My boyfriend Keith does not like my dumplings. He thinks they’re plain-tasting. I stir the sticky dough. He says that even their color is unappetizing. Like paste, he tells me, like something thick from inside an engine.
“Like papier-mâché, almost,” he says, and I look at him and blink.
Keith and I have been standing in my cramped kitchen for over an hour now, scraping spoons against spoons, and it’s late. On the table behind us, there’s a bowl of French-cut green beans and a whole chicken, getting cold. I take a pinch of flour and release it over the bowl.
“Like this,” I say, but still the consistency won’t come together in the way I know it can. I add another pinch, and then another, and then another.
The recipe for the dish is my grandmother’s, and it is simple: whisk together flour and egg, whisk until the dough sticks to the spoon and then, at last, snaps back against the bowl. It’s all about consistency, something you can’t put your finger on, something you just have to know. That is why there is no written recipe for this dish, this congealed mess of white that gets boiled in bits and drenched in sour cream and salt and pepper. There is no written recipe because how do you put your finger on dumpling elasticity?
“So you just know?” Keith asks. He dips his finger into the simmering stock beside us, pulling it to his lips.
“I just know,” I say.
It was my grandmother who first taught me to make the dumplings. She curled her tongue and pursed her lips.
“Spätzle,” she said. “‘Little sparrow,’ like you.”
I stood beside her enormous thighs, which smelled of fruit Mentos, and poked my head over the counter. In this memory, I am young—nine or ten, at most—but still I rise up, peering over the counter.
“Just crack eggs and add flour,” she says, beating them into the bowl. “If the batter feels too thick, you add a pinch of water. Too wet, you add some flour.”
On the wall above her is a row of business cards, cartoonish stethoscopes in every corner. Here are the many numbers for the many doctors’ offices she visits weekly, and my father has taped them beside the telephone because otherwise she will lose track. She’s been sick for months, my grandmother, with an illness we cannot see, so I do my best to stand upright, knowing all the while how important it is to know what too thick and too wet look like.
“You see?” she says. “Like this.”
My grandmother was one of thirteen children—a detail I reveal to classmates when asked to share something about myself. It is not my truth, but a truth, one I find particularly fascinating.
“Like a real-life Brady Bunch,” I say, “but with six additional characters!”
I like this truth because it feels foreign: my grandmother’s parents, two recently emigrated Hungarians; their jobs, as a butcher and a midwife. Even the house where my grandmother lived is far removed from the Pennsylvania suburbia I’ve only ever known; it is a brick row home in downtown Trenton, a place so dangerous I once imagined gunfire in local bakeries, children holding pistols, graffiti on every storefront.
“I won’t go there,” my mother told me once. “I didn’t go once we were married and I’m not about to go there now.”
I have only ever been to Trenton twice, and I have never seen crime, though I did see men sleeping on gummed-up sidewalks, children loitering along a curb, women half my age pushing two-year-olds in strollers, younger ones flailing against their hip. The first time I went, I was six, and at a traffic light beside a gas station, my father locked the doors of our Jeep Isuzu, the sound buzzing quickly along our exterior.
“Precautionary,” he told me, simply.
The second time, I was eleven, sifting leaves with my sneakered foot as they lowered her body into the ground. I remember little else of that afternoon save for the trees that stretched out above her. They were the same ones that grew in her front yard. Prickly trees, we called them, on account of the porcupine-like balls fell from their bloated branches. The balls fell even in winter, and we’d collect them in paper bags and dump them on the kitchen table after supper. We’d squirt them with Elmer’s glue or spread peanut butter over their pointy peaks, then roll them in bowls of birdseed and tie them to branches or an outdoor line. When by morning, the balls were dry, we’d watch the swallows swoop and dive as we ate two slices of buttered toast.
“They’re grateful,” she’d tell me, smiling.
That home in New Jersey is the place I remember her best: not the hospital, where she stayed for months and months, but that single-story condo on the shaded outskirts of downtown Princeton, where she moved to spend what I assume she knew would be the last two years of her life. That house, with its Buddha statue and marble countertops, the bowl of Rolo’s on the bookshelf, the acrylic painting of an ocean hanging high above the fireplace, waves crashing white and hard across a stretch of compact sand. I visited her there often, sometimes once a month when things were good, but when my father began to make the trip alone, leaving from his high-rise office immediately following work, I knew then that things were bad.
“Why not go on the weekend?” I asked once. “Then I can tag along?”
“It’s important that I go more frequently,” he said. “She looks forward to my company.”
