The women working the parish hall stoves of Burkittsville's St. Paul's Lutheran Church were surprised that anyone was interested in something as mundane, to them, as slippery pot pie.
"We started eating it as soon as we could eat," said Bobbie McBride, a member of the Frederick County church and one of the organizers of the small congregation's recent semiannual "country kitchen." "I've been eating it as long as I can remember."
Asked for the recipe, the women were just as incredulous.
"It's just beef broth and dough," McBride said. "I never knew a recipe. You just work the dough until it feels right."
Almost everyone who cooks has a favorite dish for which there is really no recipe, just a little of this, a bit of that, add something until it looks right and see how it tastes.
In the mountains of Western Maryland, north into Pennsylvania and across into Ohio, one such dish for almost anyone who can cook is slippery pot pie.
Historians and folklorists say that the origins of slippery pot pie are German, that the recipe has been handed down from the Germans who settled in Western Maryland, including those in tiny Burkittsville, in the shadow of South Mountain. Folklorist Steve Warrick takes that approach in a piece about slippery pot pie in the new Catoctin History magazine.
As exotic or strange as slippery pot pie may sound, it's not a pot pie at all. In fact, it's pretty much chicken and dumplings, without the chicken (or in the case of the Burkittsville version, beef and dumplings with only scant beef).
Dumplings -- ranging from bits of bread dough to the dense meat dumplings of Austria and Germany -- are traditional peasant food in many European countries. The dumplings transported to this country can be grouped into roughly two categories: drop dumplings and rolled dumplings.
Drop dumplings -- small, walnut-sized bits of sticky unleavened dough -- are literally dropped into a vat of boiling liquid. Then they end up irregularly shaped.
With rolled dumplings, the kind used in slippery pot pie, the same basic dough (but less sticky because of a different flour-to-water ratio) is rolled out into large, free-form slabs about an eighth of an inch thick, then cut into rough squares or rectangles before being added to the same kind of bubbling liquid.
"I think this was basically food from the Depression, when people had to make do with as little as possible," McBride said.
"It was quick and filling, especially for farmers," added Sue Harrison, wielding a rolling pin on dough atop a large, stainless-steel-topped table.
The "slippery" part of the interesting name undoubtedly comes from the consistency of the dough, once cooked in the broth. It's slippery, or at least that's the way you want it to be. If there isn't enough broth, the pieces of dough can clump together.
As for the "pot pie" designation, no one really knows its origin. But the dough is similar to what might be used for traditional pot pie crust.
Now, about the recipe.
At the church, Harrison used a coffee mug to shovel flour from a 10-pound bag into a small plastic dishpan she was using as a mixing bowl. "That was seven cups?" she was asked.
"Are you counting? I'm not," she said, continuing to shovel. When she had what she thought was about the right amount of flour, she sprinkled some salt (she didn't measure, just picked it up with her fingers) across the top of the flour, mixed that in with a pastry cutter, and then added a blob of Crisco.
"We use Crisco now," Harrison said, "but they probably started off using lard." She cut the shortening into the flour mixture, then poured in cold water from a green plastic pitcher and began pulling the dough together. She added a little more water, kneaded the dough to check its consistency and tossed in a bit more flour. Next she pulled a hunk from the dishpan onto the floured stainless-steel surface and started patting down, then rolling out the dough. It took her less than five minutes from flour bag to dumplings.
In the course of two days, this routine would be repeated until at least 50 pounds of flour were transformed into dough.
At one of the four stoves (one an old six-burner commercial type, the others older home-style models), Lois Shank took the newly cut dumplings and slipped them one by one into the vat of boiling beef stock and broth. Shank added several layers of dumplings, then began stirring the boiling caldron.
"If you don't stir, they will stick together," she explained.
Shank said the large stockpot held a combination of homemade beef stock ("We boiled the beef bones yesterday") and commercial beef broth. "It tastes better that way," she explained.
The dumplings cooked for about 20 minutes ("until they don't look glassy," Shank said) and after about 15 minutes, she added dried parsley flakes to the mixture. When the cooking was complete, the dumplings were dipped out in small batches into a colander. Shank explained that you don't want to eat too much of the broth that the dumplings were cooked in because then the slippery pot pie, more like a soup, would be too thin.
At the same time, you can't reuse the broth as it is because the loose flour from the dumplings thickens the broth as it cooks. So more unused broth-stock mixture must be added and the liquid brought back to a boil.
By the time one vat of slippery pot pie was transferred to the steam table (where a small amount of finely chopped roast beef was added as a garnish), there were more orders than had been cooked. And it was 10 a.m.
"People buy it by the quart and the gallon, especially farmers," said McBride, who adds diced potatoes and chopped onions to the version she makes at home.
The women of St. Paul's -- most of whom admitted to be fiftysomething -- also had prepared 250 apple dumplings, navy bean soup, various sweets and chili dogs. One of the male members was in charge of deep-frying the oysters for sandwiches and cutting the homemade french fries.
The Rev. Kimberly Weitzel said the semiannual bazaar and country kitchen have been held as long as anyone in the church can remember. Proceeds likely will go toward restoration of the main church building.
Although the Burkittsville women could not provide a recipe, several other published sources provide these proportions:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons shortening
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water, cool to lukewarm
Cook in about three quarts of beef or chicken broth.
The next church event is scheduled for the last weekend in April and usually runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Slippery pot pie costs $1.50 for a small container. The church parish hall is at 5 E. Main St., Burkittsville. For information, call 301-834-9866.
If you know of other little-known Maryland or Virginia traditional foods that are available at local events, please e-mail Nancy Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.