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Chicken and Dumplings: Origins? History?

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This dish was my favorite growing up and remains among my favorites to this day. As such, I have a particular interest in the history of chicks and dumps. But this history seems a bit murky. Wikipedia states that C&D first appeared in the Depression and vaguely places its birth in the American south and midwest. But I see no actual evidence anywhere for this provenance. Nor am I aware of any town that bills itself as the birthplace of C&D.

So, any ideas? Any specifics?

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  1. I know that in the Carolinas and in certain rural areas of New Hampshire (!!) the recipe is known as "Chicken with Pastry", and anecdotal history says that it was indeed born of the Depression, and a way to stretch a bit of chicken to fill empty bellies.

    20 Replies
    1. re: pinehurst

      Right. But I do wonder.

      The folksong "She'll Be Comin' Around the Mountain," contains the line, "We will all have chicken and dumplings when she comes." Now supposedly that folksong is based on the late nineteenth-century black spiritual "When the Chariot Comes." If--and I suppose it's a fairly large if--the folksong was adapted soon after the appearance of the spiritual, then C&D would predate the Depression, although not by much.

      1. re: Perilagu Khan

        I wiki'd the song, and apparently it has once contained references to the Rapture (!) and the "chicken and dumplins" was once "we'll kill the old red rooster"....so I'm guessing that the song changed when Sandburg (Carl) made it and others famous in 1927--giving credence to your theory.

        1. re: pinehurst

          I could be wrong, but I suspect "we'll kill the old red rooster" was merely expurgated rather than replaced. After all, having chicken and dumplings is a logical outcome to killing the old red rooster, is it not?! At any rate, if Sandburg made the change in 1927 then the dish certainly dates to no later than the 20s.

          1. re: Perilagu Khan

            When I learned the song, the rooster-killin' verse came immediately before the C&D verse..........

            1. re: mamachef

              Yes, that certainly makes sense.

          2. re: pinehurst

            I remember killing the old red rooster and i'm not *that* old, yet.

          3. re: Perilagu Khan

            My best guess is that it was developed by black cooks (slaves) in the South. They were sometimes allowed to raise a chicken or two, for "Sunday chicken," and the dumplins would've been the belly-filler, stretching the bird to feed a large family, much in the same way that Yorkshire pudding was employed (and sometimes still is!)
            But if ya wanna get right down to it, what is chicken/wonton soup? And that predates by thousands of years. I do realize you meant the classic version, though. But definitely, definitely well before the Depression era.

            1. re: mamachef

              You may be right the about black southern origins of C&D.

              And I definitely consider the classic American version to spring from a different tradtion than Chinese wonton soup or Yiddisher matzo ball soup, although they are similar.

              I also wonder if there's a north/south divide on C&D? I hear rumblings that the northern type is cakier, while in the south dumplings are more akin to noodles.

              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                That, there definitely is. The Southern type is the classic dropped dumpling - basically, steamed biscuit dough.. The divide comes in w/ the North; you're more likely to get a thick, rolled, noodle-y dumpling. Interestingly, the almost-identical Penn Dutch version is the noodle dumpling - but there, it's called "Chicken Potpie." Ah, confusion. Oh - and the "chicken and pastry" you might also be aware of (Stewed bird served over pastry squares) is better known as "Chicken Stolzfus," colloq., in Penn.

                1. re: mamachef

                  The woman knows her C&D!

                  Oddly enough, the C&D I've been consuming and making literally all my life in west Texas is the northern variant. The dumpling dough is rolled smooth and sliced into rectangles two inches long, one inch wide, and a quarter inch thick.

                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                    Are you in Hill Country? Large parts were settled by Germans, yes? That would explain it.....

                    1. re: mamachef

                      Nein! My mom probably just picked up a northern recipe back in '65 when she began cooking in earnest.

                  2. re: mamachef

                    Despite the similar name, the version with biscuits floating on top could well have different origins than the denser noodle like dumpling. Leavened biscuits can't be any earlier than mid 1800s. On the other hand, cooking strips or squares of simple pastry (flour and water) could go back a lot longer.

                    Spain has Andrajos, Germany spaetzle.

                    But there is some difference between talking about 'dumplings' on their own, and the pairing of 'chicken and dumplings' in a way that we think of them as a unit.

                    According to Foodtimeline, southern cookbooks before 1930 don't have the chicken&dumplings combination, though it may have been around longer, just under-the-radar. It also mentions the possible Pennsylvania Dutch connection.
                    http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq1....

                    1. re: paulj

                      Interesting.........but folks certainly used leavening before baking soda/powder became commercially available.

                      1. re: mamachef

                        Like what, other than yeast? Pearl Ash (potasium carbonate) is mentioned in a 1796 cookbook.

                        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leavenin...

                        "In 1791, a French chemist, Nicolas Leblanc, produced sodium carbonate, also known as soda ash. In 1846, two New York bakers, John Dwight and Austin Church, established the first factory to develop baking soda from sodium carbonate and carbon dioxide.[6]"
                        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_b...

