In kindergarten, I had a schoolmate that we shall call Tammy. She was the product of an amicable divorce—the sort of thing where mother and stepmother sat by side in their crisp linen suits chitty chatting and laughing politely at the mother daughter luncheon. As a result of this situation, Tammy had the good fortune of having 8 grandparents. EIGHT!
In my five years, I had seen my grandparents twice. Between the jetlag and cultural dissonance, mine own weren’t the kind of every Friday evening Sabbath Bubba’s that Tammy enjoyed. I spoke so often, and no doubt in such earnest jealously of Tammy’s good fortune, that my father nicknamed her Tammy the lucky. (This moniker would gain different connotations in our middle school years.) But, as life goes on, no matter how blessed you might be, your grandparents will leave you. Lucky Tammy was down to three by the time she hit middle school.
As a child, the people in your life seem to just exist; their lack of existence isn’t even in your consciousness. Their voice, their smell, their gait just are. The food that they serve you can be sustenance, battleground, boredom. But, the food that your grandparents, let’s be honest, most often your grandmothers, made often had the power of transcendence whatever it was—fried chicken, ravioli, tamales or pao bhaji.
The bliss of grandparenthood is the freedom from the tyranny of rules and the requirements of discipline. The grandparent can serve ice cream cake with a side of sprinkles for dinner. My grandfather used to buy me ice cream and honeyed peanuts everyday that we visited him. Now his voice has receded so far in my memory I couldn’t begin to tell you if he was a baritone or tenor, but I could still tell you how that double creamy vanilla tasted against the wooden spoon. Those flavors of love are hard to recapture. After all, the ingredients weren’t what made that food delicious; it was the cook.
My Belle was named after my husband’s grandmother. I remember once when I was about 5 months pregnant, lying in bed, sick as a dog. I really wanted to use this moment to imprint creativity, individuality and specialness on my unborn child by bestowing upon her name of unequaled uniqueness. Nouns, geographic locations, and long ago poets all seemed like fertile ground. When my husband came home from work, I remember being so excited to pass on my idea. I can’t remember what the suggestion was now, but whatever it was, my husband finally snapped. I don’t want a kid named Parsley or whatever, he said. I want a family name. I want her to be named after someone we loved. And, his first suggestion was his grandmother, big Belle. Of her many grandchildren, three have named their daughters after her.
Belle is someone we talk about all the time these days. Our Belle is fascinated about her titular benefactor as it were. Often, I pass on stories that I have heard. (My husband was in high school when she died.) We have also started to make a few of her recipes. Her potato salad is criminal, frankly. Other recipes are lost and we are trying to reclaim them from the recesses of our tastebuds memories. A passable rendition of her gravy was resurrected for Christmas. And, tonight, we made headway on her Chicken and Dumplings. An Irish-American by birth, Belle was an American cook just on this side of Southern.
There is apparently a cyber debate on drop versus rolled dumplings. Isn’t there a cyber debate on everything? Some sources (who are these namesless faceless bloggers? oh wait, I am one of them) say that rolled biscuits are more southern. So, I decided that’s the way to go. I am so glad we went rolled. They were fabulous. Dropped dumplings can take on the unpleasant oxymoron of mushy and undercooked. These were lightly, fluffy and satisfying. I can’t say what the original Chicken and Dumplings were like, but my husband still felt a little like he had gone back in time.
Chicken and Dumplings
Cut 1 chicken into eight pieces. (A stewing chicken is fine.) Salt and pepper it.
Sautee in a cast iron pot or enamel pot until browned.
2 medium carrots
1 medium onion
2 bay leaves
1 spring thyme
6 cups water
Simmer until chicken is tender. (my guess is you could also do this in a slow cooker.)
Removed vegetables and chicken and refrigerate. Refrigerate stock separately.
1 medium rutabaga
1 large carrot
1 large onion
In the pot, add:
1/2 of the stock
2 cups water (or so)
3 tsps fresh thyme
1/2 tsp sage
3/4 tsp Bell's seasoning
2 tsp salt
1 pinch paprika
Once the vegetables are parcooked, add back meat to warm.
Make a beige roux of 3 T butter and 3 T flour.
Add roux and 2 T sherry to the chicken stew.
1/2 cup frozen french cut green beans
Turn off heat and leave covered.
Make the dumplings:
Combine 2 eggs, 2 T cold shmaltz or shortening, 1/8 cup buttermilk.
Add wet mixture to 1 cup flour and 1.5 tsp baking powder.
Turn out onto a floured surface. Pat down lightly to make a rectangle. Then fold over and then pat down again. Turn the dough 4 times or so until it is smooth. DO NOT DO THIS TOO MUCH! I can't say this strongly enough. You do not want leaden dumplings, dumplin'.
Roll until 1/4 inch thick.
Cut into strips or make into pretty shapes with cookie cutters. Do not twist them. no matter what your hand wants to do, do not twist them.
Place the dumplings in the stew and let steam. (if the stew has cooled, put it on simmer.)