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A chili con-carne savory pie with cornbread crust inspired by The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner

I think everyone read at least one serialized chapter book series as a kid. If you say you’ve never read a Goosebumps, Nancy Drew, Magic Treehouse, or Sweet Valley High book you are just lyin’ like a rug. One of the series I devoured as a kid was the boxcar children. It’s probably not the most well known middle grade series ever, but for some reason I thought it was the shit. So obviously, I decided to go back and read it again. Because rereading stuff you loved as kid as an adult is never disappointing at all.

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Forgive the excessive and, frankly, grammatically incorrect use of question marks herein. Let’s blame incredulity. I don’t think you’re ready for how messed up this is.

The Boxcar Children follows four orphaned siblings (two boys and two girls named Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny) who are basically running around homeless with nothing but a laundry bag full of all their earthly crap. They stop to buy some bread and they ask the mean baker woman if they can stay the night on the benches in her shop. When they hear her telling her husband how she’s going to keep the older three for cheap labor but give Benny to a children’s home they run away, walk all night, and then sleep on some damn pine needles instead. This is the first chapter.

They stumble across an abandoned boxcar which they use as shelter from the rain, then decide to live in it, and fill it with a bunch of crockery from a junk yard. THEN AN INJURED PUPPY ARRIVES ON THE SCENE. And everything hopelessly fucking sad, especially the children’s terrifying optimism. Example: “‘What fun!’ cried Jessie, ‘eating with spoons.'” Spoons are a luxury for these children. Spoons.

I’m going to spoil it for you this once, because I feel like you need it: these sad orphans eventually meet their long lost grandfather (whom they initially believe hates them because he never visited them before) and he takes them in and they live in his house, but also they bring the old boxcar with them and it stays in their backyard as a really twisted playhouse or something? Like, maybe sometimes Jessie can’t sleep because she isn’t used to the comfort of a real bed and goes out and sleeps on a pile of pine needles in the boxcar? Probably, right?

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Notes From the Piebrary:

So it turns out this was first published in 1944, just before the end of World War II. I always sort of assumed that the kids were my contemporaries. I mean, on the cover of my paperback edition they were wearing some high-waisted stonewash nineties jeans or pants and colored collared shirts or something. But now that I’m rereading it, I’m noticing little silhouetted illustrations that look much more old-timey, and the bitchy baker lady chases them in a carriage? Like, what? Even as a child, how did I think that this would happen in modern America? Or that if kids were given free reign they would spend their time joyously remarking about the beauty of simple and humble living? Are you the Martha Stewart of the rails, Henry? I think not.

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Parsing This Pie:

The kids have a “rustic” (read: straight up sad) lifestyle with a modest budget of… like, the five dollars they must have pulled out of their dead parents’ discarded laundry or something? Which back in the day was maybe, like, $20 now? In any case, you’d want to make as much food as possible with as little cost and as few ingredients. You also want to make sure you get something hearty and warm, with plenty of protein. Gotta be of tough stock to sleep on a bed of pine needles.

One of my favorite cheap dinners to make is chili. An onion, couple cans of beans, a pound of meat, and a few standard spices and you’re in business. Plus, with the hobo feeling these kids are rockin’ they’re probably right at home around a couple cans of beans. Pack it in a cornmeal crust for easy eating and you’re ready to wrap a slice up in a bindle bag and hit the rails.

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Recipe:

Crust:
-1/2 cup cornmeal
-1 1/2 cup flour
-2/3 cup butter
-4-6 tbs water

Filling:
-3-5 tbs butter
-1 yellow onion, diced
-2 cloves garlic, chopped
-1 lb. ground beef
-2 tbs brown sugar
-1 cob of corn
-1 can diced tomatoes (in their juices)
-1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
-1 can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
-1/4 cup chili powder
-2 tbs cinnamon
-1/2 cup cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.

Bring the crust together the way you would any other plain crust: cut the butter into the flour and use the water to bring it together into a shaggy dough. Set in the fridge.

In a large skillet (I used my giant cast iron) melt half the butter and brown the onion and garlic. Add the other half of the butter, enough to further grease the pan for the beef. Break it apart with a wooden spoon or spatula, add the brown sugar, and seal the meat. Add the corn, tomatoes, and both kinds of beans. You don’t want it to be too soupy, which is why I wash and drain the beans, but you want just the right amount of liquid to keep it moist, which is where the tomatoes come in. Add the chili powder and cinnamon and allow the liquid to boil off by half.

Roll out half of the crust to line the pan, fill with chili, intermittently layering in some cheddar cheese. I used a nice clothed aged cheddar, again, because I’m a cheese snob. Roll out the top crust, cover, and crimp. Beat an egg and brush a light coating over the top crust. Cook for approximately 50 minutes!

And that’s it! Serve with sour cream or a bit of avocado and curl up on your bed of pine needles in the rain to enjoy it.

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