                        1. re: paulj

                          I didn't say it wasn't yeast that was used; only that leavening was employed before it became commercially available....evidentially supported by a certain people's flight out of Egypt, when they didn't have time to even let their bread rise, hence matzo....which indicates that they also weren't strangers to other forms of leavening...more than likely, fermented wheat used as a starter. At any rate, this is pretty far afield, and I'm more than likely not going to change my mind, nor are you....so I'm outtie.

                          1. re: mamachef

                            Would you have been happier if I'd written 'chemical leavened biscuits'? I was responding to a post in which you talked about 'the classic dropped dumpling - basically, steamed biscuit dough.'

                            But on the subject of dumplings, does anyone make 'yeast dumplings'?

                            1. re: paulj

                              Yep, they do.

                    2. re: mamachef

                      Yes, here in Middle Tennessee, I remember my Grandmother making the dough for the dumplings and she told me it was the same as how she made biscuits except that she used...either more or less flour...I can't remember which. I'm sure someone will tell me. Anyway, she would roll them out though, not thin, not like a noodle, and cut them into wide, though not especially long, strips and drop them in. That way seems common around here still.

                      I believe that the chicken & dumplings are different in different parts of the South though I don't know that for sure. I've eaten the dish in parts of Georgia and Alabama and it was different than what I grew up with. Still delicious though!

                      1. re: mamachef

                        My mothers' family's chicken and dumplings, from 30 miles north of Paducah, KY, were rolled ones. They are about 1" x 3" by about 1/4" thick.

              2. Are we sure that C&D is of American origin? I had the dish 8 days ago, for the first time in decades, and it was prepared by a visitor from Germany. Big, spherical dumplings, almost tennis ball size, with a rich gravy and stewed chicken, plus a side of red cabbage.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Veggo

                  IMO....American?? No!! ~~ Germanic/Dutch prolly so.~ Even way further back into Asia? Maybe. ~~ My Grandmother got her recipe/methods from her Grandmother who passed away prior to 1890. She was a Burkhalter....Germanic name I think.

                  In My South, a puffy, steamed, leavened, biscuit dough type dumpling would be the exception...Not the rule!! ~~ The old Burkhalter Grandmother's recipe is more akin to a pie crust recipe with the addition of an egg.....Rolled out and cut into rectangles/squares/etc and cooked in hot, peppered and salted, rich chicken stock...adding a splash of milk/cream to finish. No vegetables are added.

                  1. re: Veggo

                    It sounds like your visitor made a "Knödel" or "Kloss"--similar, though Germany also has Spaetzle, which really are noodles, whereas Knödel are a dough ball basically. This dish (in or outside of soup) is eaten throughout Central Europe (Czech Knedle, some parts of Poland Pyry, etc...), and probably in other parts of the world; in Chile, there is something called "Chapalele" which is really similar. Most cuisines have their "doughy thing" in liquid dish.

                    1. re: Wawsanham

                      and the dumplings made from matzo meal served in chicken soup are known ad knaidlach in Yiddish, a language drived from middle German.

                      No one in the old country called them Matzo Balls, because no one in the old country spoke English.
                      It's chicken soup with knaidlach.
                      My family's roots were in southern Germany and that part of southen Poland that was part of Habsburg Austria. Sometimes the knaidlach were made of matzo meal, sometimes of spatzle dough.

                      1. re: bagelman01

                        Interesting--and another example of the Central European "doughy thing"!

                  2. Did you see a (relatively) recent recipe for 'Chicken and Slicks' in one of the Cook's Illustrated magazines? (Can't remember if it was CI or Cook's Country.)
                    Those were the sort of dumplings I grew up with, a wide, unleavened, eggless-noodle type, but they added a bunch of extra vegetables and things to the dish. The one I'm familiar with is basically all about the chicken, the broth and the dumplings.
                    My dad remembers the dish being prepared in big, deep, baking dishes, maybe with a crust like a chicken pie, but we always served it like a stew, from the pot. It seems to me that the dish probably is older than some of the dates being mentioned here.

                    My family knows nothing of the puffy type of dumpling, but I do know other families for whom that is the gold standard. Some boil the dumplings in lots of water, the way we do our more noodle-like dumplings, and some drop blobs of dough on top of a more stew-like concoction, and let them steam, without stirring.

                    Oh, and FWIW, my family is about as southern as it's possible to get, and we consider puffy dumplings something of a sacrilege. (Make the dumplings tender with a bit of chicken fat, they don't need leavening.)

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Cooking42

                      To my mind, American C&D is dumplings (noodlish or cakey), chicken and chicken broth. No veggies and no exotic seasonings. And the dumplings must be more or less square, rectangular, spheroid or ovoid. Avoid all others.

