Don't Call Chicken and Dumplings Depression-Era Cheap Eats

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

A lot of people seemed to be a bit puzzled when it comes to the origins of chicken and dumplings. The standard explanation—or, perhaps we should say standard speculation—is that chicken and dumplings originated during the Great Depression as a way to stretch chicken by padding it out with boiled biscuit dough. (I'm looking your way, Wikipedia.)

But when you hear "it originated during the Depression" used to explain a particular Southern dish, you should immediately be wary. That's a common food origin tale, used to explain everything from fried green tomatoes to hushpuppies. It appeals to our inherent need for clear, simple narratives: There was a problem (people were broke) and they found a creative way to solve it (frying a green tomato slice and pretending it was meat).

When you start to poke into these stories, they rarely pan out, and the "invented during the Depression" tale is particularly suspect when it comes to the food of the American South. The region's economy was still largely agricultural, and, plagued by drought and falling crop prices, it had been on the ropes for a good decade before the stock market crash of 1929. It's hard to imagine why the Depression would instigate a new kind of thrifty cooking when Southerners had needed to be thrifty for quite a long time.

When it comes to chicken and dumplings, a quick Google Books search debunks the Depression theory pretty quickly. Recipes for chicken and dumplings appeared many decades before the stock market crash.

As you look into the history of chicken and dumplings—and when you eat them, too—you soon realize that, far from some sort of humble economy dish, it's actually a rich, luxurious Southern icon.

Dumplings Meet Chicken

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Long before there was chicken and dumplings, there were dumplings, which go well back in the cuisines of England and continental Europe. The earliest Southern cookbooks include plenty of recipes for them, sometimes as a sweet dessert and sometimes as a savory treat.

Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife (1836) has a recipe for "meat dumplins," a sort of boiled meat pie. It starts with a basic pastry made with suet (beef fat) that's rolled out, filled with parboiled beef or mutton, then folded over and sealed calzone-style. It's then wrapped inside a thick cloth, tied securely, and boiled until done.

Her "potato paste" is a dumpling recipe, too, with pastry made from potatoes and flour, rolled thin, and filled with apples or any other fruit. These are also wrapped in cloth, boiled, and served with butter, sugar, nutmeg.

Sarah Rutledge's Carolina Housewife (1847) doesn't have an actual dumpling recipe, but she does refer to them in a way that suggests that dumpling-making was a well-known technique in the South Carolina kitchen. In her recipe for making hog head cheese, Rutledge instructs the cook to wrap the skin from the hog's head in a coarse cloth "in the same manner as you would put paste to make an apple-dumpling" and then "tie it up as for a dumpling."

Of the antebellum Southern cookbooks, Lettice Bryan's The Kentucky Housewife (1839) has the most recipes for dumplings—including strawberry dumplings, cherry dumplings, and plain apple pudding made "in the form of a large dumpling." Of most interest to our search for the origins of Southern-style chicken and dumplings are Bryan's recipes for "Light Dumplings" and "Suet Dumplings," which seem to capture the recipe in mid-evolution from filled pastry to rolled noodle.

In "Light Dumplings," instead of being rolled out and filled, the dough is formed into balls the size of goose eggs, which are in turn cooked in dumpling fashion: floured, tied in thick linen cloths, and boiled until done. Bryan advises eating them warm and topped with butter, powdered sugar, and grated nutmeg.

Then there's her recipe for suet dumplings. "This kind of paste makes for excellent dumplings to accompany fresh beef or mutton," Bryan writes, "for which purpose they should be rolled out about an inch thick and cut into small squares, or made into small round balls, very little larger than a hen's egg, and cooked with the meat with which they are to accompany." If that meat was chicken, you would essentially have chicken and dumplings.

A Dumpling Divergence

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Kentucky is a Mason-Dixon border state, and Lettice Bryan's recipes seem to straddle the line between dropped dumplings (boiled balls of dough) and rolled dumplings (pastry rolled and cut into thick, flat, wide noodle shapes). These emerged after the Civil War as the two most prominent forms of dumplings in the U.S. Both of them later were incorporated into recipes known as chicken and dumplings, and they define the primary difference between the Northern and Southern variants of the dish.

