My Family Recipe

The Slow-Cooked Legacy of Grandma's Country Captain Chicken

In this week's My Family Recipe, one writer uncovers an heirloom tin filled with her late grandmother's recipes, including a dinner-party staple that feeds a crowd.

December  7, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.

A Lowcountry dish by way of East India, Country Captain Chicken was my grandmother’s go-to in the 1940s and ’50s, when recipes for it popped up regularly in Junior League and community cookbooks. My grandmother, Helen Utley—who passed away when I was 12 years old—was so captivated by the flavors and comforting gravy-like sauce that she borrowed the recipe from a friend and put it into regular rotation at her dinner parties.

At the time, my mom lived with her brother and my grandparents on Unami Trail in Newark, Delaware, in a house my grandfather designed. There, Grandma often played hostess to many of Pop-Pop’s colleagues as well as his neighbors and friends. She would serve Country Captain—bone-in chicken braised in a fragrant, curry powder–flecked tomato sauce—on a large platter, rimmed with a ring of white rice.

As a collector of stories like these (I’m one of the co-founders of a recipe and storytelling exhibit called Dirty Pages), I asked Mom if she knew anything about Grandma’s recipe.

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“I cannot recall, if I have eaten a dish called Captain Chicken though I must say it sounds familiar. Since we are fond of curries, and chicken, and rice, this sounds like a winner. I shall give it a try.”
— W J.

“I bet it’s sitting in her old recipe box,” she said.

The next day, we pulled out Grandma’s battered red-and-white recipe tin decorated with kitschy illustrations of sage, thyme, and spatulas. It creaked a little when it opened and was packed solid with frail papers. Some were standard recipe cards, but most were pieces of scrap paper: worn-out envelopes, newspaper clippings, old voting ballots. Recipes were carefully written out in my grandmother’s tidy, sharp-edged cursive. I pulled out a recipe for sangria that read “From the Kitchen of: Mickey” (my grandparents’ next-door neighbor).

We shuffled through the papers until my mom found a folded, yellowing page filled front and back with a handwritten recipe for Country Captain. Under the dish was an attribution: “Mrs. Whisterby."

My mom’s family home in Delaware had an L-shaped kitchen and in the corner alcove sat the washer and dryer, right across from the wall oven. Whenever Grandma entertained, Mom explained, Helen would throw a tablecloth over the washer and dryer and use them as a buffet. It was her way of extending their entertaining space, making the most of what they had.

Her story reminded me of the time my husband Dave and I lived in a tiny, 600-square-foot attic apartment in Boston. More than a few times during the years we lived there, I hosted dinner parties for eight or more friends, often using the sink in the bathroom to hold bottles of wine on ice.

I still love to entertain. What I really love is picking out just the right dish for whomever is coming over that night: Fried chicken and tomato salad for a group of girlfriends. Sausage ragu over a big bowl of pasta for our family-friend dinner nights. I’d always credited my mom, a serial event planner and party hostess, and my sister, a block-party organizing pro, for my entertaining genes. But now I know that my urge to invite guests into my home and feed them—regardless of how tiny the space—goes way further back, to a link in my grandmother’s genetic code.

Last year, during the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, the whole family gathered at my parent’s house in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Since we were all in a festive mood and there would be a gaggle of kids and grown-ups at the table, I asked my mom if we could try making Grandma’s Country Captain dish. She said yes, but was adamant that we stick to Helen's methods. I watched as she set herself the difficult task of decoding my grandmother's faded handwriting.

As my mother transcribed her mother’s words, she remembered.

“Of course, it was dried thyme, not fresh. I don’t remember her cooking with a lot of fresh herbs,” she said. “And the bell pepper has to be green. Those were the only kind we ever used back then.”

Like many of the recipes we uncovered from the box, this recipe didn’t come with a lot of instructions; Mrs. Whisterby probably shared the details as Grandma wrote them down. One section read: “With brown paper + lid in oven.”

