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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Chicken and Dumplings

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Who knows how the Alamo or the Civil War would have turned out if Texas combatants had been able to enjoy more chicken and dumplings. That wonderful one-bowl entre may not have made a difference to men facing a larger and better-supplied enemy, but they by gosh would have been more comfortable before taking up arms.

Back then, soldiers would have considered such a Southern delicacy as completely healthy, though today we know that white flour, the chief component of dumplings, is not the most nutritious food choice. Chicken and dumplings, plain and simple, is comfort food.

I got to thinking about the role of C&D in Texas culture the other night when Beverly made us a pot from scratch. In deference to my indifference verging on disdain for dark meat, she used only chicken breasts. And the dumplings, transformed into a soft-yet-firm biscuit-like delicacy, had been nothing but the powdery content of a flour package only a short time before.

The result, enjoyed on a recent Sunday night, was simply slap-yo-mama good. The chicken was tender and tasty, the dumplings substantial and full-bodied. In fact, Beverly's C&D was so good, it equaled or exceeded my base line when it comes to assessing any food made from scratch -- did it taste like my late grandmother's cooking?

I remember Grandmother making C&D as early as the mid-1950s, using an old-fashioned pressure cooker for the chicken. By then she had been married and cooking for her family since shortly before the first world war. How long, I wondered, have Texans been making and enjoying C&D?

First, like any curious person wanting a quick fix of information, I consulted Wikipedia. When I read that online encyclopedia's suggestion that C&D had been developed in Quebec and likely during the Great Depression, I realized once again that just because something is preceded by the letters "W-i-c-k-i" it is not always correct, comprehensive, presented in appropriate context or something you'd want the whole world to know about. (As in your personal email.)

Diet researchers have found that C&D goes back pretty far in U.S. history, though it is primarily identified as a food beloved along or below the Mason-Dixon Line. In Texas, I suspect that C&D has been around for as long as flour has been readily available. For a time in early Texas, bleached ground wheat was expensive and scarce. Indeed, most families were far more familiar with cornmeal than flour. But after that, it was Katy-bar-the-door -- though not until you went outside for a chicken.

So, while C&D may not have been invented in Texas, it dang sure did not originate in Canada and had long been a staple of Southern cooking by the time the Depression came along. I know my grandmother had been cooking C&D (not to mention squirrel and dumplings) for my granddad long before the stock market crash of 1929. Doubtless, she learned about C&D from her mother, who I'm equally as sure learned it from her mother. That would have put it back during the Civil War, where they lived in Mississippi before decamping for the Lone Star State following the cessation of hostilities.

Back then, of course, chicken (aka yard bird in the South) did not come all washed, deboned and sliced in nicely wrapped packages from your favorite grocery store. The principle ingredient of C&D walked around in your yard, living happily on grubs and perhaps commercial feed until some unfortunate (for them) Sunday forenoon when someone emerged from the back door with a chicken-sized pan in one hand, a hatchet or knife in the other.

Some people do still raise their own chickens. Recently I heard about a Central Texas family that has a pair of them. It's a good thing chickens have relatively small brains, or those two yard birds might fret about their names: Original and Extra-Crispy.

What is generally believed to be Texas' first published collection of recipes, the 1883 "Texas Cookbook" (put together by Houston's First Presbyterian Church), does not specifically mention C&D, but the book's recipe for "A Nice Way to Cook Chicken" sounds like C&D to me:

"Cut the chicken up, put into a pan, and cover with water; let it stew as usual. When done, make a thickening of melted butter and flour, or of cream and flour, add butter, pepper and salt, have ready a nice short cake [i.e. dumplings], baked and cut into squares, or fresh baked biscuit[s] broken open and put up a dish and pour the chicken and gravy over them while hot."

Clearly, that is not exactly how you make C&D, but it's pretty close. Here's how Beverly, a Texas lady who first enjoyed the C&D that her mother made so well, prepares East Texas-style C&D:

Boil chicken with salt, pepper, and a red onion. Remove all bone and cut in small pieces or shred. Mix dough (2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons butter, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 cup milk) into a bowl. Roll out and cut into 2 by 2 inch pieces. Add to boiling water (stirring to keep from sticking) and cook 10-15 minutes. Add cooked chicken and enjoy.

It's best not to slap your mamma after having a bowl.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" May 4 , 2017 column

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