Sometimes when we talk about dumplings, we argue.
What are we talking about when we talk about dumplings is a collection of essays by journalists, food historians, and other writers for whom meatballs are a means of understanding global and personal histories that includes a number of debates related to meatballs. Are Cornish pasties really Cornish, or could they have come from Devon? Did the matzo ball rob the krepele of its rightful title as the best Jewish dumpling? And speaking of matzo balls, should they sink or float? Are jam-filled samosas a delicious twist on a classic or a culinary abomination? And the ultimate question, lurking throughout the collection: what account like a dumpling?
Culinary authenticity is an age-old talking point in the food world that has only intensified in recent years alongside the popularity of lockdown-inspired culinary content on social media. Michal Stein’s essay “Around the World” focuses on this debate through the lens of one of the internet’s favorite firestorms: the viral tweet. Stein writes about bringing friends together for a dinner of “ravioli from around the world” in honor of a deceased friend. Her photo of the dumpling selection, shared on Twitter and captioned ‘We’ve made dumplings all over the world’, sparked heated debate online about which dumplings deserved their place on the table and which had been overlooked . Stein’s essay hints at an essential tension in food discourse: food’s ability to bring people together can be as powerful as its ability to divide. These debates can be divisive precisely because of the closeness between food and family, memory and identity. I bristle when Eric Geringas describes my own childhood dumplings, Czech knedlíky, as “stale bread boiled in wallpaper paste”.
Food exists at the intersection of the deeply personal and the political. As numerous essays illustrate, dumplings can be understood as edible artifacts of colonial history and global politics. Christina Gonzales describes how the Filipino siopao is inseparable from the colonial and economic history of the Philippines. Julie Van Rosendaal considers the ubiquity of pierogies as evidence of the assimilation of immigrants from post-Soviet Poland into Canada. John Lorinc notes in his contribution that the very presence of Uyghur manti in Washington, DC inevitably alludes to the cultural genocide of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang and their migration to the United States.
One of the strengths of the collection is the success with which the authors weave these critical reflections with personal memory, anecdote and humour. For Chantal Braganza, cooking Indian potato cutlets is a method to better understand her grandmother (grandmothers, like dumplings, are everywhere in the collection). “Dumplings, like other foods,” Braganza writes, “can become the screens onto which people project meanings, as well as the vehicles for the consumption of particular messages.” Intertwining memory with cultural analysis, the authors use dumplings as channels to explore migration, diaspora and family, situating themselves in unruly cultural histories through their relationship to food.
Kristen Arnett pokes fun at the semantics of dumpling debates by stretching their definition to its satirical extreme. Technically, Arnett points out, if a ravioli is “an outer layer and a filled middle,” everything is a ravioli: a banana, a mattress, a four-door Toyota Camry, the Internet. The dumpling doesn’t have a Platonic shape, but there’s a lot of joy and flavor in the debate.