Tuesday, 22 October 2013

On Moving from Dumpling Taker to Dumpling Maker

This is my confession: for my first 50 years, I have been a dumpling taker and not a dumpling maker.

I have watched the making of thousands of dumplings. I have eaten that many again. I have devoted time and words to deciphering dumplings.

My virgin dumpling
But, the grand total output of my personal Dumpling Production Department has steadily hovered around zero.  I have been a dumpling pretender.

Perhaps, fear of failure. Or, perhaps, I’ve been following Billy Bragg’s lyrical advice: “The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted for they never fit together again."

No, I know the real reason why. I haven’t been ready to make changes.

Picasso said: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” And so it somewhat is with making dumplings and making changes.

Inspired by the recent National Pierogi Day, last week marked my inaugural attempt to make my ancestral dumpling, the Ukrainian varenyk. (I riffed on recipes in the most comforting cookbook by the Veselka coffee shop on East 9th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City, http://www.veselka.com/cookbook/)

There’s an amazing amount of shape-shifting when making varenyky. First, the humble spuds go from their wobbly brown ovals to diced yellow rectangles to big spackle-like mass. This involves moving along a steady continuum of peeling, chopping, boiling, mashing, and blending with ricotta cheese and fried onion. 

As I go along, I’m reminded that, as a kid, I liked the reassuring symmetry of shapes and “making sets”. Now, in middle age, I am similarly attracted to “Physics for Dummies” in the hope of elegant and simple principles by which to make sense.

I think of the second law whereby energy can be neither created or destroyed, but can change forms and flow from one place to another. Here, I consistently apply energy to potatoes, onions, cheese, salt and pepper, and dough - and new shapes emerge.

As I move to fill the dough with the filling, I am nervous but loving how the many, the raw and the disparate become hopeful half-moons, lined in up in neat rows like entries in a nautical calendar. (Perhaps in homage to the heritage of my own heritage cuisine, I used store-bought "Double Merino" brand Chinese gow gee pastry, as dough making is still another change to come.)

I apply a delicate brushstroke of egg white and seal my varenyky, learning how much or how little filling to makes for the perfect fit. Sometimes, it’s a straight seal, sometimes a fold-over, sometimes the cheerful fence-post pattern of the fork’s tines. I learn as I go.

To get things right, I realise that there’s a certain regime that’s required. I need to be concentrated and purposeful, but I also need to have good “habits of the heart”. To feel the dense filling on the spoon, improbably heavy like mushy meteor rock. To salute the day with a nip of vodka – another potato potentate. To sense how much egg-white sealant is too much or too little, like a bird balanced on a waterlily. To keep count of how many made while not counting on a certain number to make.

I see that I need to go slow to get anywhere. I must be guided by the generousity of the experience rather than the generalities of expectation.

I look at my partner take up a pastry and some of the mushroom and sauerkraut filling I’ve also made. She gets it first go, and smiles. For her, giving seems as easy as breathing, while my own approach is asthmatic. 

For long have I been lost in the thinking rather than the doing about dumplings and life. Where to get the next one; the more exotic one; the one that no one else has had; the one that everybody else has and why shouldn’t I; the one that delivers happiness. I have let these thoughts have and hurtle me - rather than I have them and harness them.  

For me and for mine, there has been a high toll on this relentless road too often travelled.  The user is all paid out. Thankfully. 

While it’s still a struggle not to always speed ahead, I feel more ready than ever to shift down, to put on the blinker, and to exit. 

I watch my wife eat my first-ever batch of varenyky, including Dumpling #1. Something a little remarkable is happening: she is happy and perhaps I've had some role in that.

I have invested three hours of slowness; I have purposefully shaped something through time and effort; I have made good by making a change.

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