Chicken and dumplings are the quintessential Southern comfort food. I was reared on the chicken and dumplings of a lady named Ms. Dot. Ms. Dot was basically the community baby-sitter. While today, childcare providers are required to abide by strict government regulations and health codes, back in the early 80’s my father along with numerous other parents just dropped their kids off at Ms. Dot’s house for the day. To me, chicken and dumplings were supposed to taste like Ms. Dot’s. Years went by and I snubbed my nose at plate after plate of chicken and dumplings because they simply did not match the culinary goodness of what I remember as a kid. That is, until I met Mamaw.
Mamaw is my husband’s grandmother and she loves to feed people. Literally, she takes offense if you show up at her house not hungry. It is Southern comfort food at its grandest – biscuits and red-eye gravy, fried okra, cornbread. All cooked in nothing less than a pound of bacon fat. Yes, you can literally feel your arteries clogging . . .but it’s sooooo good. If you’re lucky you might even end up going home with a jar of homemade sweet pickles.
Mamaw grew up on a farm in South Mississippi. The small town of Sumrall, MS, was founded by and is named after her people. The homestead is still there, though I’ve heard it is overgrown and hard to find now. Like most people living in Mississippi in the early 1900’s, life was hard and her family didn’t have a lot of money.
Mamaw at 16 c. 1931
She married the love of her life when she was very young. Though her husband has been dead for 27 years, she still talks about their life together like it was not so long ago. She still lives in the same house in North Jackson that she and her husband built in the 1960’s. Stepping through her front door is like stepping back in time. The gold shag carpet, the linoleum countertops, the dark wood-paneled walls – it’s all still there and yet strangely comforting.
Back when The Husband was still just The Boyfriend, he decided things were getting serious enough between us to meet Mamaw. Even though there were only three of us, she had a spread big enough to feed ten. She set a plate of chicken and dumplings down in front of me. I just knew I probably wouldn’t like them, but there was no way I was going to break this little old lady’s heart by turning down her food. So I gingerly raised a fork to my lips and took a bite.
Oh glorious rapture in heaven! Finally! Someone who knew how to make the chicken and dumplings of my childhood! I not only cleaned my plate, but went back for seconds.
Seven years later, Mamaw still likes to feed people but she doesn’t get around as well as she used to. Having lost my own grandmother last year, I am suddenly aware of how valuable these people are, how we need to take advantage of the time we have with them, and learn everything we can. Just over a month ago, I paid Mamaw a visit with the sole purpose of learning how to make her chicken and dumplings.
Of course, there was no recipe. It was “a little bit of this” and “a little bit of that.” I watched, frantically jotted down notes, and listened to her stories of growing up on a farm in south Mississippi. Later, I went home and made it again, this time writing down measurements, cooking times, and adding my own touches.
One thing that did surprise me – for the last seven years I was under the delusion that Mamaw handmade her own dumplings. At one point she did, explaining that my husband’s grandfather even made her huge board that she used to roll out her dumplings. But at the age of 94 and with the invention of modern refrigeration, she now reserves the right to use frozen dumplings. Hey, who am I to argue with a lady in her 90’s?
I have included a recipe for homemade dumplings similar to what Mamaw uses. But if you are in a pinch, Mary B’s frozen dumplings in the freezer section at the grocery store make an excellent substitute. Just follow the directions on the package.
Mamaw her husband raised two children – a daughter and a son. A few days after she taught me how to make this, we buried her son, my husband’s father.
Listen to my interview on “Next Stop Mississippi” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting where I discuss the story behind my chicken and dumplings.
- 1 boiler/fryer chicken, cut into pieces
- 1 medium onion
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- 1 cup milk
- Place chicken pieces in a large stockpot. Fill pot with enough cold water to cover chicken. Add onion, bay leaves, and salt. Bring water to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 1 hour. Remove chicken to a plate to cool. Strain remaining both. Discard onion and bay leaves.
- In the meantime, combine the flour and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Add the milk and egg. Mix until it forms a dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Roll out the dough to about an ⅛-inch thickness. Cut dough into strips, about 1 ½-inches wide and 3 inches thick.
- Dumplings can be dried for up for four hours, or use them immediately.
- Remove chicken from the bone and shred into bite-sized pieces. Bring broth back to a boil.
- Drop dumplings into boiling broth and cook until tender. Time will depend on the thickness of the dumplings and how long they were allowed to dry.
- Add chicken bouillon, shredded chicken, ground pepper, and thyme. Cook until heated through.
- Remove from heat and allow to sit for another 15 minutes.