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.