Memories of Woolworths and Chicken in a Van


One of my top ten childhood memories is the late great Woolworth’s in Montreal, Quebec. Every few months my Grandmother and I would make the one hour bus trip to the city for wig maintenance. The hairdresser had burned off a lot of Grammy’s hair with a bad perm when she was still in her twenties. As she aged, her hair thinned out badly and became nonexistent, so she needed ‘Eva Gabor’ to help her out. After an hour of giggling inside the “House of Hair”, we would finally go off to lunch at Woolworth’s.

I would sit in hungry anticipation, with my feet dangling off one of their red stools at the lunch counter. The waitresses all seemed to be painfully thin, and looked the worse for wear. Some of them tapped their pencil on the order book impatiently, while you looked through their vast menu to order. The menu was never a challenge for me, as I ordered the same thing. It was always the traditional turkey dinner, with one scoop of potatoes, dressing, and gravy. Of course the mandatory canned green beans were always lying lifeless next to the runny cranberry sauce.


Sometimes the waitress would whisper to us that it really wasn’t turkey. She admitted that when they ran out, they subbed chicken, but frankly, I could never tell the difference. Then for dessert we would each have a slice of one of their layer cakes that graced the glass containers on the counters. The lunch counters were always filled with business men that were flipping their newspapers and chain smoking. A roar of conversation bounced in the air mixed with smells of greasy food and people waited behind your chair hoping you would finish quickly.

Sadly, my children’s generation will never have memories like that. The recipe below belongs in my sons’ memory tank like Woolworth’s is stored deep down in mine. When they were young, they would peek through the glass oven door and watch the cheese sauce bubble. Then, like clockwork they would ask me not to forget to make the Caesar Salad as these two things belonged together like peanut butter and jam.  It seems like yesterday when I could hear the voice of my oldest son calling his brother in for dinner. Sky would immediately interrupt whatever his brother was involved in and scream at him in excitement.

“Hurry Perry, I’m hungry! Mum is making Chicken in a Van!”


In his young mind I guess he could never hear the correct pronunciation of the words; or maybe he really thought the chicken came from inside a van. I never really did find out why, like a lot of other childhood mysteries, and the name just stuck. To this day everyone in the family still calls it by that name.

Also, just like Woolworths, I occasionally substitute leftover turkey for chicken, because as the waitress told me years ago – no one really notices the difference.

Chicken in a Van or Classic Chicken Divan
1 bunch broccoli
12 oz. chicken, cooked and cut up
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 tsp. lemon juice
6 to 8 tbsp. shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
Buttered bread crumbsPreheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook broccoli to soften. Drain. Place broccoli in bottom of 1 1/2 quart casserole, cover with layer of chicken. Set aside. Mix soup with mayonnaise and lemon juice.Spoon soup mixture over chicken. Top with cheese and then bread crumbs. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until crumbs are brown. Serves 4 to 6.

Notes from the Peanut Gallery:

What a coincidence! My wife has a dish called Chicken in a Van too. Every time she cooks it, I get in my Van and take off. 

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

2 responses »

  1. Great article. Brings back memories… yes my mother cooked Chicken Divan … but I do like your Chicken in a Van title better.


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