“She had this oval roaster that I still remember,” Mom explained, “and we would take a brown shopping bag and use the lid to make an outline of the pan. You cut that out and put that on top of the chicken before covering it with the lid. I don’t know why we did it, that’s just what we did.” So I handed my kids a few brown paper bags, and they set to work cutting out rounds of brown paper.

I’d always credited my mom for my entertaining genes. But now I know that my urge to invite guests into my home and feed them goes way further back, to a link in my grandmother’s genetic code.

When the chicken was finished braising in the oven, we opened the lid and lifted the brown paper to take a peek. A fragrant scent of curry filled the kitchen. At the very least, the paper provided a great reveal. We pulled the chicken pieces out of the pot and piled them onto large platters, and then finished the sauce with toasted almonds and dried currants. We created a ring of white rice around each platter, then poured the sauce over the pile of chicken.

We put out the platters like a buffet on the island counter—Mom’s modern South Carolina kitchen is a long leap away from the dog-legged one of her youth—and everyone, even my picky 7-year-old son, piled their plates high with scoops of rice and chicken drenched in sauce.

As we feasted on Grandma Utley’s go-to favorite that night—the sweet, tangy sauce warming us from the inside out—I could feel her spirit with us. I’m sure she would have been proud of my mom, sister, and me—three women who carry her energy and enthusiasm for gathering friends and family at the table. If Country Captain isn’t a family legacy, then I don’t know what is.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.
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DebraCR February 19, 2020
Years ago working as a chef for a caterer, I saved a recipe for an CC Chicken and came across it not long ago. It was copied from a cookbook but there wasn't much else to identify it. The main reason I loved the recipe was that the chicken was topped by a luscious crust with grated coconut and almonds. After a bit of sleuthing it was identified as the CCC from Sarah Leah Chase's "Cold Weather Cooking". I bought the book and have enjoyed using it, the stuffed cabbage rolls are wonderful, but many of the recipes are too labor intensive, listing too many ingredients for simple way we cook now. I'm going to try this dish and see if I like it as well. Who knows? It may end up with a crust.
FordCornell February 18, 2020
This is one of the best chicken dishes I've ever eaten and I've been eating it for 35 yrs using the Joy of Cooking recipe. The difference from that recipe to this one is the JoC uses Stewed Tomatoes ... it makes another layer of flavor and perfection. Try it both ways and see what you like.
[email protected] February 17, 2020
In the photo, I can't see any evidence of green peppers. Did you opt for red after all?
marymichael February 16, 2020
Erin, my mouth was watering just reading your recipe, and your family's story makes this a "must try." Question: I don't often cook with curry powder. Since there are a whopping two tablespoons, I am wondering if you could recommend your favorite?
Erin B. February 16, 2020
I've been using Frontier Co-Op, which I found at Whole Foods and really like it! Very fragrant. I've also tried making my own in the past with great results -- it tastes fresher!
marymichael February 16, 2020
Thanks for your quick reply!
W J. February 16, 2020
Though I don't believe I knew the Utleys, I have been on Unami Trail a number of times over the years. I rather suspect from what you have said that Grandpa Utley worked for DuPont and was either a scientist or engineer.

Now that remote bit of Delaware is a part of America that is well off the beaten path! We lived in Northern Delaware for 40 years, and it is such a small state that it is entirely possible to get to know the area of New Castle County, DE very well indeed.

Thank you for being so descriptive in your article as to include the very street or areas in which the kitchen adventures and party dramas took place. That bit of extra detail in this well written article made it come alive -- especially for me. Finding a jar or old recipes is like family archeology and should be passed on and incorporated into a genealogy story, if you or someone in your family is or has written one.

