Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Recap Part 2

My dad doesn’t like chicken and dumplings, and he has never bothered to make them. But it’s interesting what a person can pick up just by hanging out in a kitchen with a woman who cooked for eight children at home and hundreds more at her work.

My grandmother was an elementary school lunch lady (back when lunch ladies cooked), and she made chicken and dumplings for every major holiday. So when I decided to make them for Christmas, dad stepped in as supervisor extraordinaire offering tips on everything from seasoning of broth to consistency of dough.

I like cooking with my father because he has a deep built-in knowledge about food that must have seeped into his pores with the steam off a stock. He’s also pretty fearless.

Here we are posing for mom in a faux wishbone-pulling shot (the Christmas equivalent of our ribbon cutting).

Making the stock.

Rolling the dough.

Dad’s sister tasting the dumplings -- and giving her approval. (This is a big deal.)

Here’s something I wrote about chicken and dumplings for USA Today and The Tennessean earlier this year, and the reason I decided to make the dish:

My father grew up the youngest of eight children, so Thanksgiving on his side of the family - with in-laws and cousins and grandkids in tow - made a potluck spread that could rival entire church congregations in our small Georgia town.

We would gather in my grandmother’s kitchen, where finding a spot for each dish felt like working a Thanksgiving jigsaw puzzle - rectangular dishes of sweet potato casserole wedged next to small bowls of marinated carrots, a tray of turkey squeezed beside a platter of ham. Pies and cakes such as my aunt’s chocolate pound cake with fudge frosting were even exiled until later atop the washing machine.

But no matter how short on space, we always made room for the largest mixing bowl of the lot. Sitting like a queen on the table, it held a dish that completed our tradition: My grandmother’s chicken and dumplings.

When my grandmother’s eyesight began to fail, it was my aunt Loyce who took over dumpling duties (partly because she loved them so). But now with my grandmother gone and Loyce too, I called my cousin Margaret, Loyce’s daughter, for the recipe. I should have known, though, that traditions don’t always come with traditional recipes. What’s left of granny’s chicken and dumplings is a paragraph of instructions typed directly from Margaret’s memory -- learned not from the page of a recipe but from standing at a mother’s elbow.

I asked my father if he, too, remembered watching his mother cook the dumplings.

“She’d throw flour out on the counter; she didn’t have a cutting board,” he said. “She would roll out the dough with a jelly glass and cut it into strips.” Then she’d drop the dough into the chicken stock, heavily peppered, and rich with cooked hen. “That was something that all the girls learned to do from Granny,” he said of his four sisters.

Maybe I’m a bad Southerner, but being too young for a lesson, I have never tried to make chicken and dumplings. Could I learn to make them too? This year, I’ve decided, it’s time to find out.

I referred to the chicken and dumplings recipe in the Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. You can find a version of that recipe here, but I totally recommend buying the book.

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