essay #4

Because of my father, I was exposed to a wider array of cuisines than I had any right to be growing up in Montana in the 1980s and 90s. That was a time when my hometown of Bozeman had a few decent French restaurants, one Chinese restaurant, bars, and sandwich shops. My family rarely ate out, and I don’t think we missed much (for what it’s worth, Bozeman now has a vibrant culinary scene).
           Dad oftentimes made dishes with the game meat from the ducks, deer, elk, or antelope he hunted. A few times we even dined on bighorn sheep and moose. He would grill the loins and tenderloins and serve them with a Béarnaise or whiskey cream sauce. The rumps and other roasts he would stew or turn into burger. One of his favorite cookbooks was Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (it’s an invaluable book). We ate a good amount of Cajun and Creole food made with Montana wildlife. But not until Emeril Lagasse came on the national scene in 1993 with his first cookbook, Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking, did my Dad make us American dumplings. I’d never had them before. They were tremendous.
            A Southern-style American dumpling is essentially white flour, milk, butter, seasonings, and baking powder combined into a gooey ball about the size of a shooter marble then either dropped into boiling liquid or steamed on a rack or colander where, after a minute or two, it puffs up and becomes an airy little cloud that will lovingly absorb all of the flavors of whatever you put it in. These dumplings are usually served with chicken in either a soup or a gravyish roux. I love them so much that I once seriously considered starting a food truck (to be named Bun/Cock) that would serve a sort of inverted Southern chicken and dumplings dish. I wanted to make the dumplings on a huge size so that they would act as the bun into which I would slop my chicken and gravy roux. I experimented around with proportions and ingredients (pig fat, eggs, yeast, minced onions, green onions, mushrooms, more baking powder) and eventually pulled off a good, fluffy, bun-like prototype. I even priced out ingredient and equipment costs before deciding that putting every ounce of my energy and every dime of my savings into a food truck was perhaps a misguided venture when I had a baby on the way. But for a minute there I thought, This will be my contribution to world cuisine. The tiny Southern dumpling turned into a sandwich.
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Back in 2001 when I left Montana to go to college on the East Coast, I got a bit confused about dumplings. I knew what I meant when I talked about dumplings, but anyone else who told me, “Oh, I love dumplings, too,” turned out to be talking about a different food entirely, which was usually though not always Chinese dumplings.
            Chinese dumplings are commonly made by rolling out a flour and water-based pasta, cutting it into squares or rounds, dolloping on a mash of pork and/or other ingredients and seasonings, closing each one up, and either steaming them or steaming then frying them. To me, these were less dumplings than ravioli variants. I was a young man and, you might say, pigheaded—but I wasn’t so pigheaded as to not want to try them.
             Turns out, I love Chinese dumplings (especially the steamed kind), and I’ve been fortunate to get a very good fill of them lately. Specifically, I’ve been making the pilgrimage across Lake Washington to eat at Din Tai Fung in Bellevue. For those who may not know, Din Tai Fung is a Taiwan-based chain/foodie sensation that specializes in pork dumplings (see above; they also serve many other dumplings and dishes such hot and sour pork soup, shrimp and pork shao mai, and shaved ice: see below). Eating at Din Tai Fung is essentially a way to consume Taiwanese street food in an upscale setting. You can even peek in on the dumpling-making process through a window (at least in Bellevue you can). My mother-in-law, who was born in Taiwan, tells me that the street dumplings in Taipei are superior. Nevertheless, she loves Din Tai Fung. And how could you not? The food is sensational (and with a new location opening at University Village here in Seattle this fall/winter, what reason will I ever have to eat at home? Other Din Tai Fung locations: Los Angeles, Australia, South Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and of course Taiwan).
             A plethora of other dumplings exist, too (from Italian gnocchi to German knödel to Nepalese momos to Jewish matzha balls and many, many more. For a list, see the Wikipedia dumpling entry). It would be an interesting endeavor, I think, to sample all of them. And since I don’t have the money to travel on a whim, I guess I better get cooking. Will this mean that I eat dumplings in one form or another for the rest of my life? Or at least the remainder of the year? Perhaps. And would a dumpling binge be so bad? Definitely not.
-Thomas McCafferty
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