Not many people can say they were blessed to grow up with all four of their grandparents, much less any great-grandparents however my family has been an exception to the rule. I was so lucky to have spent lots of time with both sets of my grandparents and especially blessed to spend so much time with my Great Grandmother, Big Mama, too. All but 1 of the 5 lived long enough to even meet my own kids if you can believe it. Big Mama was our lifeguard at the pool, and my bed partner all of my childhood. (I was a kicker so I'm not sure she liked that arrangement when she came to visit) but I was sure she had chosen me! And she could crack the whip on behavior like anyone.
She was happy to let us skip naps but it meant watching her "stories" with her. Most of us grands and great-grands decided naps weren't that bad after all! Watching stories was a deal breaker of the highest order and we could think of nothing more mundane. Staring at the black of the inside of our eyelids was entertaining under the circumstances! Our favorite family foods that came from her were her delicious Fried Apple Pies and Chicken and Dumplings. I am realizing that these old family favorites that my generation found as a delicacy, were merely a way for a family to survive during the tough times of the depression back in their day. Grandma McBrayer's "Lumpy Soup" was made with what they had on the farm in abundance, eggs, milk and flour. Chicken and dumplings wasn't much different. It was made with a whole chicken, boiled and picked to the bones, water and flour.
Growing up on a cotton plantation, I have heard how sad my great great grandfather was to have Ossie married off. Said he was losing his best cotton picker. They lived through some slim times, like everyone of that era.
Top: Ossie Mae in her 20's. Bottom: Big Mama on the right (clockwise) Aunt Barbara, Betty (my grandmother we called Nana), Grand (whom I never got to meet) and Uncle Jack.
I still remember the phone call like it was yesterday when I was old enough to take down the recipe for Chicken 'n Dumplin's. I remember making sure I had a pen and paper to write down the measurements. Here is how the explanation went:
"You take some flour, in a bowl, add a little bit of salt and then start addin' water, doin' yer hand around to mix it 'til it looks right. Then you roll it out to the right thickness, cut 'em in strips and drop them in your chicken broth while it's boilin'. They only need to cook a few minutes 'til they done, you know."
Needless to say I never wrote anything down. So it must be in my blood. I can make some mean Chickin' 'n Dumplin's! Here's how.
Get a whole chicken and cut it into it's pieces. Boil until cooked through. Pull out the chicken pieces, allow to cool and then pick all of the meat and chop. Freeze half of it since you really only need half of it for the soup. Allow the broth to cool and then separate the fat off the top, strain and return to a big pot. I throw in chopped celery, onions and carrots or whatever I have on hand even though Big Mama's never had any of the extras. Simmer the soup while you make the dumplings.
Take about a cup of flour, add salt and pepper and mix it together really well. Run the water "doin" your hand around until you get a soft dough that's not too sticky.
In the good old days, Big Mama would roll the dumplings out with a rolling pin. There came a time when the family told her she would throw her back out rolling them out and would no longer allow her to do it. At the time I rolled my eyes thinking they should let the poor old lady roll her dumplings if she wants to! It only took me once to realize they were right! It could throw out your back, your neck and everything if the dough isn't soft enough. So I cheat and run batches of it through my pasta maker until it's smooth and thin enough, roughly 1/4" to 1/8" thick.
Cut the dough into strips (place them between wax paper and put in the freezer keeping everything dusted with flour to prevent sticking while you are working on the other batches.) When they are all ready and your veggies are soft, you can drop them into your simmering soup. Allow them to cook for about 5 minutes and that's it!
If you ever had Big Mama's "Chickin' 'n Dumplin's", then do yourself a favor and make these for your family and pass along a long standing tradition of good ol home cookin' at it's finest! You won't be disappointed and there is no doubt you will curl up with your bowl and not only relish in the sweet culinary reminder of the past generation but remember the extraordinary woman that chose to share her legacy with us.
Now to dig that Fried Apple Pie recipe out of one of the family members...