American REGIONAL FOOD. SOUTH ATLANTIC REGION. An old-fashioned chicken stew. In this part of the country, you need a crowd and a caldron to get it right

FIRST, find a huge, round black iron pot that holds 50 to 75 gallons of soup. Then get together a hundred or so of your best friends. This is the beginning of an old-fashioned ``chicken stew,'' according to Georgia Hines, who says it just won't taste the same made in an ordinary kettle on the kitchen stove for a few people. ``You need a crowd, and you must make a lot of chicken stew and cook it a long, long time to get the right flavor,'' she says.

Whatever you've heard of the charm and hospitality of Southern women is true about Mrs. Hines. She sent out 75 invitations for her ``chicken stew'' and cooked seven roasting hens in advance of the party.

Heated over an open wood fire in a huge black iron pot that looks for all the world like a witch's caldron, the stew is simmered for hours. Several people take a turn at the almost constant stirring with long wooden paddles.

``My sons and I decorated for the party by gathering colorful autumn leaves from the woods. We put bright orange-red pumpkins and colorful paper plates and napkins on a long cross-legged table in the backyard,'' Hines explains.

``The cooking preparations start days, maybe weeks, ahead.

``Not everybody likes to have such big parties, I know,'' she says, ``and today `chicken stews' are mostly held at church functions, or at schools, or at other large gatherings.

``But they're a tradition in this family. My daddy had a farm in the country, and every fall he had a barbecue or a `chicken stew' for the men who worked for him.''

It all started in the days of the large tobacco farms, when someone had to stay up all night at the tobacco barn to keep the fires stoked with wood.

It was such a boring job, all night long, that something was needed to provide entertainment and food for the person stoking the fires. A chicken stew - enough for friends and family who might drop by to help - was the answer. In those days, it was made in a big, black iron wash pot, and the fire was built underneath it.

``Today I make my stew with plump chicken pieces simmered in rich chicken stock. Butter is dropped into the broth by the half pound cake, and there's no seasoning at all other than salt and pepper,'' Hines explains.

``I use baking hens because they have more flavor. I cook the hens, six or seven of them, making a rich broth. I remove the grease and all the bones, large and small.

``Getting the chicken cooked and deboned is a lot of work, but not if it's done in advance and is ready to combine with the broth when it has been thickened,'' she says.

The thickening is added to the rich chicken stock in the form of a roux made of whole milk and flour. Then comes the constant stirring with a long paddle over a low, steady fire.

``With the stew,'' says Hines, ``we serve Moravian coleslaw, saltine crackers, Moravian sugar cookies, lots of pickles, and just gallons of iced tea.''

The Moravian dishes are a strong tradition for the Hines family, who belong to the Moravian Church. Moravians, members of a Protestant sect formed at the time of the Reformation, settled in this area in the mid-18th century and founded the original town of Salem. The church attended by the Hineses is more than 200 years old.

``Cooking is really a big part of church activities, and I always enjoy cooking for church suppers and cake bake sales,'' says Hines.

As she sat down to talk recipes, Hines opened a large handbag and out came a handful of papers, clippings, and recipe cards that looked like a traveling file of some kind.

``That's just what it is, a traveling recipe collection,'' she says. ``I just can't bear to throw any away - even the old ones. Here's one on lined paper in pencil from a kindergarten teacher, and this one is a scrumptious layer cake. See this lovely old-fashioned script in fine ink, from an old, old relative. I'm not sure who, but it's one of the family.

``Here's one recipe I won't share at my church meetings or lunches, because if I do, at the next meeting there will be 14 just like it! Everybody will be making it, once I give out the recipe.

``Here's one we often have for Sunday dinner - a real family day when my mother usually comes. She's a wonderful cook, and her fried chicken - well, it's the very best in the world.''

Now a career woman working for an insurance firm during the week, Hines looks forward to cooking on the weekend.

``My husband, Harvey, and my three grown sons are hearty eaters,'' she says. ``I try to cook as many of their favorites as possible when we're all together.''

All good North Carolina cooks have several ways of using cornmeal, and it comes naturally to Georgia Hines. Her great-great-grandfather owned and operated a waterwheel gristmill that's still in active use. The white, mill-ground cornmeal is her favorite.

``We do spoon bread and lots of cornmeal muffins and waffles and pancakes. We make a lot of old-fashioned, typical North Carolina foods,'' she says.

``I make a layer cake every Saturday of my life. My husband cooks chicken and broils lots of things and makes perfect fresh salad.

``We have grits for breakfast, always, and with just butter. We never have hominy - but I remember that my grandparents in eastern North Carolina had hominy,'' she says.

``North Carolina food is very regional, and there is a marked difference between the food people eat on the coast, here in the Piedmont, and in the mountains.

``Turnip greens are my favorite greens, especially mixed in with kale. Collards and cabbage are favorites, too.

``Our Sunday dinner is often a roast of pork with baked potatoes, spoon bread, and homemade applesauce.

``And, of course, a congealed salad. This is a typical Southern kind of salad. It always adds something very special to a meal or party.''

Served with Moravian slaw, saltine crackers, beverage, and dessert, this chicken stew is great for a fall outdoor outing or tailgate party. Georgia's Chicken Stew 7 stewing hens 6 to 7 gallons whole milk 1 pound butter Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 gallon of blended flour and water for thickening

Stew chickens until tender; debone and cut into bite-size pieces.

Reserve broth in separate container; skim off fat and save in case it's needed for seasoning later.

Heat broth in a large black pot over an open fire. Fire should be of medium-low intensity. Add milk slowly to broth, stirring constantly. Add thickening mixture slowly, stirring continually. Add butter, salt, and pepper. Add chicken after other ingredients are well blended.

Serves 50. Frosted Fruit Salad 1 box lemon Jell-O 1 box orange Jell-O 2 cups boiling water 1 1/2 cups cold water Juice of 1 lemon 1/4 cup orange juice 1 #2 can crushed pineapple, well drained 3 bananas, diced 10 marshmallows, cut up

Mix above ingredients in order given and pour into 3-quart mold to congeal.

Topping: 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg 1 cup pineapple juice 2 tablespoons margarine 1/2 pint whipped cream

Mix flour and sugar, then add egg to make paste. Gradually add pineapple juice. Cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add butter and cool. Fold in whipped cream. Spread on top of congealed mixture and sprinkle with grated cheese. Corn Pudding 1 can whole-kernel corn 1 can creamed corn 2 eggs 1 cup milk 1/2 cup sugar 1/4 stick melted margarine 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon cornstarch

Beat eggs until frothy, add other ingredients, and mix well.

Bake at 350 degrees F. until pudding sets. Cookie Sheet Cake 2 cups flour 2 cups sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 stick margarine 1/2 cup Wesson oil 1 cup water 6 tablespoons cocoa 1/2 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon soda 2 eggs (one at a time) 1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift together flour, sugar, and salt. In a saucepan, combine the margarine, oil, water, and cocoa, and bring to a boil. Add cocoa mixture to flour mixture in large bowl.

Dissolve soda in buttermilk and add to mixture. Add eggs, one at a time, then vanilla, mixing well after each addition.

Pour into greased and floured 18-by-12-by-1-inch pan (use exact pan size).

Bake exactly 20 minutes in 350-degree F. oven.

Icing: 1 stick margarine 6 tablespoons canned milk 1 box powdered sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 tablespoons cocoa Chopped pecans

Melt margarine and combine with all other ingredients, blending until smooth. Add chopped pecans.

Spread icing on cake as soon as cake comes from oven.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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