My Uncle Lee is not actually my uncle. He is a long-standing family friend, so much a part of our family in my early years, he simply became known as Uncle Lee. He has moved out to Colorado, but he was the latest of many generations in the Milwaukee area where he inherited a love for chicken dumpling soup. When I was about twelve years old, he showed me how he made egg drop dumplings by dripping spoonfuls of egg batter into a swirling pot of chicken soup made from scratch.
You can find great versions of chicken dumpling soup all over the Great Lakes. My personal favorite is from The Uncanny Soup Company, which just opened a retail location downtown Milwaukee, but has been in the frozen section of grocery stores in the area for years. For me, and for many, dumplings have a uniquely evocative capacity. Something about the texture, taste, warmth generates emotions, creates connections very quickly and deeply. It is comfort food to the core.
Recently, a social media connection lead me to the work of Dr. Jennifer Jordan, an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the Spring 2008 edition of Ethnology, she published a piece on the cultural symbolism of dumplings. She was specifically detailing the effort in Upper Austria of make the dumpling a cultural icon of the region. Rather than paraphrase the work, let me share with you a number of quotes that capture not only the unique place a dumpling fits in culinary culture, but also how food becomes part of the cultural identity of a region. The latter issue is the very heart of our effort here at Great Lakes Cuisine.
“[A] dumpling, like many other foods, is ripe for both powerful symbolism and changing meanings. The meanings invested in dumplings, as with other foods, may vary from the very private level of a kind of Proustian remembrance from childhood, to dumplings as symbols of regions or nations, as objects of fading nostalgia, or active entrepreneurial campaigns to boost economies and external identities of particular regions.” (p.109)
Dr. Jordan goes on to relate the process of cooking a specialty dumpling in the home of her Austrian host, from getting the right meat mixture from the local butcher to the proper technique of forming the dumpling. It is worth the read and can be accessed here. She ponders the process of taking a “down-to-earth” culinary tradition and elevating it to the position of cultural icon. No different really than our positioning of apple pie in America. Or the efforts we make on this site to connect humble dishes to a regional culinary identity.
We find ourselves in agreement when she draws the academic piece to a close this way: “…attention to dumplings promises further insight into the connections between cultural and culinary, and the many ways that the simplest foods can also be powerfully complex.” (p.121) Amen. Let’s eat.