by Joyce Yao
I had the honor of following Ms. Odessa Wilson through the process of making chicken and dumplings, a staple of her family’s holiday traditions. She shared with me the stories of her Northside upbringing and love for holiday cooking over pulled chicken, rolled out dumplings, and the meal we (but mostly she) cooked.
Ms. Odessa is the level of “experienced” where she can read a recipe and get a good grasp of how good the recipe would turn out in her kitchen. She read Mama Kat’s pound cake recipe in the [July] Northside Newsletter, muttering the ingredients to herself and finally saying, “This looks good.” She then asked me to write down a copy of the recipe for her when I can. Ms. Odessa’s cooking method is basically pure genius. “I may think of wanting to do something different, and a recipe will come up ready in my head, and I’ll just do it, just by looking around what I got in my house. I sit myself down in my chair, and it’ll just come into my head. I’ll get up, and start cooking.” To the more hesitant and novice of the budding cooks in our audience, she recommends that we start by picking a recipe and cooking a lot to get a sense of what tastes good to us and how we can season to those tastes.
She has a set of 4 well-loved (20 years), industrial sized pots to cook for varying sizes of family gatherings. She pulled out the smallest of them, a 4.5 quart for ours. Her flour is kept in an old ice cream container. I felt right at home, as the child of a similarly creative and resourceful woman.
Ms Odessa loves the process of cooking; that’s part of her secret. There’s a method of familiarity with just the right amount of experimentation. “I can be off to myself, no one in my way. Then I can come up with other ideas and use them as I cook.” Inspiration is something that comes natural to her, in her own words. It runs in the family because everyone cooks, and she adds, “but no one gets serious about it like I do.”
She’s a born and bred Southerner. The day we cooked the chicken, she sent me home with a pineapple and a few slices of pound cake on tinfoil-wrapped plate. Over our time together, she shared with me both her pride in cooking with the magic of grease and seasoning, as well as self-imposed high standards for the food that she serves— a true duality of Southern hospitality. As someone who has been in it for a while (“it” being the Southern food ways), she is far from bashful when she shares her methods: “When I cook, there’s nothing healthy about it! Southern food… I think Southern food is about the grease. I just love the taste of seasoning in things. I might wake up 1-2 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep and I’ll get into the kitchen and start cooking.” She picked up a piece of cornbread that she made for the meal and ventured to try it, mentioning that she had never used this cornmeal before. “Not bad… if it’s not right, I’m not serving it.”
“I’m so used to cooking for a big family, so now when I cook, I still overcook. So what I do is share with my friends. ‘Hey, I dun’ cooked, come and get you something.’” She said she always has people dropping by asking if she has anything for them to eat. This comes from her well-established reputation for being a talented and caring cook and caretaker.
“My biggest thing is cooking and helping other people out, you know. I’m constantly doing something, helping someone do something. I called my friend to see what she needed so I could go by and pick up stuff to bring it to her. Some of these food banks, I go and get stuff and I share with other people. That’s just the way I am.”
We talked about what food meant to us, and I was moved to hear about the ways that Ms. Odessa demonstrates everything that we love about the South: the warmth and kindness towards a community, the joy that comes from stewarding family traditions, and the ways that food is love. She has mastered the understanding that comfort food is a balance of cooking because that’s just the way things are and always have been, while finding ways to add something new.
I found that Ms. Odessa was always excited to bring the conversation back to food and cooking, sometimes in ways that demonstrated just how humble she is in terms of the magnitude of food that she prepares for the holidays, along with her absolute generosity towards friends and families. Methods of canning and baking would make their way back into the forefront of our conversation. Every story had a related recipe embedded within; the details of the foods were an essential part of the stories that she shared. She found her comfort talking about food, using it as a way to describe the interconnectedness of her family’s diaspora across the country (expressing her excitement of harvesting from her uncle’s backyard garden in Apex), her experience shaping her cooking around her extended family’s tastes (okra is controversial in her family), and generations-long holiday practices.
Ms. Odessa described a typical holiday set-up for her family: those big cook-out aluminum pans lining a table heaped with food, and her, a flurry of activity in her kitchen while the family continues “talking, cutting up, laughing” in the living room. Ms. Odessa’s cooking style is based on efficiency and independence in the kitchen— once her mind is on it, it’s best if nobody else is in the kitchen with her so she can do what she needs to do. “When everyone’s at my house and know I’m cooking, they sit in the living room— it’s open and I can look at them and my stove, so we talk and carry on but they don’t get in the kitchen with me because they say ‘we know how you like to do.’ And then they just get everything else set up for me, and they help clean up. But I’m normally washing as I go, so there isn’t too much anyway.”
