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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Top Comment:
“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!”
— Amy S.
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“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.

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16 Comments

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!
 
Author Comment
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.
 
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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.
 
Author Comment
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.
 
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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.
 
Author Comment
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.
 
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!
 
Author Comment
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!