World’s Greatest Down-Home Dumplin’ Cook-Off

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Bea Farmer, chicken and dumplings, food

It all began with a plate of poor dumplings and a rather steamed-up column by Pettus Read in Tennessee Home & Farm.

Read, who serves as director of communications for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation and editor of the Tennessee Farm Bureau News, vented his frustrations about the hardships of finding good, old-fashioned chicken and dumplings these days. Apparently, many of our readers could relate.

The column sparked a flood of letters, e-mails and phone calls expressing “dumplin’ rage,” and we had no choice but to embark on our own search for a classic down-home dumpling recipe.

The first-ever World’s Greatest Down-Home Dumplin’ Cook-Off was announced in our winter 2006 issue, and within days, entries came pouring in. By the cutoff date in April, more than 120 recipes had been submitted, most with colorful anecdotes explaining the recipe’s origin.

A panel of judges from the Tennessee Farm Bureau Women’s Committee narrowed the field to five finalists, who then battled it out for the grand prize – a year’s supply of Martha White products, a Lodge cast-iron Dutch oven and $100 in cash – at the Women’s Committee annual meeting in Columbia in early June.

The Day of the Cook-Off
It’s the afternoon of June 9, and the sunny back patio of the Farm Bureau headquarters looks like a three-ring – er, five-ring – circus. The five finalists are all from Tennessee – Mary Ellen Acuff of Knoxville, Lauvanne Childress of Rutledge, Bea Farmer of Brush Creek, Mary French of Bon Aqua and Robert Simpson of Ten Mile – and they’re all set up under tents.

Their stations are equipped with electric burners, Martha White aprons, rolling pins, and all the ingredients and tools necessary to concoct their signature chicken and dumpling recipes.

“Contestants, start your dumplings,” Read proclaims over the loudspeaker, prompting a flurry of activity from the finalists, who fastidiously begin mixing their dumpling dough and chatting with onlookers about their well-practiced techniques. Chicken cooked at home is reheated in its broth.

“I roll salt and pepper into my dumpling dough,” Childress confides.

“My grandmother used boiling broth instead of cold milk or broth to make the dough,” Acuff says. “She also used sage, which is a good complement to chicken.”

French insists a home-raised chicken is the key to good chicken and dumplings.

“They’re sweeter and tenderer than store-bought chicken,” she says.

French also adds buttermilk to her dough, and after rolling it out she lets it sit 10 minutes “to dry a little.”

“I can’t stand sticky dumplings,” she declares.

Simpson says he feels honored to be the lone male contestant.

“When you look at these ladies, you know they’re probably some of the best cooks in the state of Tennessee,” he says. “To get to be part of that group – well, I’m a winner already.”

Cook-off judges are Chip Walters, media and public relations director for the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration; Tammy Algood of the state Department of Agriculture’s Pick Tennessee Products program; Kay Upchurch, wife of Farm Bureau President Lacy Upchurch; and Donna Huddleston, a member of the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee.

The dumplings will be judged by presentation, looks and taste, and the judges know exactly what they’re looking for.

“[The winning recipe] should mimic the way my grandmother cooks them – really tender, with a good broth to enhance the flavor of the dumplings,” Algood says.

Read – who stands ready as a tiebreaker as well as official emcee – says perfect chicken and dumplings consist of “not a whole lot of liquid, but a lot of dough and a fairly thick broth. When you put it on your plate, it doesn’t run over into the corn and potatoes – it stays where it’s at.”

After an hour of mixing, rolling, cutting and boiling, the finalists proudly turn in their finished products, many of them dressed up by pretty serving bowls and garnished with pepper, lettuce leaves and even sliced tomatoes. The judges eagerly sit down to a dumpling feast – ahem, tasting – and emerge 30 minutes later with a winner. Read does the honors.

And the Winner Is…
“And the winner of the World’s Greatest Down-Home Dumplin’ Cook-Off is … Miss Bea Farmer.”

It takes Farmer a couple of seconds to react, but when it hits her, her hands fly up to her face and she squeals with delight.

“I’ve got so many butterflies, I don’t know what to say,” she says as she accepts the grand prize. “I wasn’t nervous until you said my name.”

A Word With the Winner
A week later at her home in Brush Creek, Farmer is still reveling in the glory of her big win.

“Who’d have thought me, from little Brush Creek, would win this contest?” she muses. “I’ve never had this kind of attention in my whole life. I’m really honored that I won. I never dreamed cooking up a pot of chicken and dumplings would create such a stir, but I’m gonna enjoy it as long as it lasts.”

Haven’t Gotten Your Fill of Dumplings?

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

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

Read an interview with Bea Farmer and our other dumpling contest finalists sharing their trade secrets

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

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

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

3 Comments

  1. sande Clark

    November 25, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    This artical had each receipe by the ladies here in the article, how do I get all of these particular receipes.?

    • Jessy Yancey

      November 26, 2014 at 7:57 am

      Hi Sande,

      We currently only have Bea’s grand-prize-winning recipe, http://farmflavor.com/chicken-and-dumplings. However, we do offer the Down-Home Dumplings Cookbook, which has dozens of chicken and dumpling recipes (as well as the stories behind the recipes) at https://www.tnhomeandfarm.com/store. Hope this helps!

      Jessy Yancey
      editor, Tennessee Home & Farm

    • Robbie Burgess

      March 30, 2019 at 10:07 pm

      I would like to know how do I get to enter the chicken and dumpling contest and I also make a Gluten free chicken and dumpling that is just as good as the regular dumplings .

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