At the end of Thanksgiving, Ms. Odessa is unplagued by the usual prescribed sleepiness of a big meal. “I feel good. Everyone helps clean up. We never just eat and leave. We help clean up, put the food away, wash the dishes. We clean up everything and help put furniture back in place and everything. When everyone leaves, I get me something hot to drink, and I chill out and relax. I usually do hot tea, or a cup of coffee. I’m not really a drinker, but if I need something to relax me I may have a small glass of wine or a little daiquiri or something. I’m hyped up after Thanksgiving. I’m up at 5 o’clock in the morning, constantly going getting everything fixed until everybody leaves (might be 10, 11 o’clock at night). Cooking energizes me.”
In the true Southern host fashion, Ms. Odessa loves to entertain and serve, bustling around and staying busy throughout the evening. “I walk around everybody and they say, “Come on and sit with us.” But I go from one table to another table talking. They’ll be cuttin’ up, asking ‘who wants this, who wants that.’ I’m like this: if I do all this cooking, when it’s time to sit down and eat I don’t have that appetite that much. I just entertain everybody, laughing, cuttin’ up, and talkin’ to make sure they have everything they need. I mostly eat my dinner the next day.” She notices the chicken broth boiling and hurries over to turn down the heat. “Everybody normally brings something, but I’m the one who overdoes it.” She laughs at this with a good dose of pride.
The holidays have always been a big family event for the Wilson family. All 9 of her mom’s brother and sister’s children come together for the holidays, as well as in the summer-time to do a cookout. The family numbers close to 100 when you count the cousins and kids too.
“We try to keep it going, you know, and that way the other children coming up will know their family history and how we’ve always done things. If something happens to us, they can try to keep it going.” The process of keeping the tradition alive involves herding reluctant kids into the kitchen and giving them a recipe, insisting that they will soon be responsible to officiate the family holiday gatherings. Ms. Odessa offered me a sample groan that she often hears from the kids.
Until that point, Ms. Odessa will keep cooking an entire meal and a half for her family. She shared her vast and ambitious annual meal plan with me: turkey and dressing, mac and cheese, chicken and dumplings, collard greens (sometimes with ham hock), cabbage, potato salad, yams. Dessert includes sweet potato pie, pound cake, pineapple cake, apple cobbler, maybe some homemade ice cream if the family is feeling it.
“My turkey is the last thing I prepare. I get that ready, cleaned up and everything, stuff it and all, and I put it in the oven and let it cook over night when I’m sleeping,” — she laughs knowingly when I give her a look— “I just always have done it!”
Such a menu requires diligent prep work, and she does it for both Thanksgiving and Christmas at once. While she starts getting stuff together for Thanksgiving, she’s also preparing for Christmas, making November and December a 2-month long affair of hunting for deals, prep work, and keeping a sharp eye on her long-term holiday strategy so that when she’s ready to start cooking on those respective holidays, she can get it all done without any hiccups.
Ms. Odessa has one important cooking tip: use your leftovers, or share them with some friends. “What I usually do with my turkey left-over is turkey pot pie.” She says it can be made to give you your daily fixing of vegetables, and even better, “you can put it in the freezer for a later special snack!” And take it from her: “I hate wasting food, so what I don’t eat, I just call someone and ask if they want it. I make use of leftovers.” Food waste is no joke!
Beyond food, one Wilson family tradition is to give toys, clothing, and dinner to another family in need. Another tradition is setting up a table for card games and a table for kid games after a holiday meal. The family will be “sharing stories, cutting up, having a good time” for hours after eating. When it comes to sharing stories at the holidays, Ms. Odessa says they always talk about her cooking. They say, “if nobody don’t cook nothin’, we know Odessa will. She’ll have everything together and all. She’ll end up with so much food,’ — which I do, and I’ll forget to serve at times– but they’ll make sure they get it.”
Before Ms. Odessa came to Northside, she lived on a farm in Apex. “We sit around and talk about things that we did when we were comin’ up. We were in an area where we were surrounded by Ku Klux Klans in Apex, Chatham County. We used to run and hide when we heard them coming down the road on horses late at night because we never knew whose house they would burn down. We would hide down in the woods and all. That’s what our life was like, raised up on a farm, growing tobacco, gardening, taking care of pigs, horses, stuff like that. We had to work for them also but we never knew when they were going to do something to you. Some people don’t like to talk about it, but it don’t bother me and all because it’s life. Things we have to get used to. But we still got these people out here… We dealt with it, we know how to deal with it. Even though the kids were shooting us with bb guns— we overcame it.”
