(written early March)
I’ve always been fascinated by what we remember from childhood – which little snippets of life our brains hang onto for years and years. Often, they are small and seemingly insignificant. I don’t remember my first day of school, but I remember learning the “16 Counties” song in kindergarten. I don’t remember meeting my baby sister for the first time, but I remember being allowed to pick out a toy before we went to the hospital (a travel barbie with suitcase and pink blazer). I don’t remember much about the meals my family shared, but I remember, quite vividly, the chicken pies that my grandfather brought to camp throughout the summers of my childhood.
For non-Mainers, a “camp” is what you know as a “cottage”, or “lake house”, and a chicken pie is a chicken pot pie. My extended family shares a camp on Lake Wassokeag, in the small Maine town of Dexter where my mother and her three sisters grew up. I spent my summers on the shores of that lake – a hazy blur of swimming, catching crawfish, shucking corn, and shelling peas. We would have made and eaten countless meals at camp, but it’s the chicken pies that stand out in my mind with perfect clarity. Rich and delicious with a flaky crust, they, along with soft serve vanilla ice cream cones with chocolate jimmies, were the stuff my summers were made of.
Grampy bought the pies from Mrs. Crouse, a woman who who’d been making pies for decades. He’d been buying them for decades, too, since my mom was a child. Great deep-dish affairs, her pies had no vegetables, and my grandfather maintained that there was a whole chicken in each one. Each pie came with a small mason jar of gravy. My mother recalls that Mrs. Crouse raised her own chickens, at least early on. She didn’t have a storefront, or even a stock of pies ready to go – if you wanted a pie, you called in an order and then picked it up at her house. One wonders if she killed the chicken after taking the call.
My grandfather died when I was about 12. Mrs Crouse may have continued making pies, but that was the end of my experience with them. I was never much tempted by the frozen mass-marketed versions, and so chicken pies became a distant, if delicious, memory.
Store-bought chicken pies are a staple for my housemates Wyatt, Geoff and Josh, Tall, workmen types, they tend to eat a pie apiece, and I suppose it was those pies that got me thinking about my grandfather, Mrs. Crouse, and the pies of my childhood. I’ve done a lot of cooking, heck, I’ve even killed a lot of chickens, but I had never made a chicken pie.
I started searching for the perfect recipe, the “authentic” version of the dish, the version that a housewife with a flock of chickens might have made in the 1950s and 60s. As usual, the recipe I used with was a blend of about five others. If you want to do it right, it seems you’ve got to start with a whole chicken, make a rich chicken stock, remove and shred all the meat, cook the carrots, peas and onions (Mrs Crouse may not have used vegetables, but I wanted to), and make a white sauce with butter, flour, stock and milk. And, make a crust from scratch. Luckily, I’ve learned how to make each of those ingredients, and actually enjoy the frenetic energy that goes along with combining them. I think there is something amazing and energizing about dashing around the kitchen from pot to frying pan to floured counter top in the chaotic dance that is required when cooking something like a chicken pie.
I had such a good time in the kitchen that for a fleeting moment thought, “I could sell these!” So many men and women of my generation are trying to make a go of it in alternative ways, whether it be as a farmer, a stonemason, a writer (ahem), a painter, a woodworker, a photographer, a dancer…a chicken pie maker? Then reality hit.
A whole chicken raised on pasture and supplemented with organic grain is not a cheap item, nor are locally grown carrots, peas and onions, milk and butter from grass-fed cows, sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and good flour. I would like to point out that these ingredients should not be cheap – a lot of hard work goes into their production. Were I to sell the two pot pies I made, however, I would have had to charge at least $10 dollars apiece, and that’s with zero profit. If I wanted to compensate myself for my time, I’d have to knock the price up to $20, and that’s paying myself just $10/hour. If I raised the chickens and vegetables myself I could probably cut that a bit, but I can’t imagine I could sell them for much less than $14 or $15. I might pay that price for a pie from time to time, but I know plenty of people who wouldn’t.
