The set-up went like this: take two slices of fresh white bread, preferably from a bakery, and slather good butter on one side of each slice. Next—don’t hold back here either—layer Velveeta onto the non-buttered sides, then grill to a butterscotch hue. Serve with bread and butter pickles on the side with a tall glass of chocolate milk. It’s the ultimate comfort food.
I purposefully left out another contender.
Maybe that’s because I knew this particular entrée needed its own post. Yup, it’s that good. I also suspect that just as many people—probably more, since there are various versions of this treat around the world—love this dish as much as I do. And because it’s such hearty fare, it’s especially satisfying right now with the rainy days we’re finally getting here in California.
I’m talking chicken pot pie.
It turns out that this old American standby has a long and interesting history, dating back to the Roman Empire. Back then, meat pies were served at banquets, sometimes with live birds under the crust. Colonists here loved them stuffed with robins. Pre-Raman, they were a staple for poor college students and struggling actors. Indeed, in the last century, gleaming automats like Horn & Hardart sold individually sized pies to thousands of hungry lunch and dinner customers every single day.
My first inkling that this one-dish meal even existed came in sixth grade.
I remember asking my mother one afternoon what we were having for dinner, and the answer was chicken pot pie. They had probably been on sale at the supermarket, and it was likely a few days before payday. I figured out that last fact years later, when I realized that we never ate the upscale version. Back then, pies in my parents’ budget went for less than 50 cents each.
I couldn’t wrap my 11-year-old brain around the meal.
After all, pies meant dessert, filled with cherries or berries or something like pudding. I hadn’t learned the word savory yet, and to top off a meat and veggie combo with a flaky crust seemed completely off kilter. Wouldn’t the two tastes collide? How could such a combination possibly work?
Then I took my first forkful, and I was hooked.
You’ve probably guessed that I’ve collected several cookbook variations, and have also probably guessed that I’ve tried most of them.
My favorite is deceptively simple, because except for a little celery, one small onion and a suggestion of parsley, there aren’t any vegetables.
The recipe is in a 1940s booklet extolling Spry, a competitor of Crisco whose make-believe advertising character was Aunt Jenny, a grandmotherly type with bright white hair, thin- rimmed glasses and baking apron. (Since we don’t hear about this shortening anymore, we know who won that game.) Its ingredients list starts with a four-pound roaster, which after steaming in a pot of gently boiling water for two hours, creates a super-rich stock for the cream gravy. Because I’m going to go to this much trouble, homemade crust is a must. Mine is made with flour, salt, Crisco and milk, but in a pinch, frozen puff pastry works almost as well.
But thankfully, given that most of us no longer have the luxury of puttering in our kitchens for hours, we can always buy a grocery store pie.
Somehow, it’s not surprising that the venerable Good Housekeeping magazine took the time to rate eight ready-made, freezer to oven (or microwave) pot pies a few years back. Thanks to its buttery crust, the magazine’s test kitchen declared Stouffer’s white meat pie tops, and concluded that Trader Joe’s, with its stringy chicken, was the worst. In between was the cost-efficient Banquet, which is what I grew up on. (The entire article is here, at www.goodhousekeeping.com/food-products/chicken-pot-pie-reviews/.)
But the absolute best store pie wasn’t even in the mix.
That’s probably because it isn’t sold in New York City, where the magazine is based, and even more sadly for me, isn’t available on the West Coast.
But if you’re fortunate enough to live east of Wisconsin, you can delight in a Mrs. Budd’s pot pie.
Originally started in a small take-out chicken store in Manchester, New Hampshire, the pies made their debut there in the 1950s. It was then that the Budd Poultry store had to come up with a way to use its unsold cooked chicken, and Irving Budd decided to try his mother’s chicken pot pie recipe. Today, still in Manchester, the pies can be found in most grocery chains along the East Coast, as well as Chicago. (More details about these wonderful pies are here, at www.mrsbudds.com.)
Restaurants offer the most expensive way to get a pot pie fix.
I’ve fond memories of Phillips Chicken Pies, an old school, red booth kind of place in my hometown. Its signature pie was nearly identical to the Spry recipe, but sadly, the place closed decades ago. DuPar’s, a Los Angeles based coffee shop chain that has been around for more than 75 years, has a very good pie, too, although the portion isn’t nearly big enough to my liking.
In Manhattan, a dear friend and I would occasionally eat pot pie at Ye Olde Waverly Inn in the Village. Now, however, it’s called Waverly Inn and boasts celebrity patrons including Calvin Klein, Jennifer Aniston and Hilary Duff. It also charges $26 for one small pie. On the opposite spectrum is Kentucky Fried Chicken, which comes out with a new version every few years. Given that the crust is consistently greasy and there’s not much chicken, meh is the defining word here. But since hope springs eternal, I’m game every single time.
I think it’s pretty obvious how much I adore chicken pot pie.
With so many choices out there, I suspect lots and lots of other folks do, too. It’s as American as corn on the cob, and as a matter of fact, I think it should replace, or at least sit next to, another great pie that our country is known for. Yup, put a chicken pot pie next to an apple pie.
Which would you eat first? You already know my answer.
How about you? What’s your favorite go-to, one dish meal, especially in the wintertime?
(PS. My original post on the grilled cheese sandwich, and other comfort food, is at hilaryrobertsgrant.weebly.com/blog/ode-to-the-grilled-cheese-sandwich.)