She moved to Chapel Hill when she was starting up in elementary school. She grew up in Northside, enjoying all of the activities in the neighborhood, especially at Hargraves Community Center. She described the beauty of having people around still from her childhood.
“Northside is homebase, some of my people are still around— old classmates, friends. Even if they moved out, somehow or another they end up back if they can. I knew Kathy [Atwater] since she was a little girl. We all come up in the same neighborhood, by Lindsay Street, across the street from the school.” We proceeded to spend five minutes trying to get me on the same page about where she lived back then, exchanging landmarks and street names to try to paint ourselves a good picture of the neighborhood both now and then.
When it comes to dumplings, Ms. Odessa says her family is content at any gathering as long as they have dumplings. The secret is good and proper seasoning, and she has an entire towering shelf to attest to that. She rummages through her cabinets that hold mounds of food boxes and cans, and hands me what she wants to share, telling me, “I got stuff for everything, everywhere.”
The first time Ms. Odessa made chicken and dumplings was when she was 17. She didn’t think it was going to turn out, but she was determined to try anyway. She and her aunt both made their own batches for a family gathering. She was surprised that the family enjoyed hers as well. The recipe has remained mostly unchanged ever since, maybe with a little experiment that may or may not make it to the next holiday gathering, like adding potatoes and corn. Her metric for success is: “Everybody eats it and no one complains.”
I asked if she ventured to try other people’s chicken and dumplings, like at a restaurant. She admitted that “it’s kind of… different. It’s about the seasoning and it’s not right. Most of the time it’s not good, so I just do my own.” She laughs again
While I hovered over her at the stove, she was sure to remind me over and over that she couldn’t tell me how much she was adding, though she tried anyway. It was a fun game to try to keep up with her swift and confident cooking. When I asked her about jotting down a recipe, she gave me the biggest, longest laugh, saying, “I’m not too good at sitting down and writing a recipe like that.”
Our incredible meal came to a close as she quickly moved to get the plates out of the way almost bashfully, while offering, “Now, would you like some dessert?”
Ms. Odessa’s Chicken & Dumplings
“It’s all about the seasoning. And it’s good for the winter time. I just love the taste of it and the base of the soup that you get. They put you in the mind of chicken noodle soup. We ate that comin’ up. We like chicken and dumplings more because it’s thicker and creamier, and plus it fills you up more than chicken noodle soup.” — Ms. Odessa
4 chicken thighs, cleaned (washed and cut off the fat)
3 chicken bouillon cubes
Chicken base (optional)
1 stalk’s worth of chopped celery
2 tablespoons of butter
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Red pepper flakes
1 ½- 2 cups of all purpose (“plain”) flour
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 egg yolk
Fill a big pot with water. Turn the heat on high and add chicken, bouillon, celery, and butter to the water. Once it starts boiling, lower the heat to medium low and cook for about 40 minutes. Take the meat out and set it aside to cool, then pick the meat off the bone and break it up. Be sure to leave the broth to use in the next step.
Turn up the heat so the broth comes to a boil. In the meantime, add the flour, oil, egg yolk, and 2 teaspoons of salt into a bowl. Mix it with your hands, if you’d like, until course (“cornmeal-like”). Slowly pour broth to the bowl while continuing to mix, just until combined. (Water works too) Add the pulled chicken to the pot. Cover the dough with flour and transfer to a floured surface. Knead for a few minutes and then pinch a small ball off the dough. Roll the dough out with more flour, until about a centimeter thin. The shape is less important; as Ms. Odessa offered, “just as long as you’re able to cut it into strips.” Ms. Odessa cuts them into long strips and then breaks them into the pot, but she says you can follow whatever method feels right for you. She piles one batch in and then goes to work on the next, dropping the dumplings on top of each other (a true example of trusting the process). After all the dough is in the pot, simmer for 20 minutes on medium-low. Be sure to stir a little so nothing sticks to the bottom. The dumplings are ready when there are no more pockets of white on them.
* Ms. Odessa recommends having everything out that you will need to cook so you can keep it moving.
* Ms. Odessa is not particularly brand loyal. She recommends looking for a good sale.
* Assume that everything is to taste.
* You can cook the chicken ahead of time.