Chicken and Dumplings

Before I went to Kansas for the first time in my memory, I could only see it in my mind’s eye as series of heartland images, all in black and white.   After visiting Kansas, I remember different scenes in different shadings of color. The fields and the streams I remember as they were lit by the clarity of the sun, shining completely until the moment the last of the distinct rays hit the horizon at sunset, and even afterward the sky continued to echo different lucid colors long after the sun was gone.  The sun seems to have a different kind of strength in Kansas than it has in Houston, where sun beats down on us in all its fury for eight months out of the year, but the pollution and the humidity obscure our view of its march across the sky.

I remember the old house in the Amish country that we stayed at is washed in a sepia tint.   All the stores that sell oil lamps and hardware I remember in color, but colors edged in an aged brown.  I pictured my mother’s memories of growing up in Hutchinson the same way, like her memories of drinking red beer during the day.  Mom pointed out an old brick building by the railroad tracks as we were driving down the main strip of Hutchinson.  “That used to be a bar, and it only sold two things:  regular beer and red beer.  On Saturdays, I would go there with Kathy and drink red beer,” she said.  “What’s red beer?” I asked. “Some kind of Irish thing?”  “No, it’s regular beer mixed with tomato juice.”

But there is still one part of Kansas that I see in black and white:  Eugenia’s memories.  Before I met Grandma Gene, my mom just knew I would like her.  “Make sure you talk to her about cooking.  She was the one who gave me the recipe for chicken and dumplings.  The first step of the recipe said to go pick a chicken from the hen house and chop off its head.  Do you remember the chicken and dumplings I used to make?”

Yes, I remembered the chicken and dumplings that she used to make.  As a little kid, from before I can remember to age seven, the number one meal I begged to have for dinner, night after night, was pork chops, green beans, and macaroni and cheese.  I didn’t even like the green beans, which were cooked to high hell with a limpid piece of bacon in the true Southern style, but they seemed a necessary evil if I was going to get to eat macaroni and cheese for dinner.  I think that the first time my mom made chicken and dumplings for me was in second grade, because after that the only thing I ever wanted to eat for dinner was chicken and dumplings.  I rarely got my way.  Memory is faulty thing, but I can only think of about four times that Mom made chicken and dumplings my entire childhood.  When I would ask for it, she would say that it was too much trouble, plus Dad didn’t like it.

 

When I met Grandma Gene, I immediately liked her.  Grandma Gene is in her late nineties, but she still has as much grit as I’ve ever seen in a person, the hard survival kind of grit that comes from a childhood spent digging life out of dusty, unyielding ground during a catastrophic economic depression.  Grandma Gene was a music teacher and organist her whole life, the eldest of twelve, and her daddy was a horse wrangler.  Her story captivated me.  One of my childhood dreams was to eat chicken and dumplings for dinner every night, but another one of my childhood dreams was to trot through the Mississippi Delta cotton fields on the back of a piebald horse.  “That must’ve been amazing,” I said.

“I hated it!  I’ve hated horses all my life.  Daddy always used to bring home the green broke horses and pay us kids to ride them until they became real broke, but I never did.  I never rode those horses on principle.  Except for one time, when I really wanted something that I need to pay for.”

“What was it?”

“At my first piano lesson, I showed up ready to learn.  And my piano teacher showed me the book that I needed to buy for one dollar.  I went home that night, mounted a green broke horse, and rode him until I had enough money to buy that piano book.  I never rode another horse.  And I still have that book at home.”

Grandma Gene believes that innate musical talent skips generations.  Not only did she make her living her entire adult life from music, and she gave birth to two gifted musicians, the kind that seem to have musical scales running through their veins.  “Walter just had a gift.  I didn’t- I had to work hard to learn what I learned, and it never came natural.”  My brother agrees with Grandma Gene.  He knows for sure that he has had to work for whatever musical knowledge that he has, and he suspects that his two year old son is a musical genius.

The first time I asked Mom for the chicken and dumplings recipe, she was a little coy about the whole thing.  “Well… it’s not really a recipe.  I’ll tell you what- we’ll just have to make it together!”

