Dumpling Wars

Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply “said” anything) that Rose Budd Stevens (aka Mamie Willoughby) was a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my pea-pickin’ heart. If you are interested in the way most Mississippians cooked and prepared foodstuffs in the first half of the 20th century, then you should get From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (University Press of Mississippi: 1988). The book contains a cautionary editor’s note advising readers that most of the recipes contain “a higher fat, sugar and salt content than generally recommended by physicians and nutritionists today”. Well of course they do because those people didn’t sit around on their butts all day like most of us do; they worked hard, ate well and deservedly so. For those Mississippi foodies who love the literature of the table too, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful work written by a remarkable woman. Mrs. Willoughby and I grew up in the same environment, rural Mississippi, but at different times. Reading her reminds me of the phrases and cadences I heard from my grandmothers and great aunts, so much so that I hear in her their voices fused altogether. Mamie, much like those women, is not averse to a lecture either, as she makes obvious in this passage:

Let’s get this chicken stew, dumplings and chicken pie business straight right now. Chicken Stew: Roll thick dough, cut into strips, drop into boiling chicken broth, and cook uncovered. Chicken Dumplings: Drop spoonfuls of dough on top of boiling chicken and broth, cook with tight-fitting lid on, and don’t peek. Chicken Pie: Put layer of chicken and broth in large pan. Dot with butter and black pepper, then layer of rich dough. Bake until light brown; add another layer of chicken, broth, and dough, bake. Do this until pan is nearly full. Some hold with a cup of sweet milk added, then back 30 minutes. I like hard-boiled eggs and sweet cream in my pie. Last would be cups of cooked-down broth, tasty with floating eyes of chicken fat, all melded together, food fit for the gods, company or family. Remember this was before it was known you could eat yourself to death!

This is one instance when Mamie and I part ways. Her recipe for stew resembles my family’s recipe for chicken and dumplings. What we’d call “drop dumplings”, which she uses in her C&Ds, were what we usually made with sweet dough for cobblers. It might be worth noting that Mamie is from south Mississippi, while I’m from the north part of the state, but I’m not sure if that’s a significant geographical culinary distinction.

Here’s my recipe, which was used by my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother.  Typically, my ancestresses would use a cut-up whole chicken and cook it with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper, nothing more, probably a quarter of a chicken and a quart of stock per person.

Debone your chicken, return the bones to the pot and reduce by about a third, then strain and return to pot. You want a good, rich broth, about a quart for each boned chicken quarter. For your dough, make a stiff biscuit dough with sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into the broth while it’s at a rolling boil. Once it starts to thicken, add the chicken, cover and let boil for maybe another minute and then turn off the heat and let the pot sit for about another five minutes to cook the dumplings. You’ll have to adjust the salt, since dumplings, like any boiled starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.) will absorb salt in cooking. I like my chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.