Clockwise from top left: Stouffer's, Boston Market, Marie Callender's, Swanson
For years I've been rejecting the notion of comfort food on the reasonable but insufficient grounds that I fear nostalgia and I think the term's too cutesy. Plus a restaurant-owning friend once told me he makes a lot of boat payments courtesy of comfort- and "value"-minded patrons who opt for the $14 macaroni and cheese instead of the $21 roast chicken. Therefore, it has always made me queasy for personal, lexicographic, and financial reasons to consider the comforting powers of certain foods.
But I'm tired of talking myself in circles to avoid what is, after all, a perfectly apt label, and admitting as much finally frees me up to discuss my love of meat pies in general and frozen chicken pot pies in particular.
Most of the five minutes a year I allow for reflection on my childhood are spent rhapsodizing about Willow Tree Farm chicken pies. The chicken was whitish and the gravy was greenish and the vegetables were nonexistent and the face-stuffing was rapturous, and when I started planning this story I assumed it would be more of a coronation of Willow Tree than an actual fair fight among leading national brands.
But it turns out that my beloved Willow Tree isn't a leading national brand: It's a Massachusetts phenomenon that is unevenly exported to the rest of the country. Sorry about that, guys.
That leaves us to consider chicken pot pies from Boston Market, Stouffer's, Marie Callender's, and Swanson.
Stouffer's (10 ounces, one 670-calorie serving, $2.89)
This Canadian import boasts a thin, crisp crust that is devoid of gumminess, even on the underside. The thick, creamy gravy has a pleasing texture but lacks any real flavo(u)r beyond a faint acidity. The chicken role is played by cubes of white meat that could have used more bird taste but had no major flaws. The vegetables were all very good and flavorful, even the stray bits of onion. The peas and carrot shards were surprisingly firm, with the latter being borderline crunchy.
This is a good pie that may not be to everyone's liking, as it's quite unorthodox to rely on the crust and the vegetables to do so much heavy lifting while the chicken and gravy tag harmlessly along for the ride.
Boston Market (16 ounces, two 570-calorie servings, $2)
This one had the best crust by far, which is quite an achievement given how good the Stouffer's shell was. The Boston Market crust was thick, flaky, and buttery, making it the only lid with a secondary flavor component beyond basic crackeriness. The moist, tender chicken was great; I would happily make a sandwich out of it. The peas were so firm I could hear myself chewing them, which partially atoned for their lack of flavor. The carrot rounds were better, though they tasted sweetened. Boston Market also went the extra inch by throwing in decent corn d green beans.
Only a tragic gravy situation kept this pie out of the top spot. The curiously thin, broken, and oily chicken-liquid didn't taste as bad as it looked, but very few things taste as bad as this gravy looked.
Marie Callender's (10 ounces, one 630-calorie serving, $2)
Marie brought very good chicken to the party. It was peppery, almost suspiciously so, as if it had been injected with a flavoring solution to elevate it above its natural blandness, but I see no reason to sweat that kind of detail in a frozen pot pie: The flavor was good, regardless of how it got there.
The carrots were firm and flavorful, though too fibrous. I don't really want to be that engaged in the eating of my pot pie vegetables. The peas had real snap and flavor to them. The crust was a bit on the dense and gummy side, but it wasn't bad enough to be a problem. Which brings us to the thick, creamy gravy, which was very controversial among my two-person tasting panel.
It was by far the most flavorful of the bunch, with a deep black pepper presence and a just a bit too much salt, and I thought it was great. My copanelist thought it was goopy (debatable) and green (true enough) and gross to the point that it undermined all of the pie's other good works.
Swanson (7 ounces, one 370-calorie serving, $0.89)
It cost 89 cents. The crust was thin, rubbery, and meaningless, the gravy was mostly salt and modified food starch, the super-salty chicken cubes felt like glue-together lunchmeat, the potatoes seemed reconstituted, and the peas were sour. Carrots were nice, though.