Chicken and Dumplings. Classic American Comfort Food
Selecting recipes for my cookbook, A Thyme to Discover; Early American Cuisine for the Modern Table, was part book/internet research and part food memory. Most American homes continue to serve a variation of those early dishes, and my childhood experience was no different. Often associated with Southern cooking, Chicken and Dumplings is a luscious pot of silky chicken soup with a hot biscuit layered on top. This easy and economical dish is incredibly tasty, and a bit magical. For you see, the soup is the necessary, but supporting cast, the dumpling, or biscuit, is the star. When making the soup, at the most perfect time when the steam begins rolling off the boiling soup, raw dough (often made with buttermilk, flour, and vegetable shortening) is gently laid on top of the hot liquid. The magic happens when you cover the pot, allowing the indirect heat to bake the dough while infusing the flavors of the soup. This was always one of my favorite cold weather dinners as a child, but there was just one complaint, too much soup, not enough dumplings. It was the dumpling that always pulled me in. Something about the digging into the hardiness of the dumpling, while moving my spoon around to find a bit of chicken to join in for that perfect bite. This resonated with me, so much so that when I modernized this dish, I added chicken into the dumpling.
So how American is this dish? It has certainly been made in America since the 1700s, if not earlier, the dish was inspired by cooking in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It could even be much earlier than that, as the Roman culinarian Apicius, prepared a recipe of “Plain Dumplings with Broth/Isicium Simplex.” When you think about a dumpling, consider what it is, and you can easily see its concept applied around the world; gnocchi in Italy, wonton in China, matza ball soup in traditional Jewish cuisine, gondi in Iran, vareniki in Russia and Norfolk dumplings in the UK.
I'll credit a few different influences that bring us to where we are today with this dish. In 1790, the oldest operating flour company in America began importing fine English-milled flour into the 13 states of the new United States of America. The Boston based distributor Sands, Taylor, and Wood Company, which became King Arthur Flour in 1996, along with other operations who refined the milling methods, moved this product from a rarity to common supply. Excuse the pun, but the accessibility to flour gave rise to baking in America, expanding the options on the dinner table, and of course, for bread and desserts.
I must also credit the author, Mary Randolph, of “what is arguably the earliest full-blown American cookbook,” the Virginia House-wife, as quoted by American Culinary Historian Karen Hess. Sure, there were other cookbooks in the US at the time, but they were English cookbooks published in the US. Most well-known is the Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse. Hannah published her cookbook in England in 1747, and it was reprinted over 20 times, most notably in the US in the Revolutionary 1805 Classic. Hannah, who originally published her book under the name “By a Lady,” eventually placed her name on the book that first introduced England and America to the flavors of Curry and gave a name to Yorkshire Pudding. According to the Library of Congress, this cookbook was a bestseller in America for over 100 years, which is why it is often called the first American cookbook. But not so fast.
Raised privileged in Virginia, Mary Randolph wrote the Virginia House-wife in 1824. She was well known in Richmond for her lavish hospitality. Her good fortune would change when the US President Thomas Jefferson (who was also her brother’s father-in-law) called her husband a dreadful word, a Federalist, and swiftly removed him from a lucrative working arrangement. The Federalists were the first (short lived) political party in America, led by Alexander Hamilton. This group had a belief in a strong government and financial credibility, which conflicted with the President. The immensely popular musical Hamilton covered this topic well, pointing out the opposing political views between Hamilton and Jefferson. The Randolph’s never recovered financially and moved outside Washington DC. Despite her husband’s fall from grace and their financial situation, Mary was known as one of the best cooks in Virginia, though in all honesty she was more of a practitioner, the cooking was conducted by help in the kitchen. Tapping into her cultural influences, likely credited to her affluent childhood, she found her creative voice by using a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the ideal growing conditions of Virginia.
Mary felt that the recipes from the European cookbooks were fussy and too complicated. She also pointed that the end results of the recipes were inconsistent due to a lack of standardized measurements. All the cookbooks published at the time from Europe did not specifically supply how much to use of a particular ingredient, only what to use and how to cook it. In the preface of her book, she wrote “The difficulties I encountered when I first entered on the duties of a house-keeping life, from the want of books sufficiently clear and concise to impart knowledge to a Tyro (novice), compelled me to study the subject, and by actual experiment to reduce everything in the culinary line, to proper weights and measures." Her cookbook was revolutionary. Cuisine in America was becoming more sophisticated, weaving several food cultures together, giving way for Mary to present an authentic American cuisine cookbook. Her recipes displayed the cultural interweaving of America, with influences from France, Southern Creole, Italy, Spain, the West Indies, Africa and, of course, England. Towards the end of this new American cookbook was a recipe, though not with the most tempting name, “Paste for Meat Dumpling”. This recipe was the first documented version of Chicken and Dumplings in an American cookbook. Her recipe included suet (hard fat from beef or mutton), flour, salt, milk, butter to make the biscuit, which is layered on meat and gravy.
Mary died 4 years after her cookbook was published, never knowing the true success of her work. Mary’s son continued with his mother’s legacy, proudly promoting her work to anyone that was interested. Her last claim to fame, Mary Randolph was the first person buried at the American National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
As people moved around America, expanding the footprint of the nation, Mary’s recipes and influence went with them.
Raised in the Northeast, this traditional Southern recipe made it to my childhood dinner table with some frequency. Understanding where recipes come from and the history of the authors, the time, and culture, gives you a new appreciation for a steaming hot bowl of Chicken and Dumpling Soup. Enjoy.