My mom and I didn’t make chicken and dumplings together because making chicken and dumplings together really is too much trouble when one person lives in Houston, Texas and the other person lives in North Mississippi.  So the second time I asked her, she sent me this email:

I don’t think I have it written out, but it’s really simple. You simmer a whole chicken until it’s done and remove the meat from the bones and return it to the broth. Start the the noodles as soon as you put the chicken on so they can dry a bit before you add them to the chicken and broth. Beat a couple of eggs, add some salt, and then add flour until it forms a pretty stiff dough. Roll that out and cut into noodles (I usually do about half inch to three quarter inch noodles–you can dust it with flour,  roll it up and slice the noodles that way.) Just add the noodles to the broth and chicken after it’s finished and let them boil for at least 10 minutes or so.

I understand why my mom wanted to make it with me the first time.  Although I’ve dissembled many a chicken, and have mostly worked through all my qualms with working the limbs, and feeling for the joints with my knife, and coming to terms with the reality that something made out of flesh died to become part of my flesh.  Most of my kitchen hang-ups at this point in my life come from the other part, the flour part.  Cooking anything with flour automatically becomes a quest, with trials and tribulations that may never be resolved.  Like when I made the ghost cookies multiple times and never managed to solve the problem of the spreading dough without sacrificing the pleasant chewiness of the cookie.  And this part here, this “forming a pretty stiff dough” part, has all the ambiguity that seems to inevitably end in the frustration of food-making efforts.

 

Paprika Hendl, or, Dracula and the Morality of Hunger

As an English teacher, I read many books over and over again in my classroom.  I find that I can categorize all the literature I teach in my classroom into these groupings:

  1. The literature that breaks down and reveals itself as paper-thin trash after a few readings.*
  2. The literature that unfolds layer after layer of richness with each reading.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of the good ones, one of those books of such complexity that I learn new things each time I encounter the text.  Just one example of this is the way Bram Stoker writes about food.  Take this little gem from the first few pages of Jonathan Harker’s journal:

We left in pretty good time, and  came after nightfall to Klausenburgh.  Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale.  I have for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up in some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.)  I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “paprika hendl,” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.

I am by no means the first reader of Dracula who became hungry for paprika hendl.  Others have tread this ground before me, the best of these being this guy.  As Mr. Tasunka Witko pointed out back in 2010, the word “hendl” is not Romanian.  It’s the Austro-Bavarian word for chicken.  The German language was brought to Dracula’s backyard by the Transylvanian Saxons in the 12th century.

 

Leonard Wolf gives an account of a recipe for Paprika Hendl in his Annotated Dracula:

Well then, reader, if ever you travel in Hungary, and want a dinner or supper quickly, never mind the variety of dishes your host names, but fix at once on paprika hendl.  Two minutes afterwards, you will hear signs of a revolution in the basse cur; the cocks and hens are in alarm; one or two of the largest, and probably oldest member of their unfortunate little community, are seized their necks wrung, and while yet fluttering, immersed in boiling water.  Their coats and skins come off at once; a few unmentionable preparatory operations are rapidly despatched- probably under the traveler’s immediate observation- the wretches are cut into pieces, thrown into a pot, with water, butter, flour, cream, and an inordinate quantity of red pepper,or paprika, and, very shortly after, a number of bits of fowl are seen swimming in a dish of hot greasy gravy, quite delightful to think of.

 

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Here is my rendition.  This recipe fed six people happily.

 

 

Paprika Hendl

 

You will need:

  • 1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds)
  • 6 or so chicken thighs or legs
  • 4 ripe tomatoes
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery ribs
  • 2 yellow onions, diced
  • 9 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
  • 3/4 cup Sweet Hungarian Paprika
  • 4-5 tablespoons of butter
  • a few tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • An entire 24 ounce container of full-fat sour cream
  • salt
  • black pepper

Butcher the chicken. **  Keep the skin on.  Place the butchered chicken and the chicken thighs in a stock pot, and cover with cold water.  Bring the water to a boil, then lower the temperature on the stove to medium-low.  You want the liquid to be simmering.  Remove the white foam and scum from the top of the stock periodically as it escapes from the chicken.  Simmer until the chicken is done, about 1.5-2 hours.

