Chicken and Dumplings

Any Southern cook worth her salt has a treasured cove of favorite Christmas recipes that cannot be found in a conventional cookbook.  Those favorite family recipes spring to life when biting into one of Aunt Gussie’s soft and chewy Ginger Cookies, reaching for that second helping of Mama’s Cornbread Dressing or savoring that huge slice of Phyllis Anne’s Fruit Cake filled with pecans.   

A traditional Christmas Dinner is not complete without those unconventional family recipes. (By dinner, I mean the mid-day meal; not the evening meal, which is supper)  On any given Christmas Day, our dining table and buffet could have been the cover for the holiday edition of Southern Living magazine.  

What makes a family recipe so exceptional?  It’s because they are well guarded secrets. I’ve known family members who haven’t spoken in years because Granny’s original recipe for Pumpkin Pie is missing.  And we’re all pretty sure who has it.    

Many of these recipes are handwritten on paper, torn from a spiral-bound composition book over 30 years ago, with drops of bacon grease staining the list of ingredients, so that you’re not sure if you need two cups of sugar or three egg yolks.  Thankfully, the cooking instructions are grease free. 

“Mix together and bake at 350 degrees, until done.”

Have you ever thumbed through an old family cookbook?  Pay close attention to the handwritten notes in the margins. Oftentimes, these notations will be the difference between success or failure in a traditional southern recipe:

“Leave out the nutmeg.”  

“Add a little more brown sugar.”  

“This recipe makes plenty.” 

“Use pecans-not walnuts.”  

“I used six eggs.” 

Better yet, some of the best recipes are never written down.  Many Southern cooks rely on their memories.  It’s a gift.  A true blessing.  Unfortunately, I do not belong to that elite group of cooks.  I need clear and concise directions.    

Many Christmases ago, as a young adult and inexperienced cook, I attempted to write down my mother’s recipe for her “made from scratch” Chicken and Dumplings.  (To this day, nobody has ever come close to duplicating her chicken and dumplings.)  

Here’s how that recipe unfolded.  

“How much chicken do I need?”  I asked, sitting at the kitchen table, pen poised over my notepad. She answers. “I don’t know, exactly.  Just get you a good-sized hen. A hen,” she repeats, “Not a fryer.”   

Right out the chicken coop, my feathers are ruffled.  I have no idea what she’s talking about. Chicken is chicken. 

“After you cut up your hen, cover it with plenty of water and cook it until it’s about ready to fall off the bone.”  

Well, that’s certainly clear. 

“Mama, I can’t cut up a chicken. I’ll just get one pre-cut,” I protest.

“Well, you’re going to pay extra.” She answers, baffled by the fact that she has an adult daughter who can’t cut up a chicken. “Anybody can cut up a chicken.”

I tried cutting up a chicken once.  No one recognized it as chicken. 

“While the chicken is cooking, go ahead and make your dumplings.”

“Alright, how much flour for the dumplings?” I asked. 

She pauses and looks at me with a slightly puzzled expression on her face. 

“It’s according to how many dumplings you want.”

What!?! I need cups; exact measurements.   

“Okay,” I say. 

“As soon as the chicken is done, set it on a plate and let it cool so you can pull it off the bone, later.  That won’t take much time since most of it is going to just fall right off.  Make sure you don’t leave any bones or grizzle in your chicken broth.” 

Oh, that’s going to be fun; fishing chicken bones and grizzle from the broth.  

“Now,” Mama adds, wiping her hands on a dishcloth, “Let that broth come to a good boil.” 

“About how long will that take?”  I ask, while trying to make copious notes.

“‘Til it comes to a good rolling boil.  I’m not sure how long it takes in minutes. Just stand there and watch it, I reckon. Then write your time down.”  

Whoops, I detect a little note of impatience in her voice.  

Looking up from my paper, I notice she’s using a heavy, smooth tea glass to roll out the dumplings.

“Why don’t you use a rolling pin for that?” I ask. 

“Because, I don’t have one,” was the clipped answer.

That’s not impatience in her voice; it’s irritation.  

“Try not to handle the dumplings any more than you have to,” she continues with her instructions.  “It will make them tough.”

Before I can write all that down, she’s already taken a knife, cut the dumplings into strips, and begins dropping them into the broth.  

She moves quickly, as she works with the dumplings.  The stove burner is turned off.                    

I’ve stopped writing and watch in amazement as Mama moves from the kitchen table to the stove several times, as she magically cooks those rich and luscious dumplings.  I know for a fact that those dumplings will actually melt in your mouth from the first bite to the last. 

The chicken, which actually did fall off the bone, is added back to the broth.

“Just let that sit a minute, while those dumplings soak up the broth.”  Mama washes the flour off her hands at the kitchen sink and then sweeps up the tiny white trail from the table to the stove.  

“Did you get all that written down?”   

I look at my “recipe.”  

Hen-not fryer. Cook it. Make dumplings. Rolling boil? Add dumplings. 

That’s all I had.  

“Yes ma’am, I did.”  I smile to myself.

That’s the exact moment that I realized the secret to those delicious dumplings.  It wasn’t the ingredients, the correct measurements nor the exact cooking times, but the endless amount of love that was added to the pot.

Merry Christmas. May the love in your family fill to overflowing this holiday season.