Sunday, April 03, 2005

Dumplings

My task, per “A Writer’s Book of Days” for April 3, 2005, is to write about my mommy’s cooking.

“Gurl,” he said, “yo’ mamma can grease a wok!”

“Seriously,” she said, “I was a vegetarian before I ate your mom’s dumplings.”

“Wow!,” they said; “that was the best meal I’ve ever had.”

Unanimously my mother’s cooking is astoundingly fantastic. People talk about her food for years. They reference her dishes using the names of the food; porcupine meatballs, custard amadine, for long after they’ve forgotten the names of her children.

My mamma can cook. Everyone tells her this—though they normally have to politely yell through the dining room doorway or over the kitchen counter. She never sits at the table when people are over; she is cooking and making sure everything is brought as hot as it comes as it is. And they love it. White folk tend to freak out about it since they’re not used to having the hostess in the kitchen all the time. While Shake ‘n’ Bake is a culinary classic, it does not require careful, nor constant, supervision. If my mom’s food were easy to make, Kraft and Velveeta would have come up with three step substitutes that bored hausfraus in Nebraska could replicate between moments of Days of Our Lives.

My mamma doesn’t use common ingredients. Never will a grain of minute rice or ghetto rice be carried into the house; her rice—long grain fragrant Jasmine rice from Thailand is her type, and always the most expensive in the store. Her tea is not the inexplicably long rows of tea available in a store, with the French words “Thé au jasmin” written on the side. My mamma’s tea must be retrieved through a complex system of winks and requests and cajoling from shopkeepers. And a hefty fee. Even her snacks are dried scallops; $150 a pound.

But the best thing in the world my mamma makes are dumplings. Anything wrapped in my mom’s homemade dough is delicious, but particularly her beef dumplings. The beef is strong; the spices are strong; the smell is perfectly innocuous. One can’t smell anything but flour when about to eat, but when one bites into the perfectly shaped 2-inch dumpling, the flavor bursts forth. These dumplings are magical. They convert vegetarians.

My aunt can do them pretty well. My aunt’s are larger and the dough is too pretty. She makes the skin transparent, and the sealing fold of each dumpling is magnificently proportioned and elegantly twisted and ended such that it looks like a machine did it; however, hers do not taste as good as my mamma’s.

My mamma’s dumplings are round and happy; they are misshapen because they are made by hand and the philosophy of substance over style. They are unique; they are delicious. Eating thousands over the years has taught me how to be. Round, happy, unique, and unobtrusive. A calm, interesting exterior, with a delight waiting inside. Before being boiled, they wait in a little line, sometimes on a tray, sometimes on the countertop. One looks at them and assumes that at any minute one might roll onto its belly and say, “Hi Bob; nice day, isn’t it?”

My aunt’s dumplings are staid sober soldiers. They always reside in concentric circles in an expensively woven tray before going into the boil. They are regimented, orderly, and wait quietly to be dipped in the wrong kind of vinegar. They are beautiful, highly polished, with ornamental braids and hats and smooth uniforms. They wait, looking at each other, whispering, “Reginald. Nigel.” They don’t taste very good. They are sour inside.

A woman, accused of being a witch, who married into the family knows about our stringent requirements for dumplings. She tries to make them. They end up being huge banana-long ugly dumplings with thick skins and no love, concern, or happiness built into them. They taste pasty, doughy, miserable, and metaphorical.

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