Several years ago, I came to the realization that I had, in my possession, many precious family heirlooms. These heirlooms are not the kind that relatives fight to inherit. They aren’t items that would be featured on “Antiques Roadshow.” In fact, my heirlooms are ones that could easily escape attention and inadvertently be discarded or forgotten. These cherished bits and pieces, lovingly shared or purposefully handed down to me, have been scratched onto used and messy note cards or torn from newspapers or magazines over the years, and are now stuck in a cookbook or tossed into a folder along with other cryptic notes that make up my kitchen files. These heirlooms could easily be mistaken for garbage by almost anyone.
It occurred to me that, in their present form, I might be the only one who understood how special these heirlooms really were. Because of their appearance others might easily miss the fact that these were cherished formulas. They may not realize that, when followed, these instructions produce a tonic for the soul, rich in sensory data that has the power to transport me to the kitchens and tables of my past, to the festive comforting presence of friends and family I haven’t seen in years. There were members of my family who didn’t understand what warm and wonderful family alchemy could be practiced using the recipes in my collection.
In the hope of protecting these special recipes I began to put together a Family Heirloom Cookbook. Determined to preserve the treasures recorded on those scraps of paper and recipe cards in my possession I began to sort through my family’s food lore. In addition to organizing and preserving the recipes in my kitchen files I combed through the memoirs of my great great uncle Hal, born in the late 1800’s, a bachelor for many years, who cooked for himself while establishing a farm in Minnesota. I reread cherished letters from my grandmother and my aunts who wrote to me, a young newlywed, when I first moved away from home, telling me about the bountiful harvest from their garden or a new recipe they had tried. I dug out recipes for dinners I was fond of as a child and unique dishes that had been served regularly at my family’s table. I looked through local cookbooks from the area I grew up in for recipes contributed by family members. Then I talked to aunts and cousins and neighbors, to learn what food related memories came to their mind and made them smile.
It was a great experience! The stories and recipes I found warmed my heart and sometimes made my mouth water. It was a wonderful discovery to see how easy it was to reestablish connections on the basis of shared food memories. My brother and I spent hours remembering our favorite breakfast cereals and snacks as well as things we had learned to cook from a copy of “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls.” I also had great conversations by phone, letter and email with other family members I had scarcely talked to in years. Food was a great conversation starter and a topic on which we could reconnect as if we were never parted.
A Family Heirloom Cookbook
Through this process of cleaning out my files, digging into the past and talking things over with my relatives, the cookbook took shape. I took the information I was able to collect and used scrap booking supplies and techniques to create a usable and durable homemade cookbook. The finished product reflects my effort to weave the shared memories, written words, recipes and photos from my family’s past, into a coherent whole that represents the traditions of my family and explores the way they have been molded to fit into our current lives and carried forward.
The Family Heirloom Cookbook project turned out to be a success. The final product includes memories and recipes from five generations and is a wonderful collecting point for recipes I use frequently and memories of the beloved family member who first shared them with me. The recipes and photos are safely tucked into scrapbook page protectors and whenever I open it to find a recipe I want to use I see a member of my family, many who have now passed on, smiling back at me, offering a formula to help me reconnect with my history and pass something warm and delicious on to future generations in what we share around our table tonight.
One Special Page
If I had to choose one pivotal recipe from my Family Heirloom Cookbook it would be my paternal grandmother’s recipe for Chicken and Dumplings. It is a dish I loved as a child. I helped my aunt roll out the dough on her small kitchen table. Then we cut the dumplings and I watched her carefully drop them into the boiling broth. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and asked for the recipe that I learned there was no written recipe but that my aunt simply made it the way she had learned from my grandmother. Later I learned that my cousins also loved Chicken and Dumplings and though I’m not sure that we ever ate them together they, too, had worked out their mother’s recipe when they moved away from home and wanted to make it in their own kitchen. They also asked their mother to make it when they were sick, and lovingly shared it with their own families.
Now our children ask for it too. My youngest son asks for me to make Chicken and Dumplings often and it is one of his favorite dinners. And though my extended family is spread across the country, this recipe, with a few personal variations here and there, is a thread that binds us, a special tradition that we all share in common.
Chicken and Dumplings
4 to 5 lb. fresh stewing chicken
2 or 3 ribs of celery, cut in thirds
1 medium onion, quartered
several large sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper
Additional chicken broth as needed
Dumplings (see recipe below)
Rinse the chicken and place it in a large pot. Add water to the pot until half to three quarters of the chicken is covered. Add the celery, onion, thyme, salt and pepper. Boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer at Medium Low until chicken comes off bone very easily.
Remove chicken from the broth and take the meat from the bone. Set the meat aside and discard the bone. Strain the broth and return it to the pot. Skim and discard fat.
I often prepare the recipe to this point in the morning or the day before I want to serve Chicken and Dumplings. The chicken is easier to work with and remove from the bone when it has cooled. I remove the meat and return the bones to the pot to simmer a while longer. When I am ready to store the broth I strain it and then refrigerate it. When the broth has gotten cold it is easy to skim away the fat that solidifies on the top. After the fat is removed the broth can be put back on the stove top and heated to a boil while the dumplings are prepared.
Add enough additional chicken broth to the broth you have made so that the pot if filled with 2 ½ – 3 quarts of broth. Bring the broth to a boil over medium heat. Prepare dumplings.
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup chicken broth
(or 1 tablespoon shortening and ¾ cup milk)
Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add ¾ cup chicken broth and stir until a dough is formed. Turn out onto a flour covered surface ( I use a Silpat silicone baking mat as a work surface to roll out the dumplings on).
Knead several times. Roll dough out, thin (1/8” to ¼” thick). Cut into strips or squares.
Drop the dumplings into the boiling broth, a few at a time, being careful not to splash. Continue to boil until dumplings rise to the top.
Return boned chicken to broth and simmer until heated through. Season to taste. Continue simmering until ready to serve.