The Origins Of American Chicken And Dumplings Trace Back To The 1800s

A comfort food staple like chicken and dumplings might seem like it's been around forever, but when compared to the rest of the world, this American favorite is quite the young addition. While the recipe itself (which is particularly easy in the slow cooker, by the way) is likely to have been spread by word of mouth for much longer, chicken and dumplings was first reflected in print in Mary Randolph's "The Virginia Housewife."

Randolph wrote that the cookbook, published in 1836, was the culmination of study and experimentation brought about by "the difficulties [she] encountered" when she first began keeping house. The recipe, rather charmingly called "meat dumplins," doesn't specifically reference chicken. Rather, Randolph states that you can use "beef steaks, mutton chops, or any kind of meat you like." The early dumpling, or dumplin, was made from a combination of suet, flour, salt, milk, and butter.

Pinning down the dumpling's true origins is difficult, as it comes from so many different cultures and has evolved in so many unique ways. Eastern Europe has a long dumpling tradition, with several different kinds to try. Suet dumplings have been around in the U.K. since at least the 12th century when King John insisted on serving them to his courtiers. Meanwhile, in Chinese folklore, a medical practitioner named Zhang Zhongjing (or Zhongjian) is said to have invented the filled dumpling, or jiaozi, around 50 A.D.

How dumplins became chicken and dumplings

Mary Randolph's original recipe might be making you scratch your head. How did something that began as a pairing for mutton or beef end up as a chicken-based dish? The idea came about fairly soon after Randolph's cookbook, with Marion Cabell Tyree's "Housekeeping in Old Virginia" referencing stewed chicken and dumplings in 1879. Tyree's book, however, compiled contributions from many famous hostesses, meaning it was hardly a tome for the average household (although it purported otherwise).

While it's fair to assume that chicken and dumplings became popular because chicken is an affordable protein, this is more of a modern truth. In the 1800s, chicken was considered something of a luxury food — those who could afford to raise chickens for eggs kept them in the backyard, but the meat was generally only consumed as a special treat. Chicken meat was sold commercially on a larger scale starting in the early 1900s, but even during the Great Depression, it was more expensive than beef or pork.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, suppliers significantly upped their game by finding new ways to efficiently produce chicken meat and market the bird to the fledgling T.V. generation. These days, chicken is just about the cheapest meat you can buy, so it's unsurprising that it features heavily in many people's home recipes.