Granny died fifteen years ago this past March. She was just a few weeks shy of her 99th birthday. Brother and I thought that she’d live forever, and she just about did. (I wrote about what I think her secret was to longevity here.) She’d always been the same our whole lives. White hair, twinkly blue eyes, Alfred Dunner suits and sensible shoes for church and dress-up or a Model’s coat and a pair of Baw’s old slippers both dirty from working in her extensive yard.
He and I were heading from Birmingham back home to Citronelle for the visitation and funeral. We were deep in the heart of the Black Belt, driving down Hwy. 5 through Dallas County, Alabama. Down where the road stretches out long and straight through rolling pastures and plowed fields. Off in the distance a few little houses dot the horizon here and there. Sometimes you’ll get behind a tractor. Once there was a horse just standing in the road looking at me. He didn’t move, so I drove around him.
We were reminiscing about Granny, a little weepy even through the funny stories. We talked about how hard she’d worked in her life, what a pioneer and a feminist she was, how she always spoke her mind and told you what you needed to hear whether you liked it or not. As we talked a thought popped into my head. One of those thoughts that everyone has but you probably shouldn’t say out loud. But it was Brother, and we’re real close, and I knew he’d understand, and I suspected that he’d feel the same way so I said…
Since we’re bereaved and all, do you think Cousin Ruth Ella will bring us a pot of chicken and dumplings?
You know that’s what people do in the South when a loved one passes on, crosses over, goes to her great reward — we bring a dish, or two. The extra food keeps you from having to think about what to eat, what to feed guests. It’s comforting to know that people care enough to take to their kitchens to whip up a little edible love and bring it over. It’s tradition. That’s why it didn’t seem unreasonable to me that Ruth Ella would send a little love our way.
John looked at me like I’d lost my mind then said, Lord, I hope so.
He did understand just like I knew he would, because he, like I, had eaten a lot of Ruth Ella’s chicken and dumplings over the years. We looked forward to the annual July homecoming at New Home Baptist Church, which was founded in part by our great-grandparents Andrew Joseph and Ada Rowell, because Ruth Ella always, and I mean always, made a huge pot of chicken and dumplings for the dinner on the grounds, which came after preaching but before the hymn sing.
When we were children, it was agonizing to watch the elders all go through the dinner line first, but that’s the way it was (and should be). People go through the line from oldest to youngest. It’s just respectful, and we understood it. But I’d just pray and pray and pray that they didn’t eat up all of Ruth Ella’s chicken and dumplings and that there would be some left for me.
Back on Hwy. 5, back in Dallas County, we tried to buck up, we tried to find something to sing along with on the radio, we tried to not think about the chicken and dumplings too much. Some 2 hours later, Brother and I turned into Mama and Daddy’s driveway. There were a few cars and trucks in the yard. We unloaded our bags and went inside. In the living room, we hugged some necks and kissed some cheeks and got a little weepy all over again.
I thought I smelled a little smell of chicken broth.
I tried to see into the kitchen to see if there was a pot on the stove.
I excused myself to get a glass of water.
And sure enough, there it was! A big pot simmering on the stove. I cracked the lid just a little hoping against hope. Could it be? Yes! Ruth Ella had come through with the biggest pot of chicken and dumplings you’ve ever seen.
Now I know that a mere plate of food cannot bring someone back from the dead. It can’t erase the heartache or wipe the tears. It won’t fill that empty place way down deep in your soul. But a big, heaping plate of Ruth Ella’s chicken and dumplings can sure go a long way to making you feel less sad, less lonesome, less broken. That rich gravy warms you up from the inside out, the chicken gives you some strength to get through the next few days, and the dumplings … oh, those dumplings … fill you with love … and hope.
Hope that Brother doesn’t get the last spoonful!
I don’t have Ruth Ella’s recipe. I’ve never thought to ask for it. It would be like asking someone to share a diary entry — it’s secret and sacred and even though you really want to know what it says, what it will reveal, its mystique would be ruined if you found out.
What I am going to share with you is Brother’s recipe. He’s one helluva good cook, and his chicken and dumplings are neck-and-neck with Ruth Ella’s. Don’t tell her I said that!
