Southern Comfort Once working-class, chicken and dumplings are now just classy

March 10, 1993|By Kim Pierce | Kim Pierce,Contributing Writer

Scarlett O'Hara doubtless ate her share of chicken and dumplings.

The classic dish, which could stretch one precious chicken to two meals, saw many Southerners though harsh economic times.

From the big house of antebellum plantations to the sharecropper's cabin, the dish was especially valued after calamities such as the Civil War and the Depression. Those events leveled lofty and low.

"Nobody had money during those times," says John Egerton, author of "Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History" (Knopf, 1987). "They had to make do with what they had."

The soothing flavor and texture of the stewed chicken dish with biscuit- or noodle-like dumplings in thickened broth captured Southern hearts the way Scarlett would like to have captured Rhett in "Gone With the Wind."

"It's one of those foods that triggers a lot of very comforting thoughts and feelings for people," Mr. Egerton says, explaining, "It has a very high nostalgia quotient."

Civil War dinner tables are a long way from the kitchens of today, but chicken and dumplings have survived the journey intact. Some would say they have flourished -- although at least one dumpling dish has nearly vanished.

One thing is certain:

Dumplings are as Southern as grits and true grit.

"There is no doubt that Southerners took a special liking to both flour and cornmeal dumplings a long time ago," says Mr. Egerton, who believes dumplings, and perhaps a forerunner to chicken and dumplings, found their way south from the Pennsylvania Dutch region.

A popular early version of dumplings without chicken -- cornmeal dumplings cooked with turnip greens -- has been all but eclipsed by the familiar flour dumplings and chicken.

Flour dumplings come two ways: Drop dumplings are like fluffy biscuits;rolled dumplings, which are flattened and cut like pastry, resemble thick, dense pasta. Either way the chicken (or carcass or leftovers) is stewed and removed before the dumplings are plunged into the broth.

Modern cooks, such as Jane Ludlum, sometimes embellish the basics. She adds canned cream of chicken soup to make her broth creamier and richer.

A retired teacher, Ms. Ludlum says her mother learned to make dumplings in Louisiana from the family's black cook. The family wasn't rich, she explains. Her grandmother was an invalid, "so they always had a cook in the kitchen," she says.

This doesn't surprise Mr. Egerton.

"If it hadn't been for black Southerners," he says, "there wouldn't be a Southern food to be remembered."

They are the cooks who excelled at making something out of nothing, he says, because they had to. When the South was down, the skills of black cooks were doubly valued, Mr. Egerton added.

Paradoxically, in more prosperous times, chicken and dumplings signaled wealth. Along with fried and roasted chicken, it was a familiar Sunday dinner dish in the 19th century.

"It was a big-deal dish, served at the big house," says John Mariani, author of "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink" (Ticknor & Fields, 1983). "Chicken was an expensive item. Dumplings added to the richness of the meal."

After chicken was served in the big house, the slaves or the help were given the leftovers or lesser parts, he says. When they made chicken and dumplings from these, it was a cheap dish -- lots of dumplings (without eggs or butter) and a little meat in broth.

"This is working-class food," says Mr. Egerton. "This food did not originate as a classy dish. It originated as an inventive way to extend limited resources.

"People who were given practically no latitude to be creative . . . made something of it," he says.

Classic chicken and dumplings is labor intensive, no matter how you stew it, taking a good 2 1/2 hours from the time the chicken goes in the pot to the moment the finished dish is set on the table.

Ms. Ludlum divides the work by making her chicken and broth ahead of time.

"Then all I have to do is make the dumplings," she says.

Sarah Belk, author of "Around the Southern Table" (Simon & Schuster, $24.95), suggests cutting dumplings in pretty shapes

with cookie cutters. Her recipe cuts the fat and calories of the traditional dish.

Chicken and dumplings Makes 8 to 10 servings.

5 pounds chicken pieces

1 onion, quartered

1 bay leaf

12 to 15 whole peppercorns

2 1/2 teaspoons salt (divided use)

1 teaspoon baking powder

3 1/4 cups flour (divided use)

1 tablespoon shortening

1 cup milk (divided use)

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1 (10-ounce) can cream of chicken soup

Put chicken, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns in a large stockpot with water to cover. Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until chicken is tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove chicken. Allow broth to continue simmering. Discard skin. Remove meat from bones. Set aside; keep warm.

Strain broth and return to pot. Skim fat from surface. Boil gently until reduced by about a third. Add up to 2 teaspoons salt to taste. Keep about 3 quarts of liquid in stockpot; reserve excess for another use. Continue simmering.

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