As I picked chicken meat off the carcass and sautéed vegetables and rolled out my crust, I began to get lost in all of the issues that had come up for me – food justice, true cost of food, fair pay for farmers, fair pay for food producers, and animal rights. And then I had a moment of clarity in which I realized that in making the chicken pies myself, in feeding the people I care about, in choosing clean ingredients, and choosing to spend two hours in the kitchen, I am doing something important and sustainable.
For me, the simple act of making a chicken pie from scratch made sense financially, ethically and spiritually – I fed four (including three large men) for about $20, I supported local farmers and organic producers, and I enjoyed myself a great deal.
The solution, I think, is not to find a way to make chicken pies cheaper, but to encourage and teach people to make their own chicken pies. Because I understand ingredients, know how to cook, and prioritize time in the kitchen, I’m able to eat healthy, sustainable foods without breaking the bank. We don’t need food to be cheaper in this country, we need our skills to be stronger.
Henry IV, first Bourbon king of France, had a slogan – “A chicken in every peasant’s pot every Sunday.” The Republican Party picked it up in 1928, adding a bonus – “A chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot.”
Here’s mine – “A chicken in every pie. And the skills to make it, to boot.”
For simplicity’s sake, I only made a top crust. I think it’s plenty, but you can be the judge. You should read through the recipe entirely before you start. The order of steps could change, depending on your style. Also, I’ve decided I prefer recipes that read in paragraph format, the way they used to write recipes when everyone knew how to cook. Let me know if it works for you! You should have lots of extra chicken stock afterwards – strain it, let it cool completely, and then freeze. I like freezing stock in zip lock bags, which stack up nicely in the freezer.
Makes 2 pies
- Make a stock
Place a whole chicken in a large pot along with a carrot or two, a few stalks of celery, and an onion cut in half – you can leave the skin on. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is done. Remove chicken, and set aside. You can keep the vegetables cooking while the chicken cools. Once chicken is cool remove the meat, cut it into chunks, and set aside. Return chicken bones to the pot, add more water if necessary, and continue cooking.
- Make a Pie Crust (do this while the stock is cooking)
Put two cups of flour in a bowl. Cut some cold butter into little pieces, about ¾ of a cup, give or take. Add the butter bits, and using your fingers, break them up and work into the flour. Stop when it feels like the consistency of cornmeal – nice little granules. Add 1-2 tbsp of very cold water, by drops, and then you should be able to form it into 2 balls of dough. Wrap in parchment paper if you have it, plastic if you don’t, and refrigerate at least ½ an hour. If I were a more prepared cook, I’d probably make a bunch of dough at once and freeze balls of it. But I’m never that good.
- Saute the Vegetables
Finely chop 1 onion and begin to saute in butter. Add chopped carrots, and finely minced celery. When carrots are nearly cooked through add peas (I used frozen organic, since there aren’t any local peas right now) salt, pepper, and some herbs – I chose thyme and oregano. Cook just until peas are heated through and remove vegetables to another bowl. Don’t clean the pan! You can make your white sauce in it.
- Make a White Sauce
Have your chicken stock handy! Probably it will just be on the back burner. Add some butter to the pan, 2-3 Tbsp, over medium heat and melt. Add flour gradually, maybe a quarter to a half a cup, stirring constantly, it will immediately thicken into a paste. Start adding chicken stock, a total of probably 1.5 – 2 cups, whisking as you go so the flour doesn’t lump up. The sauce will start to thicken. Add ½ cup or so of cream, milk, or a mixture of the two. Continue whisking until the sauce is a consistency that you like – it should be thick, but not so thick that it won’t coat your pie ingredients nicely. You want lots of it for a nice creamy pie.
- Put it all together!
You can mix the chicken, vegetables and white sauce right in the pans – I used casserole pans, but deep dish pie pans would work. Roll out your two crusts to approximately the size of the tops of your pans, and then place on top of the pie mixture. You can brush the crust first with an egg wash, but I didn’t bother. Make some slits in the top. Bake in a preheated 400F oven for 20-30 minutes, until the crust is brown and the pie is bubbling up around it.