I was ten then, an ineffective defender on the school’s lacrosse team, and each afternoon instead of running suicides at practice, I walked the eight blocks west to meet my father outside his office. I sat silent in the passenger seat as we drove first under stone bridges and then traffic lights and, finally, highway overpasses. In the hospital, we’d ask her questions: How are you? Do you remember us? What’s my name? How do you feel? My father would take her hand in his and say, “That’s right, Mom,” or, “Try again.”
I’d never seen him so attentive.
Later, on the long ride home, he’d play music and insist we stop for bread at his favorite bakery, turning the loaf over idly as we waited patiently in the checkout line.
“She bought this when I was a kid,” he’d say, “and it’s my favorite, even now.”
The trees are sweet gums, I learned recently, but I still prefer to call them “prickly.”
A week after my grandmother died, it was my mother’s turn to make the dumplings. She stood in our Pennsylvania kitchen in a plain green apron, her hair done up in a lopsided bun, and moved feverishly above the bowl. This will cheer them up, she thought. This will cheer everybody up.
Like Keith, my mother was also from Massachusetts, and she too hated the dumplings—thought they were high in fat and plain-tasting—but still my mother knew enough to know how much they meant to her husband and their three children. So she stirred the batter, adding pinch after pinch of flour, knowing that if the consistency was wrong, the dumplings would sink like doughy anchors. If she made them right, of course, they’d float.
Rise, she might have wished, standing there in our country kitchen. Behind her, I imagine my father folding a newspaper across his lap, or flipping to the sports section, pretending to read about a baseball game. The Yankees or the Red Sox. And it might have even been convincing—that he wasn’t preoccupied with thought.
In the kitchen, my mother waited for the dumplings to float, and when finally they did, she scooped them up with a plastic ladle and coated them in dollops of sour cream, just like my grandmother always did, and then served them with chicken and chicken-broth gravy, just like my grandmother always did, and in that moment, we all felt better, just like my mother knew we would.
The dumplings became a family tradition, and now they’re the only one we have left. Our family has only ever known smallness—my mother’s brother and father’s father died in the nine months between my conception and my birth, so that by the time I was born, our extended family was thirteen people. Time passed, our numbers dwindled, and now all we have left are the dumplings.
The dumplings are the reason I’m standing in my too-small kitchen, why I’m holding a half carton of eggs and a sack of flour while my boyfriend stands stagnant beside me when I know he’d prefer to move about and whisk. Keith has never met my grandmother, and in the stories I often tell him, I imagine he thinks of her as a giant, a Hungarian peasant, a woman who crudely stuffed her face with clumped noodles made from eggs and flour paste. He knows nothing of the birdseed or how delicate she could be, how—of all the possibilities—it’s a row of prickly trees above her grave.
Keith knows only that these dumplings are unrefined, simple, dense pillows coated in dairy, and that they are high in caloric fat.
“A whole hour on a treadmill,” he says, and I do my best to smile.
A year ago, Keith and I stood in our own Pennsylvania kitchen together, flipping chicken cutlets in hot oil. We sautéed mushrooms and sugar snap peas and served them with ginger curry over jasmine rice. There was no need then for complicated recipes, and certainly no need for the flour dumplings. But then came our moves: Keith’s north to Boston, where he was offered a job with a cooking company, and mine twelve hours west, to attend graduate school for the thing I loved. We’d be so far apart that even time was different, but we could do long-distance, we agreed. It would only be a little while.
Those first few months, I sent Keith biweekly packages of cinnamon-oatmeal raisin cookies, and he’d respond with vanilla-almond granola I always added to my morning yogurt.
“They’re great,” he’d say at night, and I’d pretend not to notice the way his voice was different, now heavy and oddly weighted, an anchor in and of itself. The cookies tasted strange, I knew, from their time in a small box shipped across the country. They weren’t soft like he remembered. They certainly were not warm.
“What’d you make tonight?” I’d ask, and then I’d listen attentively as Keith detailed his elegant meals: brunoise salmon with lemon-basil vinaigrette, teriyaki-tofu stir-fry, roast duck with broccoli rabe. Keith’s new job was to experiment until he concocted the perfect recipe: for chocolate-chip cookies, for creamy chowder. He spent whole weeks steaming mussels in garlic wine reductions, baking spinach-lentil lasagna, folding chocolate into phyllo dough. I held the phone to my ear each night and listened, feeling badly about my spaghetti with Prego, my hotdogs topped with only ketchup, the macaroni and cheese I baked with what little cheese I could afford. My new life was busy, and often it was lonely. Without him there to help, I spent as little time as I could in the kitchen. I regularly topped my salad with tomatoes three days past their prime.
