On Memorial Day, I was once again heading to Brooklyn by myself. But this time I was driving our full-sized van, overflowing with camping gear. I’d spend some time with my grandson, daughter and son-in-law; my husband, Peter, would fly out a few days later; then we’d all (including our son, Robb, in Boston) head to a Crawfish/Cajun music festival in northwest New Jersey.
At 2:40 p.m. I was on I-76, about 150 miles from NYC. When traffic’s light, that’s about three hours from Brooklyn. But I’ve learned on previous occasions that holidays can double or even triple that driving time. So I turned off the interstate for something to eat, a clean bathroom, and a break before heading into what I expected would be a traffic snafu (an expletive military acronym; you’ll have to look it up).
It wasn’t a random stop. I was heading for Esther’s, which I’d discovered 18 months ago on my journey to meet my new grandson. Esther’s modest highway sign seemed a portent: My Nana’s name had been Esther; I was on my way to assume that title.
Esther’s didn’t disappoint. Except for a few items (most notably the delicious house-made chicken croquettes, a dish that 40-50 years ago was found in ladies’ tea rooms, other genteel establishments, and for special occasions at home), the plasticized menu was mostly banal: burgers, wraps, etc. It was the clipped-on sheet (in old-fashioned courier newspaper font) of daily specials that was intriguing.
It listed at least a half dozen main course specials and twice that many sides. Entrées came with one to three sides. Those sides (as well as the entrées) change with the season and availability of local produce. Fredericksburg is in central Pennsylvania, at the northern edge of Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) country; Esther’s specials reflect that influence.
Esther’s specials may include pork and sauerkraut, chicken or turkey pot pie, chicken pie (altogether different from pot pie, more about which later) meatloaf, stuffed peppers and smoked pork chops. Sides may include chow chow (pickled mixed vegetables), slaw, pickled beets, potato filling (seasoned mashed potatoes used as a stuffing/dressing), exceptionally thin, crispy fried eggplant, stewed corn and tomatoes and on and on. Soups also are regional specialties: chicken, corn and rivels (tiny dumplings) or ham and bean, also containing rivels. Then there are the pies: usually eight-plus varieties, ranging from Amish traditionals, such as shoefly, to fruit and cream pies. All are made in battered, dented tins that proclaim their long usage. The efficient, friendly waitresses (and they’re all women, outfitted in polyester dresses and aprons that bring back memories of the 1950s) add to the time warp sensation.
Esther’s isn’t the kind of place that has a website, but after that first visit, I found reviews on websites such as Yelp. They weren’t unanimous. Locals made comments such as, “I have an aunt and uncle who’ve eaten there every Sunday for the past 40 years. In all that time, they’ve only ordered the chicken croquettes.” Another local wrote, “If you’re looking for a gourmet restaurant, keep on driving. If you want to taste what locals consider a ‘nice meal out’ stop in. You’ll be eating with people who live nearby and more than a few truckers who love it as well.”
Negative reviews were mostly from people passing through who hadn’t eaten the specials. But even if they did, they weren’t always happy. One was indignant about Esther’s chicken pot pie: “….my initial reaction was ‘What the Hell is that???...I’ve always considered a Chicken Pot Pie to consist of chicken, potatoes and veggies in some manner of chicken gravy covered by some manner of pastry.”
He didn’t realize he was exposing his ignorance about Amish cooking. While most Americans think of “pot pie” as a savory dish either topped with pie pastry (and sometimes also a bottom crust) or biscuit dough, a Pennsylvania Dutch Pot Pie isn’t a “pie,” and never has been. The “chicken pie” that’s sometimes on Esther’s menu is what he had in mind; locals understand the distinction. The Amish dish Pot Pie is an etymologic evolution of an ancient German term, Bot Boi. In Pennsylvania, pot pies are almost always made with chicken, sometimes with turkey. Rather than a “pie,” it’s a hearty stew closely related to chicken and noodles. Pennsylvania Dutch Pot Pie contains the chicken meat and “noodles” cut into large squares that thicken the broth, along with potatoes, sweet corn and perhaps other vegetables such as carrots and parsley. It’s ultimate comfort food.
Since that first visit to Esther’s, I’ve stopped there on almost all my NYC-Springfield road trips. But on Memorial Day, I didn’t get there. I didn’t get to Brooklyn, either.
The rest of the story will be in next week’s IT. Come back 6/21/12 for more.
Pennsylvania Dutch Chicken Pot Pie
The Pennsylvania Dutch are known for their frugality, but they have an affinity for the world’s most expensive spice: saffron. It adds color as well as a particular flavor. But if you don’t want to invest in saffron, turmeric can provide the color, if not quite the flavor.
For the chickens and broth:
• 1 large, or two small roasting chickens,
5-6 lbs. total, cut into quarters
• 6 quarts water
• 4 celery stalks, cleaned but not trimmed
of leaves, plus additional
• 1 large or two small onions, quartered
• A small handful of fresh sage or thyme, or 1 tsp. – 1 tablespoon of either or both
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, optional
• 1/4 tsp. crumbled dried saffron, or 1 tsp. ground turmeric, optional
Put the chicken pieces, water and seasonings in a large pot. Don’t add salt at this point. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce to a bare simmer, skimming off any scum that rises to the top; just make sure you’re not discarding the seasonings, or replace them. Cook the chicken until it’s completely tender. Remove it from the pot; cool it until it can be handled, then discard the skin and bones, and cut or tear the chicken into large pieces. Strain the broth and return it to the pot.
For the pot pie squares:
• 2 c. all-purpose flour
• 3 large eggs
• 1 tsp. salt
Mix all ingredients together by hand: making a “well” in the center of a heap of the flour with the salt stirred in, or in a mixer or food processor. You may need to add a little more flour or a little water to make a smooth dough. Knead the dough for a few minutes, then let it rest for at least half an hour.
Divide the dough into 4-6 pieces, keeping the others under a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Roll out the quarter/sixth of the dough to about 1/4 inch to an 1/8-inch thickness, then cut into approximately 2-inch squares. Toss them generously with flour and spread them out on parchment or a lint free towel in a single layer. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
To finish the pot pie
• 1-2 c. diced celery
• 1 c. minced onion
• 2-3 c. peeled and coarsely chopped boiling potatoes
• 1-2 c. peeled and chopped carrots, optional
• 2 c. sweet corn kernels, fresh or frozen, optional
• 1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley, optional
• Salt and black pepper to taste
Bring the pot of chicken stock back to a boil, the reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the vegetables (except the parsley) and cook until they’re tender – 5-10 minutes. Add the pot pie squares, including the flour they were tossed in, and cook until they’re also tender, about another 5-10 minutes. Return the chicken to the pot, stir in the parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle into shallow bowls. Serves 6 or more.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.