Through this brief story, I hope to illustrate that family recipes are far more than an ingredients list with instructions. This family recipe can truly only live as a rich, irreplaceable process, repeated generation after generation.
I am a chef because I spent my life, from three years old and beyond, literally attached to my mother’s apron strings. By age twelve I could fry chicken and fish, smother pork chops, can, pickle, salt, and cure. The very reason my entire being revolves around food is because of my mother. But for all of her recipes I could handily reproduce, I was never able to get my mom’s chicken and dumplings quite right.
My mother was in the process of passing in 2002. Because we wanted her close to the love of family, my sister made a makeshift bedroom in her home by removing the dining room furniture and replacing it with my mother’s hospital bed. It had dawned on us that we had precious, limited time to share and gather the stories and lessons we knew we would sorely miss. My personal mission became perfecting and recording my mom’s chicken and dumplings.
I remember the day like yesterday. It was late summer and rainy, and Mom knew I was coming to visit and cook with her—one of her favorite things to do. I put the chickens on to simmer and then gathered the remaining ingredients: warmed chicken broth from the simmering pot, chicken fat from the simmering pot, flour, eggs, salt, and pepper. I pushed my mom’s wheelchair into the kitchen so she could watch, feel, and correct—all while I would record, measure, and weigh ingredients (something Mom felt was completely unnecessary). I quickly remembered why cooking together was her favorite thing to do. She got to be the boss.
My mom taught cooking through three simple phrases: “Too much,” “Not enough,” and “It has to feel right.” After repeated attempts to get the liquid-to-fat ratio correct, the fat-to-egg ratio correct, and finally the flour-to-liquid ratio correct, we were nearly out of chicken broth. By some miracle, though, I felt I had finally nailed the feel of the sticky dough and used just the right amount of flour on the counter to barely roll it out.
Mom seemed satisfied, so I cut the dough into noodles and proceeded to do the only thing she ever used to allow me to do when we cooked dumplings together—drop them into the pot.
It took a long half day, but there we were, mother and son, eating what we had cooked together. It was warm, it was comfortable, and it was whole. Most of all it was victory. I knew I had nailed it—not because of the perfect texture and flavor I so loved, but because she quietly uttered those five special words I always yearned to hear her say at the end of many a learning session, “Almost as good as mine.”
Not long after that day, she passed. And because my chicken and dumplings are seasoned with her memory, I swear that mine are every bit as good as hers.