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Carlton Fletcher

We’ll be having chicken and dumplin’s when she comes ...

— Traditional

My mom used to make the best chicken and dumplings.

I laugh now as I think about her rolling out the dumplings, flour all over the table and her ever-present apron, her constant lament over what a chore it was meant more to solicit responses of gratitude from my dad, my siblings, lucky guests and me than real complaint.

Truth was, she loved being in the kitchen perhaps more than anything else in life. And for good reason. Everybody thinks their moms are the greatest cooks ever because hers is the food they grew up on. My mom, though, was an amazing cook. I think one of her greatest thrills in the later years of her life was having one of her recipes printed in an EMC publication that went out all over the state.

I also laugh thinking about my mom explaining the process of dumpling-making to children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts ... pretty much any female who showed up at her house during the holidays when she would usually make chicken and dumplings. Most of those would-be cooks had little interest in the dumpling-making process, but each of them in turn was semi-forced to have a go at dumpling-rolling, perhaps in an effort to show them what a tedious process it is, thus increasing their appreciation of her efforts.

(One of the meanest jokes my daughter Jordan and I ever played on mama was once, after mom went through a thorough explanation of what all was a part of the meal we were about to eat — in painstaking detail — Jordan said, on cue, “Dad, Granny doesn’t really have anything I like. Can we go to McDonald’s?” My mom’s face dropped in stunned disbelief, so Jordan and I had to quickly let her in on the joke so as not to cause any permanent psychological damage or be barred from the dinner table.)

I mention my mom’s dumpling-making skills on this Thanksgiving holiday as a tribute to her memory and as a way to pay tribute as well to the woman who is, in my estimation, my new chicken and dumplings queen (a title, I’m sure, every woman covets). I couldn’t have said this — and remained part of the family — while mom was alive, but Tara makes the best chicken and dumplings ever. That’s ever, as in, even better than my mom’s.

She asked me once if there was a food I hadn’t had in a while that I liked, and after a bit of thinking, I remembered those family holiday meals and the chicken and dumplings that were frequently on the menu. And while I had heard on any number of occasions how difficult a dish it was to make, my kitchen skills consist of bologna sandwiches (microwaved at just the right setting) and getting just the right Sugar Smacks-to-milk ratio, so I offered that suggestion.

When Tara made chicken and dumplings the first time, I was a little taken aback. With every bite, they tasted just a little bit better. By the time she’d made a second batch a short while later (refusing for some reason my suggestion that we have them every other day), it dawned on me: Not only were Tara’s chicken and dumplings better than my mom’s, they were the best food I’d ever eaten. And remain so.

Funny thing, Tara, too, has mentioned in passing what a labor-intensive chore it is to roll out and prepare the dumplings. She’s even had a close friend, who herself knows a great deal about the culinary arts, tell her that she can buy pre-packaged dumplings that are just as good as the ones she so painstakingly rolls out each time she makes the dish. (I’ll go on record refuting such a claim, having tasted a lot of people’s — and a lot of restaurants’ — “just-as-good-as” dumplings that end up with the consistency of — and flavor akin to — lumps of clay.) Tara just smiled at our friend and told her, “Thanks, but I’ll do them like this.”

She thinks I’m just buttering her up when I say her chicken and dumplings are better even than my mom’s. But I’m not. I don’t joke that way when it comes to food. Maybe I’m just subconsciously trying to inject some romanticism into a process that for many is just one of those necessary and mundane chores that are part of living a life. But I think it goes a little deeper than that. I think it’s maybe that there’s an added ingredient in those dumplings that go with the willingness to put in that extra time to do them “right” that you can’t buy at any grocery store.

That’s the best ingredient of all.

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Email Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.

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