Tuesday, February 3, 2009

DUMPLIN' DAYS




This has been a snow-blower, pile-ups on the highway, stomp-your-feet-before-you-come-in day. There's a big pot of blackeyed peas a-simmer, with the bone from the Christmas ham, as well as a readied bowl of the dry ingredients for corn fritters and a big, broad-shouldered OSo Sweet onion chilling in the fridge.

It's what would and should be known as a Dumplin' Day. Those are the ones when the weather is just TOO cold and bad to go out in, the warmth of home and flannelly shirts and cups of cocoa beckon, and the scents of a pot of something richly simmering on the stove soothes and relaxes the body and soul. And nothing is better at that than a big pot of chicken and dumplings. It's even a silly, feel-good word---dumplings---sounding like the fat cheeks of rosy new dolls or the back of a baby's plump knees.

My Mammaw's (and in turn my Mother's) dumplings were the roll-out-on-the-counter type, made with some of the stock from the simmering pot. Fat carrot slices, chunks of celery and some leaves, and an onion or two, speared all round with toothpicks, THEN cut into sixths or eighths, gently bubbled in the deep heavy Wearever pot with the biggest old hen from the butcher's counter, and in some instances, an elderly one from her own stock, come to the fullness of days in that dusty chickenyard out back.

The yellow-fat old bird seethed away for a couple of hours, turning the vegetables into smooth, melting mouthfuls, and raising glistening dots of oily fat to the surface of the rich stock. A few peppercorns, a handful of salt from the little crock beneath the counter, maybe a small curl of sage from the bush perfuming the air out by the porch.

Several cups of the broth were ladled into a small flat pan and inserted into the freezer for half an hour so the dough wouldn't take a quick-rise as it was stirred together---that was MY reason, for I always kept SR flour. And it's easier working with cold dough than when it's warm and stubborn. Dough-crawl was always a problem---must be something in the sense-memory of millennia of dough that keeps it trying to retract from every thump of that rolling pin.

The first broth-chilling pan I remember was one of those little flappy-handle ice-cube trays, clickety cube-release thing removed, slid back into its neat little frosty slot in the freezer compartment. Flour and broth were stirred into a stiff mass, no herbs or salt or butter, then the whole chilly lump dumped onto the flour-dusted white countertop, top dusted with more flour, and rolled, elastic and lively, into a big round disc.

Great slashes of the big ole cutter-pan made squares and triangles and odd little shapes from the rounded edges. A gentle slip into the bubbling pot, ten minutes lid off, ten with it on, and the dish was ready. The chicken had already been lifted with the huge old slotted spoons, set aside to cool a little, then was sort of yanked into presentable pieces, hacked into serving bits, sliding from the bone, with the backbone and neck removed to a small plate for Grandpa's thorough attention and enjoyment. These were also the two pieces with the small bits of bone which might escape into the broth, and Mammaw had a strict aversion to having any stray bits left to surprise the unwary.

The whole stew was ladled into a huge farmhouse bowl, a big ceramic one with a yellow rim and flowers on the sides. We could have fed a regiment from that bowl. I kinda doubt that there's ever been a civilization or culture in this wide world that DIDN'T have some version of chicken and dumplings. I hope not.

In the first kitchen, that of the little "shotgun" house of my very early childhood, my Mammaw could reach each and every item whilst standing in front of the stove...one quick turnaround was all that was possible. The stove (an early Amana, I seem to remember, from repeating the beautiful word like a mantra as I stood on the big flour bucket and stirred stuff), the fridge (a tiny Philco that I could almost see the top of, with its latchety pull-down lever to open the door "Ca-Chick"), and an immense Hoosier cabinet were, with a scruffy-but-scrubbed wooden table, the only appliances and furniture in the room.

The cabinet held a flour sifter in one side, into which about a ten-pound bag would fit. You just stuck a bowl under (dumpling flour went into a heavy red-outside-creamy-white-inside bowl which resembled and weighed about as much as something carved from an immense brick).

Mammaw had one of the first dough-scrapers I had ever seen, made by my own Dad by cutting a metal pie tin in half with tin snips. Mother had the other half at our house, and the two ladies made good use of the homemade convenience. The business edge was wicked sharp, I recall, and not to be trifled with. Later Daddy thought to give a little corner snip off both of the flat sides, and there you had a neater surface for scraping, plus you could cut your dough and piecrust very handily without grabbing a knife. It also was useful when you finished...just scrape the scraps and flour to the edge, hold the flat half-pan beneath the counter, and hand-dust the debris into it...no messy cleanup.

Mammaw also had the traveling scissor-man "dull" the edge of her scraper. The man came to town several times a year to sharpen anything that needed it---he had an array of wheels on which he ground the knives, scissors, even your garden hoe and plow. He would also patch a pot, putting little metal washer-thingies through a hole to reseal it into usefulness. He ground the sharp flat blade of her scraper to a shining roundness, so that the metal would not scar the white enamel pullout tray of her Hoosier cabinet, on which she rolled her crusts and dumplings.

That recipe was geared to a bowl that would probably hold two gallons. That big old farmhouse bowl weighed enough empty to require a good lifting arm, and full---well, there were always plenty of volunteers to lug it to the table.

And with side dishes of greens and silverpeas and chowchow and conserves and a big heavy-cut glass each of celery stalks and slender green onions standing next to the steaming, crusty cornbread or featherlight risin' rolls---Any general or king could have sat down to that table.


That kinda day.

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