Making Dumplings

It begins mid-afternoon. The sun, now level with my eyes on the horizon, glows like a bright yolk. Ma drops a little footstool by the window and flicks on the switch of a lamp. She sits down. On the floor by her feet are newspapers. Sheet after sheet, sprawled open—the headlines are in Chinese, characters I cannot read. Even though I am still a little full from lunch, I browse the kitchen for a snack: a few sea-salt crisps, some tiny sheets of salted nori—nibbles for distraction. She is already deep in work, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She squints as she focuses on separating the blades of Chinese leek, one by one. I have always called them garlic chives, an American name—more familiar to my ears—but whatever they are, soon they pile up in heaps. An hour or so has passed. Now the sunset splashes the sky with color–shattered panes of glowing tinted glass.

From my room, writing or reading, I can later hear the whine of the food processor, the blaring electric whir as it chops and mixes ground pork and the garlic chives and Ma’s special blend of spices. If my door is open to let in a draft of fresh air, I can hear her loudly spit into the sink after tasting a bit of the raw meat to make sure its flavor is perfect. The faucet sprays. I hear her rinse her tongue, slosh water in her mouth. By now the sky has cooled like the last sputters of a charcoal ember—silver clouds in the sky, long and thin against the black, and then the quietness of crickets’ chirps, lulling.

We are sitting in a circle at the kitchen table. Pa, Ma, Katherine, and I all positioned. Ma pinches off a handful of dough, smacks it on a flour-dusted cutting board. She kneads it with a palm, gives it a loving pat. Another one. A third. And then she squeezes it with both hands. It stretches, stretches, shapes into a pale-white snake. Then she rests it on the cutting board and raises a large Chinese knife, which gleams dangerously. She cuts it into little oval buds. Katherine and I grab at them. We each grab one of the buds and smash it in our palms. We flatten each bud into a disk, and then, with our individual rolling pins, we smooth out the crudeness of the edge. We start from the center of the circle and roll outward, bring the pin back to the center, roll outward again, and so forth. Ma reminds us to dust the pin with flour, always, and our hands as well. We roll these wrappers while Pa grabs them and fills them with a small spoonful of meat before sealing them shut with little pinches of his fingers, and then crimps them compact by squeezing them with his hands. We have always tried to learn it, my sister and I, but we never get it right. The sealed flaps break open, spilling meat. Frustrated, we often give up. But Pa is a machine, making one after the other, cranking them out and lining them in rows on a baking sheet.

This is the stage of the process during which I often used to give up. In elementary school, as a raucous, impatient child—one who demanded immediate results and lost his temper when they did not materialize quite so easily—I would often storm out of the kitchen back to my room, slamming the door behind me. “If you don’t make ‘em, you won’t eat ‘em!” Pa would shout. I would huddle in my room, seething, for hours until I heard him knock on my door and say, through the wood, “I left some dumplings for you on the table.” And then he would leave, and only after I was sure that he was gone—when I heard the click of his door shutting—I would exit my room and guiltily, sullenly eat the cold food.

Today Katherine, twelve-years old, begins to grow annoyed. She is not like the child I used to be—she is cool, rational. She has an amazing Zen-like acceptance of things, a little middle-school monk. But when Pa says, “If you don’t make ‘em, you won’t eat ‘em,” she scowls and marches to her room, and we hear the door close. It is quiet. The stars, like flecks of frozen gold, glimmer, and wind howls through the storm door. We continue to make dumplings in silence, the three of us. We are silent even later, when Ma turns on the range hood and we listen to it drone, when the water boils and we drop the dumplings in one by one and they cloud the water, bounce on bubbles. I make potstickers for myself, watch the oil shimmer, and them place them in a ring around the outline of the pan. The oil spits and pop-pops like firecrackers.

Later that night, after Katherine leaves her room and draws near me as I clean the table, Pa comes over and tells her that he left dumplings for her on the table. Without missing a beat, she looks up with a sharp but gentle calmness and says, “Did I ask you to leave me dumplings? I’m not that hungry.” Pa opens his mouth, unable to find words. He stands like this, taken aback, for a while, before he turns around to leave. Katherine turns toward me and shrugs, the fierceness gone. “I’m not hungry, really,” she insists, but it is not the kind of insistence in which she needs to prove herself against doubt. She goes back to her drawing.

I take a stack of plates into my arms and briefly look at her, my little sister—a role model at twelve-years old—and bring them to the sink to soak. Wringing my hands dry against a towel, I look out the window at the brilliance of a San Francisco night, the winking airstrip and a purple haze above the mountains, and smile.

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