Before I went to Kansas for the first time, I could only see it in my mind’s eye as series of heartland images, all in black and white. After visiting Kansas, its different scenes are shaded in color. The fields and the streams I remember lit by the clarity of the sun, shining completely until the moment the last of the distinct rays hit the horizon at sunset, and even afterward the sky continued to echo different lucid colors long after the sun was gone. The sun seems to have a different kind of strength in Kansas than it has in Houston, where sun beats down on us in all its fury for eight months out of the year, but the pollution and the humidity obscure our view of its march across the sky.
I remember the old house in the Amish country that we stayed at is washed in a sepia tint. All the stores that sell oil lamps and hardware I remember in color, but colors edged in an aged brown. I pictured my mother’s memories of growing up in Hutchinson the same way, like her memories of drinking red beer during the day. Mom pointed out an old brick building by the railroad tracks as we were driving down the main strip of Hutchinson. “That used to be a bar, and it only sold two things: regular beer and red beer. On Saturdays, I would go there with Kathy and drink red beer,” she said. “What’s red beer?” I asked. “Some kind of Irish thing?” “No, it’s regular beer mixed with tomato juice.”
But there is still one part of Kansas that I see in black and white: Eugenia’s memories. Before I met Grandma Gene, my mom just knew I would like her. “Make sure you talk to her about cooking. She was the one who gave me the recipe for chicken and dumplings. The first step of the recipe said to go pick a chicken from the hen house and chop off its head. Do you remember the chicken and dumplings I used to make?”
Yes, I remembered the chicken and dumplings that she used to make. As a little kid, from before I can remember to age seven, the number one meal I begged to have for dinner, night after night, was pork chops, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. I didn’t even like the green beans, which were cooked to high hell with a limpid piece of bacon in the true Southern style, but they seemed a necessary evil if I was going to get to eat macaroni and cheese for dinner. I think that the first time my mom made chicken and dumplings for me was in second grade, because after that the only thing I ever wanted to eat for dinner was chicken and dumplings. I rarely got my way. Memory is faulty thing, but I can only think of about four times that Mom made chicken and dumplings my entire childhood. When I would ask for it, she would say that it was too much trouble, plus Dad didn’t like it.
When I met Grandma Gene, I immediately liked her. Grandma Gene is in her late nineties, but she still has as much grit as I’ve ever seen in a person, the hard survival kind of grit that comes from a childhood spent digging life out of dusty, unyielding ground during a catastrophic economic depression. Grandma Gene was a music teacher and organist her whole life, the eldest of twelve, and her daddy was a horse wrangler. Her story captivated me. One of my childhood dreams was to eat chicken and dumplings for dinner every night, but another one of my childhood dreams was to trot through the Mississippi Delta cotton fields on the back of a piebald horse. “That must’ve been amazing,” I said.
“I hated it! I’ve hated horses all my life. Daddy always used to bring home the green broke horses and pay us kids to ride them until they became real broke, but I never did. I never rode those horses on principle. Except for one time, when I really wanted something that I need to pay for.”
“What was it?”
“At my first piano lesson, I showed up ready to learn. And my piano teacher showed me the book that I needed to buy for one dollar. I went home that night, mounted a green broke horse, and rode him until I had enough money to buy that piano book. I never rode another horse. And I still have that book at home.”
Grandma Gene believes that innate musical talent skips generations. Not only did she make her living her entire adult life from music, and she gave birth to two gifted musicians, the kind that seem to have musical scales running through their veins. “Walter just had a gift. I didn’t- I had to work hard to learn what I learned, and it never came natural.” My brother agrees with Grandma Gene. He knows for sure that he has had to work for whatever musical knowledge that he has, and he suspects that his two year old son is a musical genius.
The first time I asked Mom for the chicken and dumplings recipe, she was a little coy about the whole thing. “Well… it’s not really a recipe. I’ll tell you what- we’ll just have to make it together!”
My mom and I didn’t make chicken and dumplings together because making chicken and dumplings together really is too much trouble when one person lives in Houston, Texas and the other person lives in North Mississippi. So the second time I asked her, she sent me this email:
I don’t think I have it written out, but it’s really simple. You simmer a whole chicken until it’s done and remove the meat from the bones and return it to the broth. Start the the noodles as soon as you put the chicken on so they can dry a bit before you add them to the chicken and broth. Beat a couple of eggs, add some salt, and then add flour until it forms a pretty stiff dough. Roll that out and cut into noodles (I usually do about half inch to three quarter inch noodles–you can dust it with flour, roll it up and slice the noodles that way.) Just add the noodles to the broth and chicken after it’s finished and let them boil for at least 10 minutes or so.
I understand why my mom wanted to make it with me the first time. Although I’ve dissembled many a chicken, and have mostly worked through all my qualms with working the limbs, and feeling for the joints with my knife, and coming to terms with the reality that something made out of flesh died to become part of my flesh. Most of my kitchen hang-ups at this point in my life come from the other part, the flour part. Cooking anything with flour automatically becomes a quest, with trials and tribulations that may never be resolved. Like when I made the ghost cookies multiple times and never managed to solve the problem of the spreading dough without sacrificing the pleasant chewiness of the cookie. And this part here, this “forming a pretty stiff dough” part, has all the ambiguity that seems to inevitably end in the frustration of food-making efforts.