Near the Main Line

Travelers aboard the Main Line of Philadelphia’s commuter rail pass through Valley Forge, today an affluent suburb, but nearly 250 years ago coincident with perhaps the direst moment in America’s struggle for independence.  The British Army having chased the Continentals from their capital (at the time, Philadelphia), George Washington sought refuge in a farming community then at some distance from the city, hoping to recuperate through December.

Unfortunately, that winter was one of  severest on record, and Washington’s troops shivered and starved.  Few local farmers sold their surplus to the Continentals, as the soldiers could offer only then-worthless dollars, and not the vaunted Pound Sterling.  In desperation, or so the story goes, one of Washington’s cooks threw into a soup pot what he did have on hand, and thus Pepper Pot Soup came to be.  Thus the legend has it.

Today’s version is one which the New York Central system served much later aboard dining cars in its overnight passenger service.  It’s among the many recipes detailed in James Porterfield’s Dining by Rail.

New York Central called its variety Pepper Pot Louisianne, and the creole ingredients list reflects the country’s prosperous and expansive growth after Valley Forge.  It also points to another origin story, one that has the soup originating in the Caribbean islands.  The two tales aren’t necessarily incompatible, as Philadelphia already had a naturalized Caribbean community during colonial times, and it’s entirely possible their cuisine inspired one of Washington’s cooks.

Of course, today’s riff starts with sautéing the “holy trinity” of vegetables so instrumental in creole cooking, celery, onions and pepper.  This is a chicken soup, tough adding rice gives the soup a Caribbean flair, and provides substance in addition to thickening the broth.  It’s built more like a stew than a soup.

It’s a warmly satisfying way to insulate against winter’s chill.  Perhaps travelers speeding aboard the New York Central in America’s booming mid-twentieth century weren’t thinking much of Valley Forge, but their prosperity and the soup they were enjoying owe much to the snowy hills outside Philadelphia.


Pepper Pot Louisianne

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup celery, diced
  • 1/2 cup onions, diced (*1)
  •  1/2 cup leeks, cut crosswise into thin rings
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup rice
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
  • 3 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 cup chicken, julienned (*2)

Place a stockpot over a medium flame.  Add the butter and when it’s melted, add the sliced vegetables.  Cook gently, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften but haven’t yet taken on color, about five minutes.  Stir in the garlic.

Add the rice and the water and stir well to combine.  Reduce the flame to medium-low, cover the pot and slow-simmer for 15 minutes.  Stir in chili and cayenne powders.

Add one quart of the chicken stock.  (*2)  Simmer for 15 more minutes.  Add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt, and bring to a boil.  Adjust flame to maintain a low boil for 30 minutes.

If using pre-cooked chicken, add it at this point.  If you cooked the chicken along with the soup (as specified below). remove it, shred it, and return it to the pot.  Turn off the flame, allow the soup to rest for five minutes, garnish with parsley, then serve.


1 – Naturally, shallots are an even better choice, if I do say so myself.

2 – Though the recipe calls for using pre-cooked chicken (probably a function of train galleys needing to be highly efficient, thus making use of any “leftover” chicken) I’ve found that adding raw boneless skinless chicken thighs is much more flavorful.  Of course, in my version, the chicken is added, by necessity, early in the cooking, when the first batch of stock is added.  If you do go with pre-cooked chicken, rotisserie or whatnot, adding it at the end is fine.


11 thoughts on “Near the Main Line

    1. Thanks for your kind words and your thoughtful support, Tamara, as always!

      You think you’re hungry? The Pennsylvania Railroad hasn’t been carrying passengers for nearly sixty years now. Thus, people in that dining car have been waiting for their soup, like, for ages.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Holy trinity of vegetables… I like that! I haven’t done much creole cooking so that was new to me. Not sure if I’ve ever had a chicken soup I didn’t like!

    Your posts are always so awesome… like a blog version of dinner and movie… say dinner and a great story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thank you, JoAnn! Most kind; moving really.

      As for Pepper Pot Soup, I think you’ll like it; I know I did. It sounds as though we have a similar admiration or chicken soup, and this week’s offering definitely qualifies.

      Funny thing is, I didn’t think I’d like it Can’t account for the reluctance – it just was one of those things, I guess. Then, in perusing the ingredients list I saw nothing I didn’t like (a lot), thus, why not? Plus, the recipe touched on two things that make my geek out, rail travel and history, thus it earned a spot.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated, Angela!

      Glad, too, you noticed the flower. The goal with these “Dining by Rail” entries (and there are others planned!) is to recreate the meals passengers would’ve enjoyed when rail travel was at its most exuberant, say, 60 to 100 years ago. In other words, long before either one of us were around.

      Still, back then, dining cars always were supplied with tablecloths. china, silverware and, of course, freshly-cut flowers. While we’re far too young to have experienced the heyday, at least we might get a glimpse of what it must’ve looked like.


      1. You did well recreating this time. I just enjoy the introductions, histories, and geographies of your cuisines, before you give us the recipes.

        Liked by 1 person

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