Years ago, chicken-and-dumpling dinners were extremely common in Southern Delaware — it seemed like every fire house and church had them several times a year.
Not so much anymore.
So when they do come around, it’s a chance to partake in a tradition satisfying to both the stomach and the soul. On Sunday, Feb. 24, from 1 to 4 p.m., American Legion Post 24 in Dagsboro will be hosting is second chicken-and-dumpling dinner of the year.
Grace Hitchens of Dagsboro is the woman who makes the dumplings — thin squares of dough that are made from three simple ingredients: flour, chicken stock and salt. She said the Legion dinner is sure to fill diners with good old-fashioned food.
“Nobody goes away hungry, she said. “If they do, it’s their fault.”
Since the dinner is all-you-can-eat, she said, some actually do go back for seconds, and even thirds, but she said one plate ought to fill most people.
Hitchens, a retired elementary school teacher, said she learned to make “slick” or “slippery” dumplings from her mother, Blanche Williams, when she was a young woman. When she was first married, she said, “I could boil water and that was about it.” Over the years, Grace Hitchens said she learned to cook and now, in her 70s, she said, “I go by feel.”
That is especially true for Grace Hitchens’ dumplings, for which she swears there is no actual recipe. Using a bowl passed down to her from her grandmother, she said, “I just put it in ’til it looks right. Next thing — it has to feel right.”
What exactly is “right”? According to Hitchens, the dumpling dough has to be “not too sticky; and it’s pliable. When you start rolling it out, it’s easy to roll.”
In her grandmother’s bowl, Hitchens said she can automatically adjust the amounts depending on how many people she’s cooking for.
“I just put some flour in, and I know that’s about right for the two off us,” she said of herself and her husband, Bill Hitchens, “or if I’m cooking for six or seven.”
Once the dumplings are made, the broth is the next step, and it is a fine art as well. The broth, Hitchens said, “has to be not too hot, and it can’t be too cool” to set up the dumplings properly. “You have to regulate that temperature,” she said. “If I lost my feeling in my hands, I’d be in big trouble.”
Hitchens acknowledges that slippery dumplings may be a bit of an adjustment for some who haven’t grown up in the area.
“People from Pennsylvania are shocked” when they first encounter the Delaware delicacy, she said, because they expect a more biscuit-like consistency.
When she’s cooking for the American Legion dinners, Hitchens said, she makes the dumplings in batches, starting about three weeks before the dinners, placing each batch in the freezer as she goes.
“I do that until I think we have enough,” she said.
All in all, she said, she uses about 50 pounds of flour in preparation for the Legion post’s two dinners, which typically feed between 80 and 100 people each.
Due to carpal tunnel issues, when Hitchens cooks dumplings for a crowd she now uses a mixer and a dough hook, but she still employs the same technique of checking the dough for just the right feel.
“It took a lot of guesswork to get that feel right,” she said, adding that her ultimate test of the dough’s status is “if it doesn’t come off that dough hook easily, I know it’s not ready. It just took a lot of practice to get that feel right” when working the dough with a mixer, she added.
Bill Hitchens is in charge of planning the dinners for the American Legion post. He is also in charge of buying supplies for the dinner — which includes 80 to 90 pounds of chicken pieces — mostly breasts and leg quarters. Bill Hitchens also makes the stuffing for the dinners. Like his wife’s dumplings, there’s no recipe for the stuffing and no fancy ingredients: just bread, onions, celery, poultry seasoning and chicken broth.
“I guess you call it old-school cookin,’” Bill Hitchens said, adding that he learned to make stuffing “from being born and raised on a farm” and from watching his wife make it over the years. For each American Legion dinner, he said, he makes “three or four steam-table pans full” of stuffing.
In addition to green beans and potatoes, the dinner also features homemade desserts — there’s “nothing store-bought” on the dessert table, Grace Hitchens said.
Both of the Hitchenses said the dinners are a team effort, with six or seven volunteers helping prepare the dinner, and two or three servers.
“We all work together very well,” Grace Hitchens said. “It doesn’t take long when you have everybody working together. Everything falls into place.”
The Sunday, Feb. 24, chicken-and-dumpling dinner at American Legion Post 24 will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Dinners cost $12 for adults or $6 for children younger than 12. Take-out meals are available at the same prices. The post is located at 28181 Nine Foot Road, Dagsboro. The phone number for the post is (302) 732-3120.
By Kerin Magill