programs. Not knowing what chicken-a-la-king was, none of us questioned what we were eating. I remember that it was pieces of chicken in something like my grandmother’s chicken gravy on a piece of what we called loaf bread.
Just a few days after visiting my friend in the hospital I was in a restaurant where chicken-a-la-king was on the menu. Even though I really wanted meatloaf, I ordered the chicken-a-la-king.
Apparently the recipe for chicken-a-la-king has changed since 1955. The cook must not have known the difference in chicken-a-la-king and chicken pie.
Obviously the cook had not called Grace Benton Callaway to learn how to make it. It was not even on a piece of loaf bread.
In retrospect the food at the prom or at the restaurant was not nearly as good as grandma’s fried chicken, butterbeans, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes and Aunt Belle’s biscuits.
But on prom night we all had stars in our eyes and no one really cared.
Marguerite Cline is the former mayor of Waleska.