We are in the process of planning our annual family vacation. Over the years we have done this so many times I have lost count, but the excitement of the process never wanes. It starts out with the four of us throwing out ideas which are cut down to a short list before a final vote is cast and our winner is announced. We are now in the short list stage for this summer’s getaway.
Last year there was no short list because our plans were in effect made for us many years ago. You see my husband was adopted at birth, and like many adopted children he wondered for years and years who his birth mother was. During a visit with his adoptive mother several years ago they worked together and after much searching they finally found her.
At first his birth mother was shocked and angry that anyone could find her, making it clear that she wanted no part of the child she gave up all those years ago. Knowing that this reaction was a possibility, my husband respected her decision and took it all in stride, then turned to the possibility of finding his birth father. After a few more weeks it was found that he had died ten years prior, bringing this lifelong quest to an end. Even though there were no tearful reunions, there was a definite sense of resolution and our lives moved on.
Just about the time things had settled down my husband received a telephone call telling him that his birth mother had had a change of heart and wanted to talk. She explained to him that she had tried to put the whole experience out of her mind and went on to marry a good man and have two more children who knew nothing about him. She eventually shared her secret with her children who were shocked but became accepting over time.
My husband and the new woman in his life spent the next ten years carrying on a clandestine relationship calling at prearranged times and mailing letters with no return address as not to let her husband catch on. Somehow they even managed to spend a few days together at the halfway mark between our house and hers getting to know each other.
This arrangement worked well until about a year and a half ago when she had an aneurysm. Her letters were no longer light and cheerful. They had taken on a tone of sadness and recognition of her diminished physical and mental capacity and most of all her mortality. We knew that it was either now or never, we had to make a family trip to meet her so she could see her first child once again and the grandchildren that she had never met. It became obvious that a trip to Memphis was in our future.
For those of you who have been reading my blog for at least the past year or so, you will probably remember my post about what fun we had on our family trip to Memphis last summer (to read my original post, click here). Not only did we see all of the sights, but we also met with the woman who gave birth to my husband, and yes, we met her husband too. From what we could understand, it was explained that we were long lost distant relatives from a land far away. He may have known something was up, but was kind enough not to ask any questions thank goodness. He was a true gentleman and we all liked him very much.
Our trip was short and sweet and jam packed, but the most memorable moment of all took place shortly after our arrival at her home on that first day when she felt the necessity to cook for us. She had no way of knowing this, and we felt no need to tell her, but we had all just finished a late lunch of mall food court Chinese stir-fry before heading over to her house. When she proudly presented each of us with a big bowl of chicken and dumplings, we felt we had no choice but to raise our forks and clean our plates. I must say now that I don’t think I have ever been more proud of my children than I was at that very moment.
Her chicken and dumplings were really very good. As with every good southern cook she had stewed her chicken until the meat was falling off the bone which gave her stock a glossiness that can only be achieved by slowly cooking collagen and marrow. In her creamy sauce she had large pieces of soft onion, celery and carrots which were a truly important part of the dish not just something with which to season it. The only chink in the armor here was the imitation salt that she had used to season it with, but seeing that she was faced with serious health concerns we understood. Ignoring the no-salt, this was without a doubt the best meal we had on our holiday for more than one reason.
After several days in the hot and humid land of Elvis we headed home to Colorado and settled back into our everyday lives. Life rocked on much as it always had until this past February when a large mysterious box was delivered to our house with my husband’s half-sister’s return address. He was on the road when it arrived and asked me to open it up and satisfy his curiosity. The moment I tore off the last piece of tape I could smell the unmistakable scent of musty old papers.
On top of the stack of cards and letters inside the box was a small cream colored handwritten note explaining to my husband that his birth mother had died three weeks before after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage. His half-sister was returning all of the letters and photos that he had sent to their mother over the past ten years. Obviously since she had saved every one they had been very important to her and she wanted my husband to know that. What a kind gesture to make in honor of her mother.
We are now left with great memories of our trip to Memphis, a very special woman and the only meal she ever prepared for her son. I remember thinking at the time that this was an odd choice for supper on a hot summer's day, but who knows why she chose it. All I can figure is that it must have been very special to her to have served it on such an important occasion.
I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that my recipe offering for this post will be for chicken and dumplings. Although just plain down home food, it has taken on a very special place in our lives. This dish is simple, comforting and nourishing, just like the relationship that they shared in those ten years. I hope you’ll find comfort in this dish too. The type of salt you use is totally up to you.
Chicken and Dumplings
Pillsbury, Paula Deen and Sandra Lee may approve of this recipe, but I'm afraid that I may get some grief from a couple of my friends about the dumplings in this recipe being from a can, but I really love their taste and ease. Since I didn't have my husband's birth mother's recipe, I was happy to use my own mother's.
1 – 2.5 pound chicken cut into quarters
6 cups of chicken stock
1 large bay leaf
3 large carrots, sliced into 1 – 2” pieces
3 large celery stalks, sliced into 2” long pieces
1 large onion, sliced into 6 wedges from top to bottom
4 – 5 small new potatoes, cut in half
1 – 8 count can of refrigerator biscuits, cut into quarters
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon ground thyme
1/4 teaspoon rubbed sage
2 tablespoons butter
Chopped parsley to garnish
Rinse the chicken pieces. Place the chicken in a large stockpot. Add the chicken stock and bay leaf. Place over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook for approximately 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through, turning the pieces over ½ way through the cooking time.
Remove the chicken from the hot stock and place on a plate to cool. When the chicken is cool to the touch, remove the meat from the bone and tear into large shreds. I like to leave the drumsticks and wings in tact because I like the way it looks but this is up to you.
Add the carrots to the boiling stock and cook for 5 minutes before adding the rest of the vegetables and cooking for another 10 minutes.
Gently drop the biscuit quarters in a single layer on top of the liquid. Cover the pot and continue cooking for an additional 10 minutes or until the biscuits are firm. With a wooden spoon gently turn the dumplings over. Cover once again and cook for an additional 2 - 3 minutes.
While the dumplings are cooking, place the flour in a shallow bowl. Slowly add the milk to the flour, whisking constantly to make a creamy paste. Add the thyme and sage to the paste.
Reduce the heat under the pot to low. Gently push a couple of the dumplings to the side to make a hole so that it is easier to add the remaining ingredients. While stirring constantly, add the paste to the broth in the pan, stirring until it is completely incorporated. Add the butter and continue gently stirring to incorporate being careful not to break up the dumplings.
Add the chicken meat to the simmering liquid and heat until the broth has thickened and the meat is heated through. Ladle into shallow bowls and garnish with chopped parsley.
Serves 6 - 8