Earlier this week, radio station WBUR presented an audio essay on the fuzzy origins of Chinese pie. The story included interviews with several notable French-Canadian historians and cultural observers from around New England including our own Paul Marion.
A link to the audio of the piece plus a full transcript is available here.
I found the story to be a fascinating piece of history, but it also inspired me to make Chinese pie for dinner today. It was delicious and easy to make.
The WBUR story, which was more cultural than culinary, kept it simple, defining Chinese pie as a combination of meat, potatoes, and corn. Having grown up in a family entirely of Irish descent, Chinese pie was not on our home menu. It wasn’t until I went to Biship Guertin High School that I first encountered the dish which was in regular rotation in the school cafeteria. Most of the students at the school back then (the late 1970s) were of French-Canadien descent, and many of the teachers were members of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, a French-dominated order, so having a traditional French-Canadien item on the menu made sense. Plus, as a type of casserole, it was perfect cafeteria food.
In fact, my own Chinese pie concoction drew inspiration from Army mess halls. In the four years I was in the service, I never encountered Chinese pie, but I was served a lot of creamed chipped beef, which, when served on toast, was called SOS, for you-know-what on a shingle. Having watched Army cooks making it, I discerned that you took ground beef, fried it in a scramble, then used flour, butter and milk to create a cream sauce that engulfed the meat.
If, instead of spooning it over toast, you pour the resulting mixture into a casserole dish, then add a layer of frozen corn kernels and top it with a thick layer of creamy mashed potatoes, you have a Chinese pie, ready for heating in the oven.
As I said, the batch I made today was delicious. I took a picture of my plate before I dug in, but let’s just say a serving of (my) Chinese pie tastes much better than it looks so I omitted the picture.
Thanks to WBUR and Paul Marion for inspiring me to try something new in the kitchen.
4 Responses to Chinese Pie
SOS I’m well familiar with; Chinese Pie, not. Thanks for sharing this bit of cultural & culinary history. I guess you had to be there.
Dick, I did not know that about Bishop Guertin in your day. My son attended BG much later. He never mentioned Chinese Pie on the menu. Maybe it was gone by then. Also, SOS is one of those terms that once heard is impossible to forget. Goes with the era of FUBAR.
Regarding school cafeterias, I went to Providence College in the lates 1970s and the food for resident students was OK but very institutionalized. Lots of stuff that came out of cans. One or two entree choices and, if you didn’t like them, you could buy a sub (called a “grinder” in Rhode Island) from the Silver Truck which was a food truck 40 years before that became a big thing. But when I went back to PC for a reunion and peaked in the dining hall, there were multiple stations where one could get fresh salads, made to order sandwiches, pizza, and multiple hot entrees. From what I understand, the cost of higher education is so high, that students (and the parents paying the bills) expect premium services. I assume the same thing takes place in non-public high schools like BG.
Damn Dick, thought you were a nice guy, but then you had to traumatize me bringing back images of Shit on the Shingle in the Army. I preferred eating grubs during survival training over SOS. Chinese Pie however warms my memories. My Aunt Rose used to make that when I lived in Little Canada but I never knew it was a French-Canadian thing, I always thought it was just one of two dishes I loved the best from her along with her distinctive tasting tomato soup filled with every kind of pasta she had around, which I also later found out was another French-Canadian thing.