                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                        Yep; youve nailed it, in your usual succinct way ;)

                      2. re: Cooking42

                        I just watched the CC chicken and slicks episode. Their version did not include vegetables. They browned chicken pieces, cooked them in stock. took them out and shredded the meat. The slicks were a simple noodle dough, cut into strips, frozen for easier handling, and poached in the chicken broth. Then the broth was thickened, and the chicken added back.

                        They deviated from more traditional approaches in order to get more flavor from modern young chicken, and to cook the 'slicks' better, but without them falling apart.

                        In the preamble, Chris referenced some 1830s Kentucky cookbook talking about noodles (or other German derived word) cooked in soup.

                        And for supper I made a different sort of chicken and dumplings. Using chicken that I'd cooked yesterday (in the pressure cooker), I made a vegetable rich chicken gravy, topped it with biscuit dough (fairly straight forward grated frozen butter version), and baked that. So it wasn't quite dumplings, since the exposed part was baked, not steamed. The biscuit tops were nicely browned, but a bit chewy.

                        I grew up with a similar sort of meat 'pie', but using cornbread batter as the topping.

                      3. Rivels is a old Pennsylvania Dutch (and before that German) small dumpling cooked in (chicken) soup
                        http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Rivels

                        1. My great-grandmother was born in 1864 and learned to make chicken and dumplings from her grandmother who was born in 1824. Her mother ran a small hotel in Southern Illinois from about 1880-1910 and chicken and dumplings were cooked and served there. Who thought up that silly idea that the dish didn't exist until the Depression? More: Internet forums that combine cooking and genealogy trace the Southern style of dumplings (a rolled dough like big fat noodles) to the Scotch-Irish picking up noodle-craft from their German neighbors in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina so we're talking 18th Century. Northern dumplings are blobs of dough dropped into a kettle of boiling stock, gravy, or stew---I don't know their provenance. But Southern dumplings definitely antedate the Depression.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Querencia

                            Now do we think the "blobby" dumplings spring from the same root as the noodly Germano-Scotch-Irish version?

                          2. Addendum: the German-descended people of Southern Pennsylvania and their neighbors in Northern Maryland eat a dish called "Pot Pie" or "Bot Boi" which is big square or wide strip fat noodles (just like Southern-style dumplings) cooked in chicken stock which is sometimes thickened for serving---chunks of chicken are in this as well. Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont in "Eating in America: A History" (William Morrow and Company, 1976) say on page 308 that "The German penchant for doughy foods...has helped to make dumplings a normal element in American cooking". Considering that the Palatine Germans and plenty of Anabaptists, Mennonites, and other Germans and Swiss-Germans seeking religious freedom streamed here in the 1700's, we can assume that chicken and dumplings (at least of the rolled-dough Southern variety) were being enjoyed generations before the Depression.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Querencia

                              A very erudite post, Q. Thank you.

                            2. "CHICKEN POT-PIE.

                              Cut a good-sized chicken in small pieces. Put a small
                              plate in the bottom of the kettle. Put the chicken in and
                              cover it with hot water. Season high with butter, pepper,
                              and salt. A half hour before serving, drop in small lumps
                              of dough made like biscuit. A quart of flour makes enough
                              dumplings for one large chicken. Cover closely ; 20 or 25
                              minutes will generally cook them. Take out with skimmer
                              carefully, on platter, and if gravy is not thick enough,
                              thicken it with a small spoon of flour and water, made
                              smooth. Pour it over the chicken and dumplings. "
                              Mrs. Owen's Cook Book, and Useful Hints for the Household
                              1884, Chicago
                              http://archive.org/stream/mrsowenscoo...

                              other early references from Google books (via ngram viewer
                              )https://www.google.com/search?q=%22ch...

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: paulj

                                The notion that C&D originated in the Depression is definitively debunked.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  Though the recipe was not labeled 'chicken and dumplings'. It is still possible that C&D does not appear, by name, in cookbooks or menus until the 1930s.

                              2. One of my grand mothers chicken and dumplings were more what would be considered a pot pie. She turned out the chicken and gravy into a shallow pan and covered it in strips of her standard biscuit dough and baked it. Best of both worlds, dumpling on one side and biscuit on the other. However, she would also make them occasionally with them same chicken,gravy and dough but would steam it all in the same pot. Sometimes she would drop the dough by the spoonful instead of rolling it out.

                                Point is, we are sophisticated enough to understand there is more than one good way to do the same thing and out ancestors were as well. They didn't have the interwebs but they sure had dinner on the grounds to see how other folks did it.

                                I think the woman could have feed a hundred people off one chicken or two squirrels.

                                1. I make chicken and dumplings frequently, using a family recipe, we are of Irish origin. Poach the whole bird, I add celery trimmings, carrot trimmings and onion trimmings to the pot with a handful of peppercorn. After an hour remove bird, strain broth. Pick the chicken meat, add celery slices, carrot slices, diced onion and chicken to the pot with broth. Season with Salt and pepper. Dumplings are basically drop biscuits that are dropped in by spoonful into the boiling stew.