But in November, Keith flew the thousand miles west to visit, and on the long drive home, the wind turbines blinked red across the darkened plains, and he looked out at them in silence.
“There’s nothing out here,” he said, “for miles.”
In my apartment, he dropped his bags in a corner and began surveying my new space, flipping open first one cabinet and then another. We put on Edith Piaf and cooked a six-pound chicken, and, the next night, turned hearty sausages in a pan before covering them with caramelized onions.
But on the third evening, I made a special request: I asked to cook alone.
“Just this one night,” I said.
“Not the dumplings?” he groaned, sandwiching his face between two pillows.
What I wanted to say but didn’t was that I loved those doughy dumplings, that they were fatty but full of flavor, that it was important Keith love them, too, because we’d been together for nearly five years and now lived that many states apart. The dumplings communicated my history, my childhood, the people that I came from, people I hoped he’d soon call family. If we were going to stay together, the dumplings would have to play a role.
Instead, I said, simply, “Please?”
Our relationship had been about food from the very start. This is likely why, in fact, the dumplings mattered. We’d once spent whole Saturdays in our pajamas, sipping our coffee slow as we ate eggs topped with Vermont cheddar, and we often sprinkled sliced apples with cinnamon to pack in a cooler for Sunday drives. When in April the world began to bloom, we picked blueberries from a community garden and poured them, crushed, over buttermilk pancakes. One balmy evening a year into our relationship, in fact, Keith grabbed me by the wrist and told me this was how he knew it was love.
“Because we can work together without colliding,” he said. “You know where I am and I know where you are at all times—that’s chemistry.”
At the time, I laughed, poured us both a glass of wine in tribute. “To us!” I said. But it was true: in all our time together, Keith and I had never once bumped into one another, never scalded the other with hot oil, never burnt a slice of bread. Even when we fought, our discussions led us to the kitchen; we’d stand in matching Williams Sonoma aprons, flipping grilled cheeses with meek hostility, or bake layers of jalapeño nachos and then sit in silence until they were gone.
It was my lemon pasta topped with fresh Parmesan that apologized for the worst of my behaviors, and it was his chicken noodle soup with homemade broth that inevitably forced my forgiveness again and again. Keith and I bonded with food, communicated with food, apologized with food, and setting aside time to cook together each night felt like making a down payment on our love. On the nights we couldn’t cook together—because I had work or he had a meeting—there was always an implicit longing, as if we’d missed something important.
Now, nearly five years later, I wanted Keith to move to Iowa and stand beside me in my new kitchen. Or I wanted to move to the heart of Boston and stand beside a window until he came home. It didn’t matter how strange it felt; how backwards or antiquated a want it might be. I wanted us to start a life together, and I needed to know that if I added to our small family, I wouldn’t lose our sole tradition.
“How about now?” Keith asks, stabbing the dough. I watch his thin frame move, the way his arm extends. The mixture gives and sinks and he pulls it back from the sticky dough.
“Not yet,” I say.
Keith thinks now in measurements, numbers, cooking times, and estimates; my gut feelings and hunches do not belong. He is overwhelmed in this tiny kitchen, hungry and far from home, and when finally we finish, he pushes the dumplings around his plate.
“There’s some leftover spaghetti in the refrigerator,” I say, and he rises to spoon it out, pats the wad, and resumes his place.
To him, it is meaningless, but to me, it is everything; that Keith will not eat the dumplings is not so much a nuisance as a grave concern, because these dumplings are my history, my lineage, the grandmother I loved and lost. The people that I come from and the people I hope I can maintain. And so when the weekend ends and Keith flies home, I never invite him back. Instead, I travel east to stand beside my mother as she fastens an apron around her waist. She’s been making the dumplings for years, and knows well the look of their consistency.
“Your father loves these,” she says, as if it’s something I don’t yet know. Behind us, my father pours three glasses of wine, sets them adjacent to the plates he’s aligned, but my eyes are on my mother: how she waits patiently for the batter to spread, the dumplings to film out and across the surface, their consistency just right, their ratio precise, and how she smiles as she leans in and scoops them carefully from the pot.
Amy Butcher is an essayist whose work appears in Tin House, Salon, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She earned her M.F.A from the University of Iowa and is the recipient of scholarships and awards from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the University of Iowa, Word Riot Inc., the Stanley Foundation for International Research, the Academy of American Poets, and Colgate University’s 2012–2013 Olive B. O’Connor Creative Writing Fellowship. More at amyebutcher.com.