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  • Diann Leo-Omine

A Cooking Lesson

On a dreary, rainy day ten years ago, I begged my grandmother to teach me her recipe for dumplings.


It’s a dumpling I was most familiar with at home, rarely spying it at even San Francisco’s sprawl of dim sum shops and restaurants. The closest I could find was at one Clement Street hole-in-the-wall. The fried pockets reliably waited on the second shelf closest to the door—an aluminum tray next to the wispy taro-shrimp dumplings, but above the mountain of potstickers and rolling fields of dried shrimp cheung fun. My grandmother’s iteration was steamed, with a translucent, chewy skin, but the savory, salty fillings were otherwise similar.


This occasion felt momentous since my grandmother stopped cooking after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis and after the death of my grandfather. My grandmother’s memory, at that point, had already rapidly begun slipping away.


My grandmother collected the bits and pieces of ingredients in neat rows on the cutting board. Seeing how little my grandmother grasped of each ingredient was a reminder that she could manifest something so wonderful out of the smallest things; like the time at a banquet meal she folded an entire fried flounder into a rigid takeout box and I was convinced that she was secretly a magician. Like so many Depression-era immigrants, she found a way to get by on so little, and wasted nothing.


As my grandmother seasoned the filling for the dumplings, I couldn’t pinpoint how then, but I knew by smell that it was familiar. When the raw filling mixture sizzled in the hot oil of the wok, she dabbed in oyster sauce and tossed the mixture around. She passed me a spoon to taste the cooked filling. It was just like I remembered.


My grandmother then dumped wheat starch and boiled water into a mixing bowl for the dumpling wrappers. She didn’t really measure, she just felt when it was right. She had a skill I only dreamed I could have—that knowledge of feel after cooking something undoubtedly dozens, if not hundreds, of times.


After approving the texture of the dough, my grandmother proceeded to form the dumplings—each dough ball pressed to a flat round with a tortilla press, a few teaspoons of meat slapped into the center, then crimped with the precision of three folds to seal the pockets of filling. Her hands—with nearly 90 years of life whipping through the folds—just did.


Alzheimer’s Disease is a thief that decides whether my grandmother remembers if she had porridge for breakfast or if she went for a walk already. She had undoubtedly prepared these dumplings hundreds of times. For what she couldn’t remember in the present, her body could remember in the past.



Since that initial lesson ten years ago, I’ve only attempted the dumplings a handful of times. I would make the filling but avoid the dough. I even avoided the dough long after finishing culinary school and working in professional kitchens, for fear that my abilities would never match my grandmother’s. The bag of the wheat starch I stowed away for a rainy day trial and error activity got long forgotten in the pantry. Often, I would instead rely on that one dim sum shop to satiate my craving for these particular dumplings.


A theme I have returned to during this shelter-in-place is: just start. Propelled by a newfound bravery, I decided to try my hand at the dumpling dough one day. With my kitchen scale handy, I dumped a cup of wheat starch in a mixing bowl, and added boiled water until it felt like the dough was coming together. Forming the dumplings, I could tell something wasn’t quite right about the dough. But I pressed on, fumbling my fingers through some awkward pleats.


As I clumsily formed and sealed these dumplings, I ached to visit my grandmother. I recognized how 80 years ago this month she first arrived in the United States. Immigration was less about courage and bravery than it was an imperative of survival. I sighed about the challenges my family has grappled with her inevitable declining health, especially with the silent sadness of her Alzheimer’s Disease. So much of my reluctance to make these dumplings meant conjuring a memory of who she was prior to her lesson with me, prior to her disease.


I longed to perform even a fraction of my grandmother’s muscle memory. She defied all trust and reliance I had on proper measurements and weights and precision, the tangibles I claimed were holding me back. I raged against the constant pursuit of perfection, especially for Asian-Americans under the thumb of the model minority construct. I realized how that pressure—even on an otherwise therapeutic task like making dumplings—was in fact its own sort of sabotage. This notion that I should intuitively cook based on heritage and cultural assumption was fatal.


In all honesty, the only thing I needed to do was just start. No, the dumplings weren’t Instagram-perfect, but they tasted just fine.


 

Diann Leo-Omine was born and raised in San Francisco (Ohlone land). She now resides in the North Central Valley (Nisenan land), between the expanse of ocean but before the ascent of mountains. Her writing is influenced by her experiences on the trails and professional kitchens. Follow more of her musings on Substack and Instagram.


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