Meanwhile, juice your tomatoes, carrots, and celery.  If you have a jalapeno or two laying around, throw it on in.  If you aren’t blessed with a juicer, you can substitute 6 cups of V8 or canned tomato juice.

When the chicken is done, remove it from the stock.  Reserve the stock for another delicious day, and heat up the peanut oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot.  Brown the skin of the chicken on medium-high heat.  Set the chicken aside.

To make the sauce, add the butter to Dutch oven and saute the diced onions on medium heat until they begin to carmelize.  Lower the heat to medium low, and add the crushed garlic.  After 2-4 minutes, add ALL OF THE PAPRIKA and stir for 60 seconds or so.  Stir in the tomato juice, and bring the heat back up to medium high.  Put the chicken back in the pot, and simmer for 30-45 minutes.

Stir the flour into ALL OF THE SOUR CREAM.  Remove the chicken from the pot, remove the sauce from the heat, and stir in the sour cream.  Bring the sauce to a simmer and put the chicken back in the pot.  Serve with crusty bread, roasted or mashed potatoes, or spaetzle.  Also, an Oregon Pinot Noir wouldn’t go amiss.

 


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This is a delicious recipe, and if you poke around on google for a little while, you find other Dracula readers singing its praises.  Every once in a while, one of them will speculate about the reason for the existence of the recipe in the book.  For example, one of  Mr. Tasunka Witko’s commentators said, “…it would be interesting to know where that little excerpt came from and how it ended up in the book…”

Allow me, gentlemen.

I’m pretty sure that Bram Stoker unearthed the recipe during one of his marathon sessions researching at the British Museum.  Incidentally, the doors of the British Library are still open to today’s writers and searchers.  As for how it ended up in the book?  Well, Bram Stoker put it there.  Facts and details don’t just drift down from the heavens and insert themselves into text.  An author needs to consciously place these details into the text that he is crafting.  A more interesting question is this:  Why did Bram Stoker feel the need to include recipes in Dracula?

 

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Important, I think, is the fact that paprika hendl is bright red.  Blood red, in fact.  Also important is Stoker’s bizarre use of the word “thirsty” in the text.  According to the syntax, it is the chicken that is thirsty.  However, it seems that Jonathan means that eating the chicken made him thirsty.  All this happens before Dracula is introduced to the reader.  Stoker is drawing a parallel here between Jonathan and Dracula.  They are both carnivorous.***  Both Jonathan and Dracula consume once alive flesh to maintain their own existences.   As I’ve reread Dracula with my students this year, I’ve been trying to figure out what Stoker’s endgame is.  Is he saying that there is some kind of invisible line that separates ethical consumption like Jonathan’s from unethical consumption like Dracula’s?  Or is he saying that there is no such thing as ethical consumption?  Is Harker the same as Dracula?  The description of the chicken slaughter cited by Leonard Wolf above is at least as violent as Dracula’s most intense bloodsucking episodes.

Regardless, the effect of this parallel on the reader is that the sharp delineation between what makes a villain and what makes a hero begins to dissolve and become blurry around the edges. As Dracula becomes more understandable, Jonathan becomes more villainous.  And we become more villainous, too.  We kill what we eat.

Something to think about as you enjoy your delicious paprika hendl.  Personally, I’m more comfortable embracing Dracula as a kindred spirit than becoming a vegetarian.  But that’s just me.  Because I, too, am a predator.

 

 

 

*Don’t ever ask me about John Steinbeck unless you feel like being the victim of an overly-emotional rant.  No one should carry around within herself the amount of vitriolic contempt that I feel for The Pearl.  And my hatred grows with every reading.

** Fun fact: the word “butcher” can refer to slaughtering an animal, as Leonard Wolf points out above.  It can also refer to chopping the chicken into manageably eatable parts.  Here’s a photo-tutorial if you need some help.

***They are also both remarkably pushy to the ladies in their lives and afterlives.  Mem. make your own damn chicken, Jonathan.