Comfort food meets country music

  • Martha Ackmann. Contributed photo/Ann Romberger

  • Chicken and dumplings made by Martha Ackmann. Contributed photo/Christina Barber-Just

  • Chicken and dumplings made by Martha Ackmann. Contributed photo/Christina Barber-Just—

  • Chicken and dumplings made by Martha Ackmann. Contributed photo/Christina Barber-Just

  • Dolly Parton. Wikimedia Commons/Dennis Carney—

  • Chicken and dumplings made by Martha Ackmann. Contributed photo/Christina Barber-Just—

  • Martha Ackmann Contributed photo/Ann Romberger—

  • Martha Ackmann Contributed photo/Ann Romberger

For the Recorder
Published: 4/14/2021 9:20:58 AM

Sometimes when recipe inspiration doesn’t strike me for this column, I call on friends (or friends of friends) who are good home cooks. For this particular column, I contacted Martha Ackmann of Leverett.

I knew Martha would come up with something tasty. I also knew she would be fun to talk to. It didn’t occur to me that she would offer me a recipe from Dolly Parton — when she did, I was thrilled.

Martha is working on a book about Parton. But why her?

“My niche is women who’ve changed America,” Ackmann said.

Her previous books have chronicled the lives of the Mercury 13, a group of women in the 1960s who were secretly tested as potential United States astronauts; Toni Stone, a pioneering player in baseball’s Negro League; and Emily Dickinson, the famous Amherst poet.

Martha explained that she has been interested in Dolly Parton since the singer’s early days performing on “The Porter Wagoner Show.”

“I want to take her seriously,” Ackmann said of Parton. “I love her music. I think it’s joyous and heartwarming, and it makes me feel better. Even the things she calls her ‘sad-ass songs.’ I’ve been spending a lot of the lockdown just doing the basic research, and boy is there a lot of it!”

As a former resident of East Tennessee (my friend Bill played in the Sevierville County High School Marching Band with Parton), I, too, am a long-long Parton fan. And I believe Ackmann is the perfect person to write about this complex public personality.

“I have always been impressed by her seriousness,” Ackmann said. She noted that Parton’s history has been entwined with food from the start of the star’s life. Ackmann cited Parton’s origin story, which recounts that her father, Robert Lee Parton, didn’t have the funds to pay the doctor who brought the child into the world and ended up paying for the birth with a sack of cornmeal.

Food production was important throughout Parton’s childhood, while growing up poor with a passel of brothers and sisters, Ackmann informed me.

“Dolly’s family grew their own food not to sell but to sustain their large family. They had a big kettle for cooking hominy and stews, a ‘tater hole’ for storing potatoes and turnips. The walls of their kitchen were covered with nails for dying fruits, peppers, garlic, dill, onions and beans,” she explained. “They grew asparagus behind the woodshed. Had both red and black raspberries. A smoke house for salted pork, ham, bacon. There were cardboard boxes in the cupboard for dried shellie beans, corn, black-eyed peas; and sacks of walnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, beechnuts.”

The Parton family also tended “A large garden, of course,” growing culinary staples such as tomatoes, okra and lettuce. They also raised “chickens, hogs, cows (and) ate a lot of game,” Martha concluded.

To that end, Ackmann argues that in some ways food has also helped shape Parton’s music.

“As a child, Dolly always listened to the rhythm around her: birds chirping, the creak of a rocking chair. She also remembers hearing her mother snapping beans. The rhythm of those snaps sounded like music to her,” Ackmann said. “Food equals music.”

As for her own culinary prowess, Ackmann describes herself as “a good, solid, not flashy, evolving Midwestern cook.”

Like Parton, Ackmann’s Missouri family has rural roots. She recalls her country-born grandparents butchering their own meat in their tiny backyard in St. Louis. Ackmann is the designated cook in her own household. She was eager to try one of Parton’s signature recipes when I asked her for a dish.

Together, Ackmann and I selected Dolly Parton’s Chicken and Dumplings, a perfect recipe for our recent cool weather.

Like any good home cook, Ackmann adapted the recipe a bit — and she admitted that she might adapt it even more next time she makes it. She is considering adding more vegetables (leeks, beans) and perhaps some herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf) to the stock. She told me that the dish was satisfying as it was, however, and that it epitomized comfort.

“The dumplings were easy to make,” she elaborated, “and preparing them gave me an occasion to use my great aunt’s rolling pin (Beulah Clementine Snook Erdel. Isn’t that a noble name?). All the time I was making the dumplings, I thought about Dolly’s mother feeding 11 hungry kids and the Missouri farm women in my own family rolling out countless pie crusts, biscuits, and dumplings. This is a good recipe for remembering hard-working women.”

Here is Ackmann’s adapted recipe. Listen to a little Dolly Parton music as you make and eat it.

Dolly’s Chicken ‘n’ Dumplin’s (Adapted by Martha Ackmann)

For the stock and the chicken

One 3-pound chicken, cut up, or 3 pounds of chicken parts

2 teaspoons salt pepper to taste

One onion, peeled but left whole

¼ cup chopped celery leaves chopped carrots and celery to taste

For the dumplings

2 cups flour, plus additional flour for kneading

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

3 tablespoons shortening

¾ cup milk

For assembly

A little parsley for garnish

In a Dutch oven, combine the chicken and the salt with 2 quarts of water. Cover, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium. Toss in the pepper, onion and celery leaves. Simmer the chicken, covered, until the meat comes off the bones. (This took Martha about 45 minutes.)

Strain the mixture, discarding the vegetables but saving the broth and chicken.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove it from the bones. Cut it into bite-size pieces. Set it aside. Turn the heat up to high, and bring the stock to a boil. Toss the carrots and celery into the liquid. While the stock is boiling, begin to work on the dumplings. Combine the flour, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl.

Cut in the shortening with knives or a pastry blender. Stir in the milk, a little at a time, until the dough is moist. Turn it onto a floured board and knead it for 5 minutes.

Roll the dough out until it is ½ inch thick. Cut it into 1½-inch squares. Drop the squares into the boiling stock. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring gently from time to time.

Return the chicken to the pot. Stir it and heat it until it is thoroughly warm, about 8 minutes. To serve, place three or so dumplings in a shallow soup dish, place chicken to taste on top, then ladle on some stock with carrots and celery. Serve warm, garnished with parsley. Serves four to five.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website,

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