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In Vermont, the Leaves Are Falling And the Chicken Pies Are Calling

By Carol McCabe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Vermont is a great place to find antiques: antique quilts, antique landscapes and antique traditions, like the church suppers that have brought Green Mountain communities together each autumn since the mid-19th century. Even as old-time box socials and Grange picnics have faded from much of rural America, the chicken pie supper, a culinary tradition peculiar to Vermont, has endured. Recently the suppers have grown in popularity, becoming destinations for fall leaf peepers.

"It's just a tradition in Vermont to have these feeds in the fall," Heath Riggs, 88, a retired University of Vermont professor and veteran supper volunteer, recalls. "They've gone on as long as I can remember."

The events, which raise funds for church and community projects, are held in September and October. Their dates coincide happily with the lengthening nights and cidery tang in the air that transform Vermont's 4.6 million acres of forest with brilliant color, luring thousands of visitors up the interstates and onto the back roads.

Most supper sites are in villages easily accessible from major highways, along the country roads that a state highway spokesman describes as "docile." These sometimes-unnumbered routes wind past red barns and nimble brooks, shaded by sugar maples, birches and sumacs turned a pointillist's canvas of yellow, orange and scarlet. A wild turkey may be startled into flight; moose warning signs confirm the proximity of other wildlife. An occasional "Snowplow Turn-Around" sign confirms the proximity of another season.

Although these community events are rarely advertised, you can find them listed in the state's Vermont Life magazine and in tourist publications, and even on food blogs such as Chowhound.

Planned, prepared and presented by volunteers from congregation and community, the family-priced meals are served at trestle tables in fellowship halls where visitors sit hip to hip with Vermonters. "The local people get to meet the tourists," says Betty Jones, a perennial volunteer for suppers at Waterbury Center Community Church. "It's a nice way of reaching out to visitors."

The basic menu at all the suppers follows tradition, the centerpiece a dish of chicken simmered, boned, sliced, sluiced with golden gravy and topped with fat crusty biscuits. Pans of chicken pie are brought to the table accompanied by pitchers of extra gravy, bowls of mashed potatoes, buttercup and/or butternut squash and coleslaw, all Vermont-grown and home-cooked.

Teenage servers pour coffee, tea or milk and distribute wedges of apple and pumpkin pie, perhaps accompanied by a "chunka cheese" cut from a wheel of Vermont cheddar.

Local cooks vary the menus, although when it comes to the chicken pie itself, "secret ingredients are frowned on," says Dave Thomas, who's in command of the Richmond Congregational Church's supper. What passes muster: chicken, gravy, biscuits. What does not: peas, carrots, pie crust. Those are the ingredients of a chicken pot pie, a different dish altogether, possibly something a Midwesterner might eat.

One daring departure from tradition is displayed on the pie table at Montpelier's Trinity United Methodist Church supper. "The pie bakers can make any kind they like: apple, chocolate cream, maple syrup pie, whatever they want to bring. I myself do a peanut butter pie," Trinity's Kathy Reed declares. "And we offer Cool Whip. Everybody takes Cool Whip."

"Well, that's fine unless they bill themselves as traditional," Martha Frost responds from Jericho Center, "because Cool Whip certainly isn't traditional."

It's possible that the first recorded chicken pie supper was at Jericho Center, which celebrated the centennial of its event in 2002. Waterbury Center's Community Church began holding suppers around 1858, but no one documented the early menus.

The choice of chicken pie -- rather than, say, roast pork or mac and cheese -- probably evolved from the days when every farmer's wife kept a flock for the household. An unproductive hen or rambunctious rooster often went into a chicken pie for the family's Sunday dinner or the church supper.

I arrived in Richmond too early for supper -- a couple of months too early. But after a meeting with volunteers at the Congregational Church, the hospitable Heath Riggs and his wife, Harriet, took me home for lunch and a scaled-down sample of the dish that won the Vermont Chamber of Commerce's praise.

Harriet Riggs's chicken pie explained everything. It was made from the traditional Richmond recipe, little changed from the fare that Vermont farmers' wives served in the 1800s. ("One or two days before the supper, start with 2 fowls, about six pounds each . . . ." )

Remembering my mother's farmhouse meals, I tucked into a plate of succulent chicken bathed in rich gravy and topped with big, bumpy biscuits. Those biscuits are made not with vegetable shortening, margarine or even butter. The shortening is chicken fat skimmed from the pot, producing a biscuit as flaky as Mount Mansfield in January.

As was I, guests at the October supper are allowed seconds on biscuits. "I know one fellow who ate four," Heath Riggs recalled in awe.

Richmond was one of five chicken pie supper sites I visited this summer for a preview of autumn events. Four of these towns are all within 25 miles of one another, and each is about five miles off Interstate 89, a highway that offers glorious views of Vermont's featherbed topography at nearly every mile. The fifth, Groton, is tucked into the heavily forested region known as the Northeast Kingdom, about 25 miles east of Montpelier.

Reservations are essential, but you won't need a credit card number to secure a place. These church people have faith that if you've promised to come, you'll be there.

Carol McCabe last wrote about New York's Library Hotel for Travel.

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