Chicken and Dumplings
- 1 whole chicken cut-up (Don’t think you can make this recipe successfully by boiling chicken breasts alone. You’ll end up with a nasty, tasteless goo.)
- 1 medium yellow onion, halved
- 1 large yellow onion, minced
- 1 stalk celery, cut into three large pieces
- 2 stalks celery minced
- 3 whole cloves of garlic
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut in three large pieces
- 1 large bay leaf
- 1 whole clove
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp. salt
- 2 tsp. fresh ground black pepper (or to taste)
- 1-½ cups of self-rising flour
The secret to the best chicken and dumplings is actually in having the tastiest and richest broth possible. Using a can of cream of chicken soup is just trashy. That’s why you have to take care at the beginning to cook the chicken carefully. Wash the chicken well inside and out, making sure to wash out any blood clots, etc, which cling to the chicken. These will only make the broth taste funny later. Cut the chicken up in pieces as for fried chicken, and put them in a good, heavy-bottomed stockpot, so that you can cover the pieces with fresh, cool water by about three inches or so. Push the whole clove into one of the halves of the medium onion, and add both halves to the chicken, along with the large pieces of celery and carrot. Add the three whole cloves of garlic, the bay leaf, and the salt. Do not add the pepper at this time. Put this stockpot over medium-high heat, and wait patiently for it to boil. The best broth is brought out slowly, so resist the temptation to crank up the heat too high. Once the broth is boiling along nicely, you’ll notice some scum coming to the top. Skim this off with a large spoon and discard. Try to do this early on, because later, you’ll just be skimming off the fat which you’ll need for the dumplings.
This process for the broth should take about 45 minutes to an hour if you are using a fryer. It takes much longer if you are using a hen, as the hen takes longer to be tender. Once the broth is done, cut it off and take the chicken pieces out with a kitchen fork or tongs, and place on a platter or pan to cool. You can take out the vegetables in the broth as well and discard them, though personally, I consider them a special snack for the cook — extremely healthy. Strain the broth through a sieve into another large pot you intend to use to cook the dumplings and set aside for five minutes for the chicken fat to rise to the top.
Meanwhile, put your self-rising flour in a good-sized mixing bowl and make a little well in the center. With a ladle, skim off the yellow chicken fat which has risen to the top of the broth and add it to the flour until you get a wet but firm consistency in the dough. Once you have the dough made, let it sit a minute in the bowl and add all the minced vegetables and seasonings to the broth, and bring to a boil and then cut down to medium.
At this stage the chicken should be cool enough to pull off the bone and de-skin. Break it up into good-sized chunks, taking care not to shred it or let it end up in tiny little pieces. Put it on its own plate and discard the bones and skin.
Turn out your dumpling dough onto a well-floured board or onto floured paper towels on the counter and sprinkle liberally with flour on top. You may have to roll them out in two batches. Roll the dough out until it is 1/8 of an inch thick and keep flouring it so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin. Then with a knife or a pizza cutter, cut the dough in strips about 1- ¼ inches across, and then cut those strips in about 2 inches-long pieces on the bias, making diamond-shaped pieces. This is done for prettiness, and the dumplings are really very satisfying in this shape. As you finish cutting the dumplings, transfer them to a well-floured jellyroll pan or tray, and sprinkle more flour liberally on top. Don’t worry about the flour, it helps them to dry out a bit and will make the sauce thick and tasty. Once the dumplings are finished, let them sit out in the air for a few minutes to dry out a smidge and bring your broth to a rolling boil.
Once the broth is boiling, start dropping the dumplings in without shaking off too much flour. Stir them gently as you drop them in so that they are covered by the broth and don’t stick to the bottom. They’ll start to float when they are cooked. Once all the dumplings are in, let them cook five minutes on simmer, adding the black pepper to taste. When you are ready to serve, stir the chicken pieces in to heat through. Serve with fluffy white rice. It may seem strange to serve dumplings with rice, and of course you may eat them in a bowl on their own, but in Mobile County, we enjoy that good sauce on the rice as well.