Figure 1 Image from a 1929 Great Northern dining car menu. Chicken Pie was a popular specialty for the GN.

Happy October and happy fall! For this month’s posting, we are sharing a great comfort food for a chilly autumn evening, Great Northern’s Chicken Pie.

Figure 2 Great Northern system map from Poor’s Manual of Railroads.

The Great Northern Railway system extended from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. One of its greatest claims to fame was that it was a transcontinental railroad funded entirely through private sources. Other railroads used government funding for their construction and support. Started by James Jerome Hill, the Great Northern was a successor to the Saint Paul & Pacific Railroad. Between 1883 and 1889, Hill built small railroads across Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Montana. Having created his own investment group which included executives from the Hudson’s Bay Company, bankers, and fur traders, Hill and his team of investors acquired what would become the Great Northern Railway on March 13, 1878.

In addition to being privately funded, the Great Northern was also unique in that it heavily promoted the settlement of European immigrants along its line. James J. Hill purchased federal lands from the government, which he then turned around and sold to immigrant farmers at drastically reduced prices. Partnering with companies in Germany and Scandinavia, Hill created incentives for people to migrate to Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and later Idaho and Washington to settle along the railroad. He was strategic in building small communities along the railroad, helping to establish churches and schools as well as businesses that transformed the northwestern United States. This work gained him the nickname of “Empire Builder,” which would later become the name of the Great Northern’s most famous passenger train (Amtrak still operates this today between Chicago and Seattle). Aboard the Empire Builder, one could enjoy the GN’s famous Chicken Pie.

Figure 3 1955 advertisement for the “Empire Builder” passenger train.

Figure 4 Great Northern 1929 menu featuring chicken pie.

The Great Northern would prosper throughout much of the 20th century, ultimately merging with three other railroads to form the Burlington Northern in 1970.

Although the Colorado Railroad Museum specializes in artifacts and archives that relate to Colorado and the (more southern) Rocky Mountains, we do happen to have several Great Northern items within our collections. Among these are several pieces of dining car china, including five different patterns pictured below.

Figure 5 Great Northern cream pitcher in “Empire” pattern. Colorado Railroad Museum collection.

Figure 6 Great Northern saucer in “Oriental” pattern. Colorado Railroad Museum collection.

Figure 7 Great Northern “Hill” pattern dinner plate, presumably named for Great Northern founder, James J. Hill. Colorado Railroad Museum collection.

Figure 8 Great Northern bowl in pattern in “Mountains and Flowers”. Colorado Railroad Museum collection.

We hope you enjoy a bite of Great Northern’s Chicken Pie on an upcoming frigid fall evening. Remember, if you try making this recipe, please share how it came out via our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram pages!


Chicken Pie, Great Northern Style*

Three 4 ½ – 5 lb. stewing chickens
1 onion, sliced
1 bunch parsley
1 sprig sage
4 heaping tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
3 egg yolks, well beaten
½ cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
4 large potatoes
8 large fresh mushrooms, diced
16 strips of bacon
Pastry dough for 2 pies

Preheat oven to 400˚ Fahrenheit. In a large stew pot, cover chickens with cold water. Add onion slices, parsley, and sage. Slowly bring to a boil over medium heat, then simmer until meat is about ready to fall from bones, about 1 – 1 ½ hours. Separate meat from bones, retaining the white meat. Continue to simmer stock until reduced by approximately 1/3, then allow to cool. Skim fat off top and mix with four heaping tablespoons of flour and 2 tablespoons of butter, then set aside to use as a binder. Meanwhile, remove cold stock to 2-quart saucepan and add well-beaten egg yolks and cream, and stir to mix. Season to taste. Then, over medium-high heat, heat again, stirring continually. Do not boil. Add the binder and strain thoroughly. Meanwhile, make meal pie pastry sufficient for two pies (recipe below) and refrigerate. Boil potatoes in skins until nearly tender, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool, then remove slice of skin lengthwise sufficient to allow access with a melon baller. Make 32 potato balls and set aside. Dice mushrooms fine, then sauté with bacon until they are tender and bacon is crisp. Crumble bacon. To finish, place 4 potato balls in individual 2-cup casseroles or baking dishes. Add 3 slices of chicken breast and a portion of diced mushroom and bacon. Fill dish with sauce described above. Roll out pie pastry moderately thick, trim to fit, and then cover casseroles, sealing edges all around. Bake until crust is a rich brown color, about 20 minutes. Serve hot en casserole.


Meal Dish Pie Crust, Cotton Belt Route*

2 cups flour
Pinch salt
Pinch white pepper
Pinch sugar
¾ cup lard or butter, room temperature
3-5 tablespoons of cold milk

In medium mixing bowl, lightly stir flour, salt, pepper, and sugar together. Cut lard into dry ingredients with a pastry blender until well mixed and coarse (pea-like). Sprinkle in cold milk, one tablespoon at a time, and mix with a fork after each addition until pastry just holds together. Shape pastry into a ball with hands. If you are cooking on a hot day, wrap pastry in waxed paper and refrigerate 60 minutes before continuing. Divide pastry in half and shape each piece into a ball. On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll one ball of dough into a 1/8-inch thick circle. Use a knife or scissors to cut dough to size and shape sufficient to line pie pan or individual baking dishes, allowing a 1-inch overhang of dish edge. Fill crust as recipe directs. Roll remaining dough for top crust in the same manner. Trim to ½ inch beyond edge of baking dish. Pinch or fold overhanging dough surfaces together. Cut two or three slices in each top crust to vent steam. Bake according to recipe instructions.

*Recipes are from Dining By Rail: The History and the Recipes of America’s Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine by James D. Porterfield, 1993.

Past Dining on the Rails Posts:
Dining on the Rails: September – Chili
Dining on the Rails: August – Pullman “Tom Collins” Cocktail
Dining on the Rails: June – How about a salad?
Dining on the Rails – Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ham!
Dining on the Rails: CRI&P’s New England Boiled Dinner
Dining on the Rails: A Sweet Treat for your Valentine!
Dining on the Rails: Black Eyed Peas!
Dining on the Rails: Eggnog
Dining on the Rails: Happy Thanksgiving!
Dining on the Rails: Union Pacific Apple Pie
Dining on the Rails, August 2020
Dining on the Rails, July 2020
Dining on the Rails, June 14, 2020
Dining on the Rails, June 7, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 31, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 24, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 17, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 10, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 3, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 26, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 19, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 12, 2020


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