I am not certain what is more American than apple pie, but I would have thought that Chicken and Dumplings would be a close second. To me, this was about as classic an American food as one could have imagined. It isn’t and wasn’t – I was in for a surprise.
We, as Americans, have been making this dish since Jamestown was settled in the early 17th century. As it was taken west by those seeking better opportunities, the dish took on regional differences. The Yankees like their broth thick and their dumplings, fluffy. Down South the broth was made more soup-like, with somewhat flat, square dumplings. Everywhere, Chicken and Dumplings came to be called a “comfort food”, or one that provided a feeling of well-being, and usually one with a high sugar or carbohydrate content; it wasn’t ever so comfortable for the chicken, however.
I suppose everyone’s flock of chickens was once watched rather closely. Chickens, like any other animal, have a pecking order. Those that had some years on them and had quit laying eggs were likely viewed as being next in line for the chopping block. And, yes, we had a woodpile that served for cooking and heating. At its base stood a rather large stump. Against it we leaned wood to split, particularly for our kitchen stove. On occasion my mother would select the next of our chickens to cook. Much like Anne Boleyn, its’ head was severed on the large chopping block. These were no spring chicks, yet each put up the fight of its life accompanied by lots of squawking and flapping; not only from the victim, but from a chorus of cackling that arose from her former sisters. The older the hen, the longer it had to be simmered until it was “falling off the bone” done. The older the chicken however, the better the flavor, and after several hours of cooking, it produced a rich savory broth. The addition of dumplings turned all this early morning barnyard drama into a flavorful, thrifty meal by noon.
The Depression took place before my time, but we seemed to have enjoyed chicken and dumplings a lot as I was growing up after the war and throughout the ‘50s. To be clear, while I did not grow up during the Depression, I lived in a household that was always a decade behind the times. So, while the Depression was over for most, we lived as if it continued into the early ‘50s. Frugally! Times were uncertain, The Bomb was on many of our minds. Would I see Russian troops marching up from San Antonio? Like so many Fredericksburg families, the Great Depression had produced lasting memories of hard times and little money. Remarkably, the history of Chicken and Dumplings runs much deeper than this. Many might associate this dish with their childhood, and it is still largely served in Southern and Midwestern states. However, my research revealed that Chicken and Dumplings go much farther back than that.
Once thought to be a rich, luxurious Southern icon, this theory is supported by numerous recipes that can be found dating to the ‘30s and ‘40s in the 19th century — that’s 1830s and 1840s. But, even more amazingly, the first known recipe appears in Apicius, a Roman cookery text allegedly written by Marcus Apicius whose name, as you may recall, pops up frequently as a Roman “foodie”. For Chicken and Dumplings, he has a recipe dating to the 1st century AD! Marcus was apparently a Roman gourmet chef who went to great lengths to find good ingredients. But his colossal banquets, created to please the Roman elite, eventually drove him to bankruptcy and then suicide. What a Greek Tragedy for Roman times.
A single recipe for Chicken with Dumplings appeared in the 6th edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book, but none in its last edition — the 12th. One can be found in A Collection of Recipes by the Heritage School, and the 150th Doss Cookbook has three, indicating that the dish remains popular. The 175th Anniversary Fredericksburg Heritage Cookbook features one given to Oliver “Sam” Klaerner by Mrs. Allie Krieger in 1960, claiming to be the recipe used by the City Café in the early 1930s. The City Café was a landmark on Main Street owned by Felix Klaerner. I wish I could say I had eaten there, but we never ate out as a family while I was growing up here, and though I did check around before writing this, I haven’t been able to find anyone who did.
With today’s chicken, creating a flavorful broth would have been a challenge even to Julia Child. Leaving the skin on chicken will develop a deep flavored broth and result in a meat that stays tender. It also helps to use flavored broth instead of water. Browning the chicken before adding any liquid also helps because as its skin crisps, the Maillard reaction kicks in creating hundreds of complex flavors. This occurs when the proteins and sugars in and on our foods are transformed by heat resulting in flavors, aromas, and colors. Browning the meat is an indication this has taken place. Salting the chicken, perhaps up to 30 minutes or more before cooking helps the salt to draw out moisture. There are reasons for some instructions.
As for the flour dumplings, we knew them as Klösse. They were served with, or as sides, to any number of meat dishes. The dumplings were fluffy and tender. Those that I remember often turned out as mere misshapen clumps of flour thoroughly soaked in the oils used for cooking the meats they accompanied. My mother’s always appeared to be light, fluffy, and thoroughly misshapen, and seemed to be held together by unknown hidden strengths. I typically saved eating my dumplings until last so that I could enjoy a good amount of gravy with each morsel.
Obviously, there are many ways to make chicken and dumplings. I chose to suggest for this iconic recipe the one included in the 175th anniversary of our founding by the families of Fredericksburg, Texas, which included one made regularly by Chester Klaerner who owned and ran the City Café on Main Street for years.
City Café’s Chicken with Dumplings
2 qts water
3 to 4 Chicken bouillon cubes
½ tbls salt
½ tsp black pepper
1 large fryer
Make chicken broth with water, bouillon, salt, and pepper.
Cook chicken in broth until tender.
Remove and cool to touch before deboning and cutting meat into medium size pieces.
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ lb butter
2 eggs mixed with ½ cup whole milk
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Cut butter into flour.
Add milk and egg mixture, salt and baking powder.
Stir to form a stiff dough.
Turn onto a well-floured board and knead.
Add flour to keep stiff, but not sticky.
Roll thin and cut into ½ inch squares
Sprinkle liberally with flour
Add to chicken broth slowly not to interrupt boiling.
Reduce heat and add chicken meat, cover.
Stir occasionally for next 30 minutes.