What is a Dumpling?
by Hallel Yadin
Recently, my neighbors and I hosted a dumpling night. Somehow, we got on the topic of what, precisely, constitutes a dumpling, the “how” being that I asked whether ravioli counted because I wanted to recreate this YouTube video for dinner.
For weeks, we were mired in debate. Sure, a dumpling is a bunch of stuff wrapped in a pocket of dough. But, as we discovered, there’s a limit to that definition. Is it size? (Ask yourself if, in your heart of hearts, you can rationalize calling a calzone a dumpling.) Is there such a thing as an open dumpling? What about a dumpling without filling? What if there’s stuff on top, à la a Pop-Tart, the most polarizing of our test cases? We went around and around so many times that all of us (except for one Taurus) at some point deviated from our original arguments, apparently without even noticing.
We eventually called a truce, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the debate. It was buoyed by two forces that greatly inform my work as an archivist: classification and translation.
The question of what constitutes a dumpling is fundamentally a question of classification. Classification has practical limits, sure, but what specifically were the limits of the dumpling discourse? Beyond that, the discussion is artificially limited by language. Virtually every culture has some version of a dumpling. Within the mainstream U.S. vernacular, which ones retain their original names or take on an English-language translation, and which ones are subsumed by the overarching word “dumpling”? This syllabus is a record of my attempt to wrap my head around both of these confounding factors.
Ever since Carl Linneaus invented the field of taxonomy because he couldn’t draw, we have invented complex systems of nomenclature to organize objects. Classification is the fundamental undergirding of our lives, online and off. We are constantly negotiating immense amounts of information, although we don’t always register it, because algorithms and our brains make this negotiation fairly seamless.
Earnest attempts at classification are vexing, to say the least. Effective classification is precise enough that it accurately describes the object at hand, but broad enough a category would be legible to somebody unfamiliar with the object being described. In many ways, classification is not so much about defining what things are or aren’t—it’s about defining how things relate to each other.
Classification is profoundly constrained by the tools at hand; see, for instance, scientists renaming genes so that Excel would stop misclassifying them as dates. This is troublesome, because classification has a profound impact on how we perceive our environments. As we categorize virtually everything in our day-to-day lives, often unknowingly, our understanding of the world around us is limited by the number of categories into which we can sort. Classification is of the world, but it also creates our worlds.
Given all of this, I felt it was important to investigate a formal classification apparatus. I started with Library of Congress (LOC) Subject Headings. Most academic libraries use various LOC classification systems to organize books, archives, and other materials. As an archivist, it’s the system with which I’m most familiar, but it was also of interest because it’s incredibly influential.
“Dumplings.” is an authorized LOC subject. Great start!
Further investigation reveals that a scant three “narrower terms” are associated with dumplings: matzo balls, pierogi, and takoyaki.
This is, frankly, a baffling list. Does it imply a federal government-endorsed supremacy of Ashkenazi Jews, Poles, and Japanese people in defining the contours of the dumpling? Not entirely. It’s more than likely inertia. LOC subject headings are decided by the Subject Authority Cooperative Program (SACO), whose editorial decisions are not exactly mysterious. SACO member institutions can submit additions and changes to LOC subject headings, and those proposals are discussed at public meetings. Every kind of dumpling that could possibly be linked to the subject heading would have to be brought to SACO and decided upon individually, and, to be fair, catalogers have other things to do. However, this is one small example of the insidious ways that bureaucratic apathy impacts which dishes—and by extension which cultures—are made “official.”
On that note, Claire Woodcock writes in more depth on the fundamental problems with LOC classification.
Finally, Gretchen L. Hoffman explores cookbook classification as a proxy for how “ethnic food” groups are approached in LOC cataloging. Foodways are messy, and everyday food has not always been viewed as a subject worthy of serious academic study, so categorizing it can be tricky.
The true hub of the dumpling debate is the edit history of the “Dumpling” page on Wikipedia. Here, the degree to which dumpling definition is based on individuals’ sheer convictions is apparent. What justifications are present are shaky at best; Wikipedians can add or remove information for whatever reasons they please, and it’s up to other Wikipedians to decide if those reasons are sound. Editors’ reasoning was often culture-bound, without any allusion to some circumscribed definition of dumplings. Take, for example, the explanation behind an edit on the subject of unfilled dumplings: Southern U.S. has a tradition of dumplings that have no filling. See song “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”.
Other Wikipedians don’t bother to provide a reference. One representative reason for an edit: Removed Poptart and Crustless PBJ as they are definitively not dumplings.
Some other highlights include:
- Since when are bean plant blossoms edible?
- 3 years seems long enough to wait for a citation for this unlikely-sounding recipe
- a large ball is a thick ball
- Pop tarts are NOT dumplings.
Wikipedia is far from representative of anything at all. However, given its ubiquity and the fact that anyone could edit the dumpling list, it was as close as I was going to get to popular consensus. And all it did was reinforce that there’s no such thing.
Our dumpling debate was further constrained by the most powerful classification system of all, language itself. There is no known ur-dumpling: virtually every kind of dumpling has a specific name in its language of origin, and those names are retained inconsistently in the broader American food landscape. In my own case, I feel natural naming pierogies, wontons, or momos, but not so much jiaozi, manti, or gujia. It’s telling that I felt compelled to italicize the latter three.
This is separate from dishes that have picked up a translation, like xiao long bao becoming soup dumplings or kneidlach becoming, functionally, matzah balls. (Matzah balls did have an interlude when they were first being sold commercially as “Alsatian feather balls.” Translation is hard when you also need to market!) Dozens, if not hundreds, of distinct dumpling varieties are fully collapsed into the English catchall “dumpling.” It’s impossible to define what a dumpling is when it is the complete representation of so many objects, as opposed to simply one of the categories they can be in.
Alicia Kennedy has written on translation in food media. She touches on a number of elements that influence the current state of affairs, like the generally dismal rates of translated literature in the United States, and the tendency to frame American cuisine as “innovative” but non-American cuisine as “traditional” or passed down.
Nick Kindelsperger, has, to me, the most compelling explanation for the dumpling definition conundrum: two entirely different categories came to be represented by one word.
Just for fun: Tasty still exists, and they have a pertinent series.
The dumplings that my neighbors and I made are actually called mandoo, but at no point did any of us bring that into the debate. We all endorse this recipe. Don’t double it for just six people, even if you want leftovers!