When I first met my Chinese friend Wen Jing, I made a tepid impression by being shocked, and even offended, that she did not drink tea. I like to always start off my friendships with ethnic and religious stereotyping – it really gets the ball rolling. Because Wen Jing is the soul of hospitality and generosity, she brought me back a canister of tea after her next trip back home to China. Recently, she welcomed me into her home to make good on a long time promise (one I extracted from her) to show me how to make Chinese dumplings.
I always tell my children not to say they are bad at something if it is only their first try. I was really bad at making Chinese dumplings. I saw my friend stare at my dumplings with consternation and simple bewilderment, I guess. How was it possible for someone working under her tutelage, with the same ingredients, to come up with a product so vastly different from the uniform, pillowy crescents she was churning out at lightning speed? Mine were oddly shaped with forlorn, poorly tucked edges. Clearly there were mitigating factors at work. They were delicious though, I want that known. I suppose it should also be known that she made the filling before I got there.
I can’t tell you how to make Chinese dumplings here, I simply don’t have the patience, plus I still don’t know how. And I think it is something that has to be learned from your Chinese grandmother. My Norwegian grandmother made dumplings of a dense, almost rubbery variety. Chinese dumplings are labor intensive, and skilled labor at that. My grandma’s dumplings, in chicken soup were bland, but mood-enhancingly delicious.
Recently, at a family gathering, I learned that my great grandmother – the Norwegian grandmother’s in-law, was the dumpling queen of Northern Minnesota. Phebie Ann Ford Woodley (namesake of my daughter, Phoebe) owned a hunting and fishing resort in Longville, Minnesota with her husband George. She was a well-loved woman – hospitable, resourceful and industrious. This is a woman who, when she saw visitors coming down the drive, would head out back with an axe and a chicken would be frying in the pan before the guests were knocking on the door under a fine shower of settling feathers.
She would be disappointed at her great-granddaughter, I who once called my husband home from work to remove a spider from the house. But in my defense, it was staring at me. No, actually, she wouldn’t be disappointed, she would laugh. She laughed at life a great deal. Judgment and unkindness were something she didn’t have interest or time for. She wasn’t a saint – she had her faults – but pettiness and stinginess weren’t among them. She lived to be 98, spending her final years in a nursing home, a place I can’t imagine being cheerful. But she was cheerful to the end.
I am privileged to be the caretaker of a box of correspondence between my great-grandparents. You will have to wait for the chicken and dumpling recipe because right now I am going to peruse some old postcards. Plus, once you actually catch the chicken you are going to be too tuckered out for cooking. Chickens have a genius for only one thing: evasion. They are hopeful creatures.
I also have Phebie’s pocketknife; I use it to threaten spiders.