Chicken Pot Pie: Is It Baked or Boiled?
Mar 14, 2017 04:56PM
By Melanie Heisinger
By Emily Dittmar
The Pennsylvania Dutch are frugal, but they eat well. Most of Central Pennsylvania still enjoys scrapple, shoofly pie, sugar crackers, pickled-beet eggs, whoopee pies—and chicken pot pie. I grew up with a dish called chicken pot pie but it was made very differently. How did this happen?
The term, chicken pot pie, means a double-crust pastry filled with meat, vegetables and a thick gravy—to most people. Where I grew up, however, this dish is referred to as chicken pie. Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie is a bone broth simmered with chicken, onions and potatoes. Flat strips of homemade square noodles are dropped into the soup and simmer until the vegetables are cooked and the noodles begin to thicken the broth. How did boiled chicken pot pie become obsolete and chicken pie take its name?
Depends who you ask
In six different Pennsylvania cookbooks dating from the 1930s to the early 2000s chicken pot pie is the noodle version I grew up with. In Central Pennsylvania, most of my friends were aware only of the chicken pot pie made in a pastry shell. My mother had both when she was a kid. She only had the pastry kind once or twice a year, and it was not considered Pennsylvania Dutch.
I went to my Nana for clarification. She was the one who typically rolled out the dough, despite her severely arthritic fingers, and cut them into squares, while my sisters and I dropped them into the broth. In her house they never ate the pastry kind. Her family often ate pot pie with different variations of meat: beef, ham, rabbit or squirrel. Whatever meat was available accompanied noodles in the pot, but never in a crust. Her explanation for the discrepancy? “We make it the right way.”
My mom and aunt weighed in on the topic. They agreed that the noodle kind is “chicken pot pie” and the crust kind is “chicken pie.” I asked for further explanation and got a similar defiance. Why is the Pennsylvania Dutch the right way? “It’s not in a freakin’ pot,” my aunt bellowed. That was the end of it.
Ask the experts
William Woys Weaver, researcher for Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tradition, notes the tendency to adapt another culture’s recipe and take it as one’s own.
“Chicken pot pie,” he explained, “was taken from the Dutch and the crust was changed to noodles. This would mean the Pennsylvania Dutch did not create the original.”
I sent an email to Mr. Weaver; it was a shot in the dark. I found his email on a web site that hadn’t been updated in over a decade. Nonetheless, his position as a food historian and author of As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine motivated me to reach out to him.
The following morning I received a reply from Weaver, who refers to himself as 3W. “Both types are very old,” he explained. “The crust type came out of medieval English culture while the one made with layered noodles came out of medieval German culture—two similar dishes evolving from parallel culinary traditions. They end up side by side in America—both concepts are thought to trace to the ancient Celts. They cooked in cauldrons, so lining one with dough was one of the ancestors of the modern pot pie, the “pot” being the cauldron.”
This explanation allows both sides to be right.
For the sake of my heritage I found two additional sources: renowned food critic and writer Pim, who chronicles her globetrotting food adventures in the ChezPim blog, and Campbell’s soup researcher Camille Ford who visited Lancaster to learn about this regional specialty. According to Pim, pot pie is a version of bott boi, which is Pennsylvania Dutch for thickened soup. Eintopf is the modern German term for bott boi. Eitopf refers to a meat broth that is thickened with potato, beans, peas or lentils. In this case availability to ingredients led the Pennsylvania Dutch to thicken the soup with pie squares when they migrated to America.
“The recipe for chicken pot pie originated in England,” claims Camille Ford. “But what makes Pennsylvania Dutch country pot pie so different from others is the noodles.”
This is, however, more than an adaptation. The two dishes do not have that much in common. Lasagna and stuffed shells have the same ingredients, but would never be called the same name.
Once again the oddities of the Pennsylvania Dutch past are explained by the inability to understand the accent. Deutsch became Dutch and bott boi became pot pie. If one were to ignore nationalistic bias, the words of George Frederick could sum up a tidy conclusion. He introduces his cookbook with this humble announcement: “The Pennsylvania Dutch provided a far greater proportion of the bone and sinew of American tradition and value than the small size of their territory would indicate.
“Furthermore,” Frederick adds, “they were “first to bring cookery to our shores.” Not only does he lay claim to chicken pot pie, he also dubs the Pennsylvania Dutch as the very start of American cuisine.
Mom Herman’s Pot PieIngredients
4 c. flour
3 eggs beaten
½ tsp salt
1 cup water or milk
1 7-lb. chicken, cut up
3-inches of top of celery stalk (including leaves)
Mrs. Dash seasoning
1 medium onion, chopped fine
Whisk eggs, add water or milk, then add dry ingredients. Use a pastry blender or mix by hand.
Mix like pie dough and roll as thin as possible. Cut in small squares and drop in boiling chicken broth. Boil 15 minutes uncovered.
Cook chicken in boiling water or broth, stir often
Take out chicken and remove the bones. Serve. Makes approximately 8 servings.
Susquehanna Life magazine has not tested this recipe and disclaims any responsibility for the outcome of its preparation.
Emily Dittmar, a Pennsylvania native, is a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America where she majored in baking and pastry.