Vermont Chicken Pie
My introduction to the foods of Vermont took place in the 1950s when I married into the Turner family, residents of the Green Mountain State almost since it was admitted to the Union, in 1791. Having grown up north of Boston myself, with relatives who came from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, I was steeped in New England's culinary traditions. But I found Vermont to be another world entirely—a place where the cooking reflected not only the state's mountainous terrain but also the famously frugal nature of its residents.
Lacking a seacoast, Vermonters look to the land, not the water, for sustenance, and generations have subsisted on wholesome, homegrown, and, often, wild-gathered food. Though the state has recently become a fashionable source of high-end ice cream, cheese, and butter and is even the site of the New England Culinary Institute (see SAVEUR, January/February 2001), Vermont to me still means sugar bushes, apple orchards, vegetable gardens, and picturesque farms with flocks of hens running about. Hens, particularly, have played a key role in local agriculture—providing eggs during their fertile periods, becoming food themselves in their dotage.
In the past, at least, nothing went unused in Vermont; and a good example of its waste-not, want-not ethos is Vermont chicken pie, which is traditionally made with old hens slaughtered each fall. These birds are tough but full of flavor thanks to a balanced diet of scratch, kitchen scraps, and forage; and long, slow stewing tenderizes their meat.
Before roast turkey became the centerpiece of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, in fact, chicken pie—which is, essentially, large pieces of poached boneless chicken in a light gravy under a biscuit topping—was the main attraction on Vermont holiday tables. One of the Turner family letters my husband, Vernon, and his relatives have preserved from the 19th century suggests how beloved the dish really was. "We went out to fathers to Thanksgiving, but there was no Thanksgiving Pie," Addie Turner Crandall wrote to her brother Harrison Turner, my husband's great-grandfather, on December 5, 1869. "I did not care for any better fare than every day affords, but many Thanksgiving dinners have I invited father to partake with us and I never omitted the time-honored Chicken Pie. We shall have one on Christmas day if nothing prevents."