What modern American child didn't grow up on Swanson's frozen chicken pot pies, those aluminum-clad Nuclear Age icons whose 1951 debut was intended to liberate housewives raising legions of boomer babies? Tucked inside those boxes were, after all, most of the major food groups. And the hard work--rolling out crusts and simmering chicken stock for gravy--was done for you.
Even as postwar babies with children of their own have come to rely on Mexican, Chinese and McDonald's takeout, the chicken pot pie has kept its place on the American table. Swanson has been joined, most notably, by Stouffer's, Marie Callender's and-- my favorite--Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Let it be known, however, that I'm not mourning Mrs. Tweedy's ill-fated venture in "Chicken Run.")
But if you really want to experience the ultimate comfort food that began as Revolutionary America's answer to the English pasty, well, that means bypassing convenience foods and choosing a side in the full-crust-versus-bottomless-pie debate.
Plenty of Angelenos swear by the pot pies at Du-par's (at Farmers Market and in Studio City). The Du-par's pot pie is rich in vegetables, but (heretically to some purists) served with no bottom crust.
Not so at La Palma Chicken Pie Shop in Anaheim. Very little, it seems, has changed here since La Palma opened in 1955, not the mid-century light fixtures, not the neon rooster sign and not the chicken-themed bric-a-brac. This postwar treasure is owned by Otto Hasselbarth, who was a pastry chef before buying La Palma from Elmo Capla in 1971.
La Palma's crust-enveloped pies are about meat--shreds of tender chicken, not those Swanson-style cubes. No vegetables. They're in the gravy, says Hasselbarth--carrots, onions and celery pureed and added to a chicken stock roux. His best customers, he says, are senior citizens who appreciate the $5.75 dinner special that includes chicken pie, salad or soup (chicken!), rolls, potatoes and dessert.
A gargantuan chicken statue towering above the entrance welcomes the faithful to Moffett's Chicken Pies. Established in 1958 and still owned by a Moffett, this Bellflower institution has meaty pies in a thick top-and-bottom crust, covered with gravy. Moffett's sells specialty candies in the waiting area, and I'm on a sugar rush when, under a shelf, I see a 1960 Paramount High School yearbook from the days when Eisenhower was president, McDonald's was 5 and chicken pot pies were king.
Experimentation is the American way, and that extends to pot pies. A chef friend notes that in Virginia, the signature ingredient is carrots; in Mississippi, asparagus tips; in South Carolina, two layers of rice. No matter. As the chef at Chanterelle in New York put it in the preface to his recipe, it's "chicken pot pie and I don't care."
*LA PALMA CHICKEN PIE SHOP, 928 N. EUCLID, ANAHEIM; (714) 533-2021
*MOFFETT'S CHICKEN PIES, 16506 LAKEWOOD BLVD., BELLFLOWER; (562) 925-5061
*DU-PAR'S, 3RD STREET AND FAIRFAX AVENUE IN FARMERS MARKET, (323) 933-8446; AND 12036 VENTURA BLVD., STUDIO CITY; (323) 877-5876