Chicken and dumplings, if done correctly, is not only a comfort food, not only meant to be savored, but it is something meant to be wallowed in, like you were suddenly an inch tall and swimming in warmish soup. The broth is everything. Fresh chicken allowed to burble with celery, carrot, onion. An indolent chicken. A lazy chicken. Boiled at medium low heat for a long, long time until the flavor is sucked even from the bones.
The flavors in chicken and dumplings come from all over the world. Developed by many different people. Anonymous people from cultures distant in both time and place. Chickens originally came from Malaysia, domesticated in India. The Romans were known to divine the future by observing chicken pecking patterns. I’m sure with a little research I could get a more complete picture of this. Guys in togas watching a chicken peck at food. No more bizarre I suppose than observing entrails or tea leaves or lines on a palm. What did it mean when the chickens pecked each other. Or your hand?
When I get my chicken it’s already dead. Packaged. I don’t have to wring it’s neck or pluck it’s feathers. I needn’t concern myself with pecking. The pecking order was set long before the chickens or I were born. The lives of chickens, by and large, have been subsumed under human necessity and desire. We want to taste chicken. We want things that taste like chicken, so we control every aspect of chicken lives to feed our protein needs. I don’t want to know what it’s life was like before I put it in the pot.
The color of chicken flesh and the color of my fingers is not so very different. Once, I prepared food for a catering function involving roughly forty stuffed cornish hens where I had to cut them just so, shove things inside their empty carcasses, and tie their little legs together with string. After a while my fingers were quite numb. There was a very real danger of slicing my cold, numb fingers with the sharp catering knives. It started to freak me out that I couldn’t feel my fingers, that chicken flesh and fingers had begun to blend.
Anyway, you cut the chicken into pieces, separating at the joint. Put the pieces in a large pot, and add enough water to cover. Next come the onions. One or two. A friend of mine once compared a girl she was in love with (or at least lust) to an onion. You peel away the layers, one after another, until there is nothing left. All facade, no heart. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, admired the onion for it’s combination of layers and spherical shape. A reflection of the structure of the universe.
Prepare the garlic at the same time as the onion. I learned in my twenties to lay a wide knife on top of a garlic clove and smack it to release it’s outer layers. Unfortunately, using the same technique on people is somewhat problematic. You have to find other ways to see if they have a heart, or are empty inside. Chop the garlic into small pieces. Cut the onion into large chunks. Add.
Slice a few stalks of celery and toss them in. Not too much, because celery can overwhelm the flavor. Two or three carrots in large pieces. Some basil. Salt. Bay leaves. Mom used to tell me that getting the bay leaf in your bowl was lucky, make a wish and all that. Was it lucky because you noticed it was there before you choked on it? Did she get this knowledge of luck from the misty mists of time, mom to mom over the ages back to England, to Rome? Or did she read it in Betty Crocker? She doesn’t remember.
After you boil, you allow it to cool and pick the meat off the bones. Remove all the unwanted carcass parts. I also remove the carrot and celery. They have fulfilled their role and deserve a dignified burial in the trash. Otherwise they just get in the way. You can’t allow them to get in the way of proper texture. It’s just that kind of world.
The next job is to make the dumplings. Two cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking soda, a few smidgens of salt, and some ground clove. Not too much clove, not too little. Cloves are powerful, enticing. A man named Albuquerque, successor to Vasco de Gama, discovered that cloves came from the Spice Islands (the Molaccas). One of Albuquerque’s officers, named Magellan, set off on a voyage around the world to find a new route to this seductive siren of a spice. He never returned. Be careful with the cloves. I don’t think grandmom would approve of my fiddling around with cloves in the dumplings.
Anyway, you take this mixture of dry things and add in one third cup vegetable shortening. Good old fashioned artery clogging fun. You thoroughly mix it in. I like to just mash it together with my hands, but you can use a biscuit cutter or a fork. Start adding milk until you’ve got a nice doughy thing, roll it thinner than you want to bother with and cut it into squares. Dump the dumplings into the boiling chicken broth. Let the broth boil over the dumplings, let it envelope the dumplings in it’s bubbly embrace. They will soak up the chickeny goodness in less than fifteen minutes.
After a respectful amount of bubbling and cooling time, you are ready to sit down to a bowl of my childhood. Not only that, but you are ready to have a bowl of something that I like to cook for friends, a bowl of comfort, a bowl of memory.