by Deborah Miller
Daddy was a traveling salesman. As regional sales director for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in the late 50’s/early ‘60’s, he drove all over North Carolina trying to sign up companies for a new plan called “group insurance.”
He was gone a lot, and often late for dinner, but he was still the guy who came home every so often with a trunk full of Hostess Cupcakes, Twinkies, and SnoBalls compliments of a bakery in Winston-Salem. He grew up poor in Brook’s Crossroads, the son of tobacco farmers. Walked five miles in the snow to school (not really, but we heard that a lot). Didn’t have enough money to even join the Boy Scouts. Helped clean the church every Saturday. And from what I can tell, likely lived a hard-scrabble life on the farm. Even while telling us to always do the right thing and reminding us that life wasn’t fair, he was an eternal optimist who never met a stranger.
He spoke proud that he’d been in each of the 100 counties of North Carolina. He knew those two-lane roads forward and backward, and from BBQ to hot dogs, he knew where to stop when he got hungry. Some summers I got to ride along with him, though I spent plenty of time waiting and reading in the car while he called on Farm Bureau and other offices, mostly down east. With the windows rolled down in hopes of catching the slightest, often non-existent summer breeze, I’d read a little. Squirm a lot. Read a little, fidget a little more, peeking out as if that would hurry him up. All the while sticking to the hot plastic seats as my impatience grew and my tummy rumbled. When he came out, it was time to find a place for lunch and EAT!
We went places with plastic table cloths, where the waitress called you “Hon” whether you’d been there a thousand times or this was your first. Where they automatically brought you a basket of hush puppies (or cornbread, or biscuits, or slices of soft white sandwich bread.) And where the tea was always sweet and always filled without even asking.
One thing Daddy was, was predictable. That man could simply divine who was serving up chicken pie or chicken & dumplin’s for lunch. I’d even seen him stop on a Sunday or Wednesday afternoon at a country church serving supper-on-the-grounds just to see if they had any chicken pie.
Covered with tablecloths brought from home by God-fearing church women, there’d be saw-horses holding up planks or long tables practically straining from the weight of all the fried chicken, deviled eggs, chicken pie, chicken and dumplings, green beans, cornbread, biscuits, and ham.
He’d hone in on that chicken dish like a dog on a hunt. He’d always compliment the maker saying “that was the best chicken pie I ever had.” And he always meant it.By the time we left, often with leftovers tucked between two paper plates, Daddy had met everyone there, shaken their hand with a promise to return.
It didn’t matter to him whether the recipe included peas and carrots or was topped with pie crust or biscuits, he was an equal opportunity chicken pie lover. This was his favorite chicken pie recipe and was included in Hugs From The Kitchen, written by Peggy Snow, his first cousin and the daughter of his “Aint” Ollie. It’s made very much like cobbler. In our own Wagoner Family Cookbook, we’ve updated the recipe to include vegetables and even added some wine to the cream.
Best Ever Chicken Pie
2 ½ to 3lb chicken
1 small onion, sliced
1 rib celery, plus some leaves
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup buttermilk
½ stick butter, melted
1 can cream of chicken soup
2 cans chicken broth (in which the chicken was cooked)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot, combine chicken, onion, celery and celery leaves. Half cover with water. Cook until done. Cool and bone chicken, saving the broth. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces. Layer in a 9”x13” backing dish or cast iron skillet. Mix together flour, buttermilk, butter, salt and pepper. Spoon batter over chicken. Stir soup and the equal of 2 cans of broth together. Pour over batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Top should be brown.
Note from cookbook: This is a great chicken pie! You can use chicken breast instead of whole chicken. Don’t think I’ve even made this that someone didn’t ask for the recipe. I believe it came from a family night supper at the First Baptist Church in Elkin, NC. – Peggy Snow
Deborah Miller, Program Administrator at the North Carolina Folklife Institute, is a native Tar Heel and lifelong foodie.