Dumplings Cook-Off Contestants Share Recipe Secrets

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Our World’s Greatest Down-Home Dumplin’ Cook-Off featured the best chicken and dumplings recipes in Tennessee. Watch the video of the competition, and scroll down to read the finalists’ and winner’s recipe secrets.

Bea Farmer
Dumplin’ DivaGrand-prize-winner Bea Farmer of Brush Creek, Tennessee, has been cooking since she was just 12 years old.

“I grew up on a farm in Hickman, and my mother always helped Daddy in the fields when it was time to harvest the crops,” Farmer says. “We all had our responsibilities on the farm, and she showed me how to fix potatoes, pinto beans, fried chicken and pork chops. When they came in from the fields, I’d have dinner ready. A lot of the food we ate was from our own garden.”

That early start in the kitchen has paid off for the 53-year-old mother of three, who loves to whip up Southern staples like fried chicken, fruit cobblers and pies, and occasionally ventures into Italian cuisine.

Farmer patterned her chicken and dumplings recipe after her late mother’s, and it’s been a huge hit with her children.

“My son has a busy job, and homemade chicken and dumplings is how I lure him home,” Farmer says. “When the dumpling contest was announced, my kids said ‘You need to enter – you’d win!’ And I said, ‘You won’t believe it, but I already have.’ ”

But Farmer never dreamed she’d actually win.

“I was just in it for the ride, but it really got exciting when I got in the top five,” she says. “When we got to the cook-off that day, a lady at the other end [of the row of finalists] told me she kills her own chicken, and I thought, ‘You can’t get much countrier than that – she’s gonna win.’ ”

But a few hours later, Farmer was the one wearing a blue ribbon, smiling for cameras and chatting with reporters. And the attention hasn’t let up. Farmer and her dumplings were featured on Nashville News Channel 5’s “Talk of the Town”; Taste of the South magazine, the Carthage Courier, Farmer’s local newspaper; and even TV’s “Ellen,” with host Ellen Degeneres, has called to discuss a possible appearance.

But one of Farmer’s favorite celebrity moments came when the local police department made a special dumpling request – and she was honored to oblige.

To aspiring chicken and dumplings chefs, Farmer offers up this advice: “Keep practicing, because you could try to make it, and it may not turn out just right. It takes a lot of trial and error. You’ve got to roll the dough out thin enough, and always drop the dumplings into the area of the pot where the broth is boiling the most.”

It took Farmer five or six years – and plenty of frustration – to get the dumplings just right.

“I’ve probably thrown away as many batches as we’ve eaten,” she says.

Farmer always serves her famous chicken and dumplings with pinto beans, fried sweet potatoes, turnip greens, cornbread, iced tea and homemade banana pudding.

“It’s not the kind of meal you serve if you’re watching cholesterol or on a diet,” she admits, “but you just put all that aside and dive right in.”

Lauvanne Childress of Rutledge, TN
Lauvanne Childress, who everybody calls “Van,” has been cooking up batches of chicken and dumplings for 40 years using techniques she learned from her mother-in-law. She insists that the secret to flavorful dumplings is rolling salt and pepper into the dough and adding a can of evaporated milk to the broth.

“There’s always too much for two people, so I divide them among my neighbors and whoever else likes dumplings,” she says.

In preparation for the World’s Greatest Down-Home Dumplin’ Cook-Off, Childress says everybody asked if she’d been practicing.

“I said, ‘Yeah, for 40 years.’ If you can’t do it by then, you can’t do it.”

Mary Ellen Acuff of Knoxville, TN
After her grandmother passed away, Mary Ellen Acuff spent years perfecting the chicken and dumplings recipe she remembered her grandmother making.

“My grandmother inspired me,” Acuff says. “She just threw everything together, and it always turned out great. I always tried to redo her recipe, and it took five years or more before I finally felt they tasted like hers.”

Her grandmother’s secrets included mixing boiling broth with flour to make the dumplings and adding homegrown sage.

To ensure her own grandchildren will have a copy of the well-loved recipe one day, Acuff compiled a book for them titled Grandmother Remembers. It includes her special recipes, family photos and information about her life as a child, teenager and young mother.

Robert Simpson of Ten Mile, TN
Until his sister-in-law gave him her recipe for chicken and dumplings, Robert Simpson never cared for the Southern dish.

“My mother came from Michigan, and people up North don’t know how to do chicken and dumplings,” he says. “So I never really liked them.”

Fortunately for his family and friends, that all changed when he learned to make them himself. Simpson says the secret to his delicious dumplings is a fresh chicken and rolling the dough out very thin – one-eighth of an inch or less.

“I’ve been told if you lay one of my dumplings on your forehead, your tongue will slap your nose off trying to get it,” he boasts with a grin.

Mary French of Bon Aqua, TN
Chicken and dumplings, prepared one way or another, have been a favorite in Mary French’s family for generations.

“My great-grandmother and my grandmother made their dumplings with broth,” French says. “My mother made the same recipe but changed the broth to sweet milk. I changed the sweet milk to buttermilk.”

The reason for the buttermilk, French says, is it makes the dumplings lighter. A farm-raised chicken is another one of her secrets.

“The juice has its own natural sweetness,” she says.

After rolling out dumpling dough, French advises, one should let it sit 10 minutes to dry so the dumplings don’t stick together.And never, never stir dumplings, she warns:

“It tears them up.”

All About Chicken and Dumplings
• Hear how the World’s Greatest Down-Home Dumpling Cook-Off went down

• Try your hand at making Bea’s Chicken and Dumpling Recipe

• Check out our video of the Down-Home Dumpling Cook-Off

• Get step-by-step lessons from Bea on how to make her prize-winning dumplings

• Buy the Down-Home Dumplings cookbook, featuring dozens of variations of dumpling recipes and the stories behind them

• See how the contest got its start – Pettus Read’s dumpling disappointment

3 Comments

  1. Gary Cross

    August 6, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    How do I buy the Down-Home Dumplings cookbook? I’ve looked at nearly seven different pages and can’t seem to find a way to order. Thanks

    • Rachel Bertone

      August 14, 2015 at 8:30 am

      Hi Gary,

      You should be able to buy the cookbook from this link: https://www.tnhomeandfarm.com/store/. Just click on the “buy” link at the bottom of the page. Hope this helps!

      Rachel Bertone
      editor, TN Home and Farm

  2. Stormy

    December 29, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    I tried for years to make my grandmother’s dumplings. Once I looked in the pit and they had disappeared. Another they puffed up so big they were the size of muffins. I surrendered and left it to my grandmother to make them. Before she passed away I told her of my problems with the dumplings and she asked if the recipe I used called for Crisco. It did and she said that was my problem. The dumplings were melting in the hot broth. She told me to just use all propose flour, moisten them with chicken brith, roll them out thin, cut them and there you go. I never use all purpose flour for anything so that would explain my fat dumplings. So today is the day I throw caution to the wind, throw it all together and give them one more time. I can only hope…..

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