Recipes for suet dumplings and apple dumplings appear with regularity in newspapers and cookbooks just after the Civil War. The first I've been able to find that incorporates chicken is Marion Harland's recipe for "chicken dumplings," which appeared in the New York-published Dinner Yearbook (1878). It's a rather eccentric creation that rolls dough and chopped chicken meat into balls that are breaded with cracker crumbs and fried in hot lard—a sort of proto-chicken nugget. It didn't catch on.

The following year, though, Marion Cabell Tyree published a recipe for stewed chicken in Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879) that calls for slow-simmering the chicken and, just before it's done, adding to the broth "dumplings, made like biscuit but rolled thin" and boiling them till done.

This stands in contrast to the "Chicken Pot-Pie" recipe in Mrs. Owens' Cook Book and Useful Household Hints (1884), which was published in Chicago. It calls for stewing a chicken and, a half hour before serving, dropping into the pot "small lumps of dough made like biscuit."

By the 1890s, the dropped dumpling form seems to have firmly entrenched itself in recipes from Northern writers, where it is sometimes called "pot pie" but more typically "chicken and dumplings." The chicken in the dish was often cooked with celery, carrots, and parsley, and the dumplings were typically spooned on top of the chicken pieces so that they remained above the broth to steam rather than boil.

In the South, the rolled dumpling reigned supreme. The chicken was usually stewed with few, if any, vegetables or aromatics, and it was often removed from the pot and allowed to cool while the ribbon-like rolled dumplings were boiled hard in the broth. At the end, the chicken was typically pulled from the bones and returned to the pot to be mixed in with the silky dumplings and rich broth.

Over the course of the 20th century, this combination of stewed chicken and rolled dumplings began to take on localized names.

In eastern North Carolina, the dish became known as "chicken and pastry" (or, often, just "chicken pastry"), where it was a favorite Sunday dinner treat. The term dates back to at least the early part of the 20th century. In 1907, the Public Ledger of Oxford, North Carolina, published a report of a trip to Granville County that observed, as evidence of renewed "material progress" in that agricultural region, that "stewed chicken and pastry were a part of the menu on some tables which is always a favorite dish."

Other publications started calling rolled dumplings "slicks" or "slickers," apt terms to describe the slippery noodles. In Bernice Kelly Harris's novel Purslane (1939), a fictionalized account of her youth in Wake County just east of Raleigh, the narrator noted that "in the kitchen the women were preparing great platters of chicken slick."

Over the years, recipes and names for the rolled dumpling have shifted and shuffled, even within a narrow part of North Carolina. In 1968, Henry Belk of the Greensboro Daily News devoted an entire column to the question, "When are dumplings dumplings, and when are they pastry?" He noted that at that time he heard more people say pastry than dumplings, but when he was a child, "dumpling" dominated. A friend of his who grew up not far away in Wayne County, though, insisted that dumplings were made from cornmeal that was shaped into cakes and boiled in the cooking broth.

Three years later, another Greensboro Daily News writer, York Kiker, put out a call for readers to contribute and old fashioned "chicken slick" recipe. The voluminous response indicated there was no clear definition of what went into a slick. Some used baking powder, some self-rising flour, and some no leavening. A few even used cornmeal. Some used hot water as the liquid for the dough, others chicken stock or milk.

Chicken and Dumplings: A Prosperity Dish

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[Photograph: Annie, Flickr]

The most irksome thing about calling chicken and dumplings Depression food is how doing so portrays the dish as somehow lowly and modest. But, whether the chicken was accompanied by dumplings or pastry or slicks, by all accounts the folks eating it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn't consider it poverty food but a luxurious treat.

In 1883, Bramlett's Famous English Kitchen and Ladies Café advertised its menu in the Atlanta Constitution, and it proudly served "Stewed Chicken with Dumplings" right alongside big ticket fare like roast beef, leg of lamb, and roast turkey with cranberry sauce.

