The Real Story Behind Chicken and Dumplings

Nothing says a Southern meal more than a heaping bowl of steaming hot chicken and dumplings. Rich chicken in a creamy broth topped with tender dumplings. Some recipes feature a fluffy biscuit-like topping (think Bisquick) while other recipes swear by flat noodle-like dumplings. However, one thing is for sure about the classic chicken and dumplings recipe: the history of the dish is nothing short of fine dining.

Many origin stories of chicken and dumplings usually point towards the Great Depression as the catalyst for serving the comfort food dish, but historians have a different story.

The History of Chicken and Dumplings

Back in Europe, before our great land of America was colonized, women were cooking up floury dishes as far back as 1600. In 1836 a recipe in Mary Randolf's cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. mentions meat dumplings, which combine suet, flour, and salt into a dough which is rolled out then boiled. Cookbooks like The Kentucky Housewife and Carolina Housewife followed suit with various recipes for fruit dumplings in 1839 and 1847. 


It wasn't until 1879 that Marion Cabell Tyree shared a recipe for adding chicken into her dumpling dish in her cookbook, Housekeeping in Old Virginia. The book includes two recipes for stewed chicken, one of them including rolled dumplings dropped in broth.

Unlike today where chicken is known as a cheap protein to boost any meal, back before the 1960's (when industrialized farming started) chicken was more expensive than cuts of beef and even veal. In 1928 a chuck roast sold for 15 cents a pound, a T-bone steak for 24 cents, veal chops for 29 cents a pound, and a live hen for 34 cents a pound. This is because chicken was raised for their eggs and not their meat. The family would keep the chicken for years, and once the chicken was no longer producing eggs, the family would boil the chicken for hours to make it tender enough to enjoy. 

By the 1890's the chicken and dumpling recipe was making its way across the country and with it, changing with the regions. In the North, the dish included a chicken broth flavored with celery, carrots, and parsley, which was topped with a biscuit-like dough and steamed. Some even called it a chicken pot pie.


Call It By Any Other Name

The South preferred rolled dumplings, removing the stewed chicken from the pot while the dumplings were boiled in the broth. Eastern North Carolina called their version of the dish, "chicken and pastry" while other cities across the South referred to the dumplings in the dish as "slicks" or "slickers".

Because of the various regional dumpling recipes, there is no one true recipe. Some recipes call for baking powder to be added to the flour mixture whereas other recipes add fresh parsley and fresh thyme into the biscuit dough. Salt and black pepper are always present in the broth or chicken stock, but aside from that, each person has their own way of preparing the dish. Some people use a rotisserie chicken as the base of their chicken soup while other chicken recipes call for adding boneless skinless chicken breasts to a large pot and simmering it until cooked.

Whether you prepare this American classic in a slow cooker or a dutch oven, one thing is for sure, preparing an easy recipe like this will bring comfort to your table.

Read: Why Your Chicken Breast Has White Stripes + What It Means for You