I cannot recall, if I have eaten a dish called Captain Chicken though I must say it sounds familiar. Since we are fond of curries, and chicken, and rice, this sounds like a winner. I shall give it a try.
Erin B. February 16, 2020
Thank you for the thoughtful note. My mom and I worked on this piece together and she really wanted to make sure I included the part about Unami Trail. And you're right! He did work for DuPont as an engineer! I hope you try the recipe - let me know what you think!
Gloria R. December 22, 2019
In her book Flavors of India (a companion to a TV series from the 90s), Madhur Jaffrey calls this dish "an Anglo-Indian name for an Anglo-Indian dish that may well have originated in Calcutta." My version comes from The Joy of Cooking. It has been a favorite of our family for years.
Hippie1954 December 19, 2019
Beautifully written story Erin. I can tell that came straight out of your heart.
And stomach too!
Can't wait to try it out!
Erin B. December 21, 2019
thank you! i hope you enjoy it - let me know if you give it a try!
jamcook December 11, 2019
There are recipes for Country Captain in Craig Claiborne’s NY TIMES Cookbook, and in James Beard’s American Cooking. I have always loved it, and always added extra currants and Almonds. One of my kids started calling it “Chicken in Yummy Sauce”, and so it is.
Erin B. December 21, 2019
I love that! I might start using it with my kids!
Jules555 December 8, 2019
This made me miss my sweet mama whose hand written recipe for Country Captain I still have. She made it for many, many dinner parties! Lovely article.
Erin B. December 8, 2019
Thank you! I’m glad it brings up happy memories for your family too.
Hallianna C. December 8, 2019
Mrs. Bullard and her cook, Arie, would serve President Franklin Roosevelt Country Captain at her home in Warm Springs, GA, when he was a patient at Warm Springs. She is attributed to being the originator of Country Captain. Same ingredients as your grandmother's recipe.
Erin B. December 8, 2019
I’ve read a bit about that history as well. I believe the dish has a longer history than that but I can see how that story resonates. Thank you for sharing!
DebiR December 19, 2019
I have never cooked with Currants before. Where do you find them in the market?
Ginny December 19, 2019
By the raisins and other dried fruits in the grocery store. They taste like tiny mild raisins. Hope this helps.
Erin B. December 21, 2019
Thank you for sharing this! I have read a few origin stories for the dish but wasn't sure who to attribute. I'll definitely look into the story of Mrs. Bullard and Arie.
Judy B. February 21, 2020
Next to the raisins usually, but don’t be fooled. They are really made from tiny grapes. However, I always used regular raisins for my Country Captain. My two sons loved this dish and always referred to it as “ chicken, rice and raisins”. The older of those two is a grampa himself now!
Judy B. February 21, 2020
They taste like raisins, because they are dried small grapes. Real currants grow on bushes and are a British staple. Apparently you can find them in England both fresh and dried. Saw some once here in an upscale Italian market in 1972 in San Mateo, CA. They were fresh!
Judy B. March 23, 2021
They taste like tiny raisins because that’s what they are! Look closely at the fine print on the box, if you can find some in your market. True currants grow on bushes and they grow and are popular in England. The only ones I ever saw were fresh, not dried and they were in an upscale Italian market in San Mateo, CA in the 1970’s.
Shalini December 8, 2019
Thank you for sharing your grandma's favourite dish! I've always been curious about Country Captain, your family feast at the end sounds wonderful!
Cindy W. December 8, 2019
Love this, Erin. And I've never heard of this charmingly named recipe! Wonder where its name come from.
Amy S. December 7, 2019
I just read about this dish for the first time two weeks ago, so to see it here so soon was fun! A version, called Country Captain Casserole, is in the Good Housekeeping Holiday cookbook our library's cookbook club used this month. I made it as the description said it was a well-known dish, but I hadn't heard of it. Plus it looked tasty. One difference was that the rice was cooked in the same pot with the chicken. You bring rice and water to a boil in an oven safe pot, then bake for 15 min. While the rice bakes you prepare the sauce, and add chicken thighs to boiling sauce for a couple of minutes to get rid of the pink, then you pour the sauce and chicken over the rice, and bake for another 25 min. It was good. Thanks for sharing your family's version!
Erin B. December 8, 2019
I love the idea of cooking the rice in the same pot! I’ll keep an eye out for that recipe. Thank you for sharing!