In the folk song "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" (which, incidentally, was popularized by Carl Sandburg in his 1927 pre-Depression collection of folksongs entitled American Songbag), the lyrics declare "we will kill the old red rooster when she comes" and "we'll all have chicken and dumplings when she comes." Whoever "she" is, she is wearing pink pajamas and driving six white horses, and it seems that killing that old red rooster and serving it with dumplings is a form of putting on the dog for an esteemed visitor—not a way to scrimp out a modest meal.

It's hard to remember today, but before World War II, chicken was a metaphor for prosperity. During the 1928 presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover didn't promise Americans a steak on every grill or a pork roast in every oven. He promised a chicken in every pot.

Actually, Hoover didn't promise anyone a chicken at all. Almost every account today of that 1928 presidential campaign phrase gets it twisted up. Hoover supposedly promised that, if he were elected, there would be "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." (Some modern accounts even have it as "two cars in every garage," which to me says a lot about how our definition of "prosperity" has changed over the years.)

The now-famous phrase actually comes from an advertisement placed in newspapers across the country by a group of Republican businessmen with the big headline, "A Chicken for Every Pot." It did not promise that, if elected, Hoover would ring in an age of universal chicken prosperity. Instead, it argued that such prosperity was already there for all Americans.

Here's the pertinent phrase from the ad: "Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial 'chicken in every pot.' And a car in every backyard, to boot." The Republicans, after all, had been in the White House since 1921, and the stock market was booming with no signs of going any direction but up.

The voters certainly bought it; Hoover won by a landslide, winning 58% of the popular vote and carrying 40 out of the 48 states.

The larger point is this: A whole chicken stewed in a pot was something associated with prosperity, not poverty. Our relationship to chicken is much different today than it was back before World War II. Back then, chicken played a minor role in the diets of most Southerners—and most Americans, for that matter. Chickens were raised for eggs, not meat, and killing one to serve for a meal was reserved for special occasions, not everyday dining.

The Changing Chicken

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[Photograph: powerplantop, Flickr]

Prosperous times would put a chicken in every pot, and not in every oven, because those birds were older and tougher and took many hours of boiling to transform into something tasty and delightful. But tasty and delightful they were. Chicken retailed for considerably more than beef back then, and even more than veal. In 1928 you could buy a beef chuck roast for 15 cents a pound, a T-bone steak for 24 cents, and veal chops for 29 cents. A "fat live hen" was a whopping 34 cents a pound.

Raising younger, more tender chickens for meat rather than eggs—what the meat industry calls "broilers"—began in the 1920s, but it wasn't until after the end of World War II that the industry really boomed. In 1952, the consumption of meat from broilers surpassed that from more traditional farm hens and roosters for the first time.

Vertical integration in the 1960s created massive chicken production operations that consolidated feed milling, hatching, chicken-raising, and processing into single companies. Broilers were selectively bred and fed a highly-tailored diet so they would convert grain to meat at maximum efficiency, with outsized, cottony breasts and ready for slaughter within six weeks of hatching.

As a result, chicken was transformed into one of the cheapest meats on the market, with a whole chicken now retailing for a third the cost of chuck roast compared to more than twice the cost a century ago. Not surprisingly, chicken consumption in the United States exceeded pork in 1985 and beef in the early 1990s. Today the average American eats 80 pounds of chicken a year. A dish of chicken stew sounds a lot less opulent than it used to.

And it tastes less opulent, too. The meat from those highly-engineered birds is soft, mild, and all but flavorless. Stew it for any more than an hour (much less the several hours that old recipes call for) and you'll end up with a crumbling mush—the precise opposite of elegant luxury, and hardly a fair comparison to the chicken and dumplings of old.

But that's not the only element of chicken and dumplings that has changed. Easy dropped dumplings are fast and add a nice crust to the soup pot, but true Southern rolled dumplings—made like pie crust—make for a much richer and more elegant dish. Looking back on Sunday dinners growing up in Union County, newspaper columnist Henry Belk recalled, "Cooked to a correct tenderness and in chicken stock of sufficient quality, pastry is something to dream about."

With today's debased chicken and our shrinking appreciation for hand-rolled pastry (not to mention the decline of the midday Sunday dinner), it's hard to imagine that chicken and dumplings will ever regain its former stature as an elegant dinner-time star. But we can hold out hope. Now I just need to get my hands on an old red rooster.