Goose, duck and a heavenly chicken pie-one thanksgiving pioneer suggests some feathered friends for your turkey.
Author Andrew Beahrs Illustration Jason Mecier
I’VE GOT TIME to perfect it before Thanksgiving, but the puff pastry for the chicken pie is not even close to thin enough. And I’m still toying with other ingredients-a little country ham, a few sautéed mushrooms. But what I’m leaving out is as important as what’s going in. Forget potatoes and carrots, those drab staples of frozen pot pies. And while you’re at it, forget turkey. This is going to be a different kind of holiday. With this one flaky, delicious pie, I’m going to commit the grievous impiety of shaking up my family’s Thanksgiving menu-one of the stodgiest holiday spreads out there.
To be honest, the pie isn’t even my idea. I’m just following the lead of the mother of modern Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Hale. In her 1827 novel Northwood, Hale described a gut-busting holiday dinner that began with roast turkey, set in a “lordly station,” but also included a sirloin of beef, a leg of pork, a loin of mutton, a goose and a pair of ducklings, along with an array of pickles, preserves, custards, cakes and, of course, pies both sweet and savory. Pumpkin was essential and occupied the “most distinguished niche” among the desserts. But chicken pie was even more important. Hale wrote that it should be “wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper and covered with an excellent puff paste.” Gracing the feast’s center, it was “an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.”
If that description were Hale’s lone contribution to American culinary tradition, I’d be grateful enough-it did, after all, lead to my learning to make puff pastry. But Hale also waged a long campaign to transform Thanksgiving from a New England tradition occurring anytime in October or November into a national celebration. Every year from 1846 to 1863, Hale wrote editorials in her popular magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, urging others to observe the holiday. During that same period, she composed letters to Presidents Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln.
As the Civil War approached, Hale’s call for a national feast reached fever pitch, and in 1860 she wrote hopefully that a national observance might “be a good omen for the perpetual union of the States.” Poignantly, Lincoln’s proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday did not come until three years later-the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation. But the holiday would long outlast the war.
Hale also had strong opinions about what people ought to eat, and Godey’s played a leading role in shaping the traditional Thanksgiving menu. The magazine featured recipes for apple and pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, roast turkey and potatoes, as well as recipes we rarely see anymore. Turkey was sometimes stuffed with oysters, then steamed; cranberry tarts were as widespread as cranberry sauce.
Just as important, Godey’s published stories about how families were celebrating. One such article told of the Murrays baking pumpkin, apple, grape, mince, lemon, custard and chicken pies in homage to a son serving in the Union army. “Thankfulness and pies,” the author wrote, “seemed indissolubly connected in Mrs. Murray’s mind.”
Indeed, Hale also wrote that “the size of the chicken pie usually denot[ed] the gratitude of the party who prepare[d] the feast.” Some hosts seem to have been exceedingly grateful. One recipe called for six chickens, with six pounds of flour in the puff pastry. But whether modest or vast, a chicken pie was always opulent.
My own chicken pie recipe is a proud amalgam. I’ve simmered and deboned the chickens. Godey’s heartily endorsed my filling of ham and mushrooms (sliced hard-boiled eggs were another common addition). The gravy is butter and stock, with just a bit of flour. As I pour it over the filling, I remember the contemporary Ohio cookbook Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, which says “there can scarcely be too much gravy.” We’ll find out-there’s enough here to buoy up the puff pastry. At last I slide the pie into a hot oven. After an hour, the crust is high and golden. Gravy bubbles along the edges. When I spoon it out, the crust flakes beautifully, crackling over the choice, Hale-approved chicken.
Not all historic dishes sound as appetizing as the pie. Stewed eels, for instance, probably won’t be set in a lordly station this holiday season, and putting oysters in a steamed turkey sounds like a sad misuse of both oysters and turkey. But any holiday dinner can draw on old American flavors and skills. So this Thanksgiving, consider oysters in the stuffing (in roast turkey, they’re fabulous). Use a handful of cranberries to brighten the gravy; use more in a cranberry tart. And don’t forget the chicken pie.
ANDREW BEAHRS sampled raccoon in Arkansas while writing Twain’s Feast, so he says bring on the stewed eel.
• 3-4 lb. chicken, cut up
• 4 oz. country ham, finely chopped
• 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
• 6 tbsp. butter
• 4 tbsp. flour
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Puff pastry
PREHEAT oven to 400 degrees. Place chicken in a pot with five cups water, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until tender and cooked through, about 45 minutes. Remove chicken from broth and let cool. Simmer broth, uncovered, until reduced to three cups. Meanwhile, sauté ham separately in two tablespoons butter for a few moments. Add mushrooms, and cook until liquid evaporates.
MELT remaining butter in separate saucepan over medium heat; whisk in flour. Little by little, add the stock, whisking continuously. Bring gravy to a boil, then simmer 10 minutes or until it thickens.
PICK meat from chicken and tear into bite-size pieces. Mix in the ham and mushrooms, then add enough gravy to just cover. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
POUR filling into greased baking dish and cover with puff pastry. Bake until the pastry is high and flaky and the filling bubbles around the edges, 45 minutes to an hour. Serves six.