Talking turkey with the city's master 'chicken-pie-ologist'
BYLINE: By JOHN CLAYTON
CHALK IT UP to my contrary nature, if you wish, but since everybody will be writing about turkeys this week, I figure I'll write about chickens.
The chickens I'm writing about work under cover.
They work under a golden brown cover.
In actuality, that golden brown cover is a delicate, flaky pie crust and to my mind, it's the signature ingredient in Mrs. Budd's Chicken Pies.
If you have yet to sample one of Mrs. Budd's Chicken Pies, I say shame on you because this fresh, not frozen, deep-dish culinary delight -- enjoyed in approximately half the states in the Union, by the way -- is made right here in "The Kaweeen City."
I say that with no small amount of civic pride.
I must also confess to some degree of chagrin as well, since I -- one who is often consulted as something of an expert on all things Manchester -- did not know this product was produced locally until very recently.
Leo Sprecher set me straight.
Leo's the president of Budd Foods. He and his partner, Curt Marcott, preside over the company that now produces its pies at 431 Somerville St., although it traces its roots back to a downtown poultry shop run by one Irving Budd.
"It was back in the early '50s," Leo said, "back when grocery stores didn't have full-service meat departments. Irving Budd's dad was a poultry trader, which meant he'd drive to farms in Maine, collect live birds and then sell them to poultry shops all over the northeast. Some people, like Irving, would even keep live birds out back, and if you wanted a fresh bird, you just had to come back an hour later.
"As we understand it," Leo added, "business wasn't going so great until Irving hooked up with a sales guy who sold him on the idea of those very early rotisserie spits you'd put out in the window. Today, we call it 'Boston Chicken,' but back then, it was very innovative to give people a cooked chicken in a tin foil bag to take home."
The only problem?
What to do with the chickens that weren't sold.
Irving's mother -- Mrs. Budd -- had a solution.
"The chickens that weren't sold would be too dry to sell the next day," Leo said, "so
his mother would take them and make her own family recipe for chicken pie. She'd bake them up all nice and beautiful and Irving would put them out on the counter and sell them. Today, it's what we would call 'sustainable business practice.'"
The topic may seem like a simple one -- chicken pot pies -- but you get a lot of high-tech jargon and cutting-edge business lexicon when you talk to Leo.
He comes by it honestly.
He's got a degree in electrical engineering from WPI and a master's degree in artificial intelligence from USC and let's not forget that MBA in finance he got at MIT (and Curt has that degree in economics from Pitt to go with his own MBA) which means they bring a lot of smarts to their operation.
Not that everyone is impressed.
"I'm a trained research scientist," Leo laughed. "I'm sure my mom figured I'd become something she could brag about instead of a 'chicken pie-ologist.'"
Still, if you're going to be a chicken pie-ologist, you might as well be the best, and Leo feels the same way about the product that's produced by the 110 people in his employ. I could wax poetic about the one I shared with my father last week but Leo's the one who's best able to serve up the story behind Mrs. Budd's Chicken Pies.
"It's a very traditional New England product," he said. "The early settlers made what came to be known as a pot pie when they would keep a large pot or cauldron over the fire, and take whatever agricultural products they had, throw in some meat and make a large stew. To add some carbos, they'd drop in big balls of dough on top, which were like dumplings. You'd get a big scoop of the stew and a dumpling and you'd have a very filling, very hearty meal.
"Our pie is an extension of that," he added. "We have a nice, deep-dish container with very fine chicken and vegetables and a deep chicken broth and on top is this really gutsy dumpling dough. A lot of our consumers -- when you ask them what they like best about the pie -- will talk about that crust. It's moist and chewy and a little bit gooey on the bottom from absorbing the flavors from the hot stew underneath."
If he sounds proud, it's justifiable.
There are three basic versions of Mrs. Budd's Chicken Pies.
The traditional one, which comes in a red package, has both dark and white meat to go with the peas and carrots (and that's Leo's personal favorite because he likes dark meat). There's an all white-meat version with peas and carrots that's served in a yellow container and then there's the white container. That's the one with all-white meat plus fancy vegetables -- baby carrots, broccoli florets and pearl onions -- and since I fancy myself as something of a fancy diner, that's the one I shared with my father.
Next time, we're each getting one of our own.
You can do that when they're priced at $5.99.
"It's a good value for regular folks to have a nice balanced meal," Leo said. "When we do demographic studies, our customer is usually a woman, 35 to 55 years old, who has one or more children and may or may not have a husband.
"She's a busy person, often because she works outside the home, and the first minute she thinks about dinner is between 4:30 and 5 p.m. That's the strike zone for us. Normally, they make a beeline to the fresh-meat case to get ideas, probably thinking hamburgers or chicken, and then they see our product.
"There's something very primal about the need to feed our children well," Leo added. "In one of our studies, we found that when a mom serves up a meal, the thing that hits her the worst is if one of her kids says, 'I don't like this. I want a bowl of cereal.'
"That's a real emotional hit for a mom," he noted, "so they tend to go with things the family likes, but with an eye to what they think is good for them. We come out pretty well in that discussion."
And the pies look really pretty when they come out of the oven -- after 45 minutes at 375 degrees -- and that is true even if your cooking skills may not rise to the level of le cordon bleu, as mine do.
"You can cook it in the oven or you can zap it," Leo said, "but I'm like you. I'm a traditionalist. I like to cook it in the oven. I like the whole home-cooking gestalt."
When it comes to chicken pies, the man knows how to talk turkey.
--(John Clayton's latest book is a collection of veterans-related stories entitled "New Hampshire: War and Peace." His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)
Copyright 2003 Union Leader Corp.