Sunday, 11 December 2011



From pierogi to gnocchi, ravioli to festivals, dumplings have infiltrated cultures world-wide. Acting as a linkage or bridge, this robust foodstuff emanates the kind of trans-nationalism that goes to the root of American society: a land where everyone is from somewhere.

Cycling down Eldridge, I stopped off at Vanessa’s Dumpling House, bought a pork & chive dumpling soup, walked across the road to the Sara D. Roosevelt Park and found a bench amongst old Chinese men reading newspapers, women discussing with hands over the municipal table tops and children skipping around the adjacent playground. This collection of people, partially assimilated into the downtown hubbub of Manhattan and brought together through shared language and custom, produce a spherical space with its own incubating set of atmospheric conditions. Interspersed within this micro-community are the elasticized signs of an ‘American’ host – fraying baseball caps, showbiz weeklies and discarded candy wrappers – reminding me that I am in New York, not Beijing.

Dumplings serve as an index for the way in which two politically distinct nationalities can momentarily converge to form a contingent heterarchical community – as I found in the park – a space in which people are freed from the determining effects of cultural signification, and the nakedness of human life shines through. Why is this?

The dumpling is a token of a type of design: the gift. Typically, one ball of homogenous filling is enveloped by a layer of fried or steamed pastry. Insofar as a gift is actualized through use – i.e. the ‘reveal’ – the filling is an object concealed, nurtured and finally disclosed by a kind of protective skin. Together, these two symbiotic entities form a microcosmic gift-exchange economy, whereby the function of the product is determined by the way one chooses to eat it:

1. Cutting the dumpling in half figures the user as the receiver of a gift, who derives an infantile, discreetly sexual pleasure from revealing the ‘secret’ of the product.

2. Swallowing the dumpling whole, one mimics its cocooning design, assuming the stance of the mother archetype - or giver - whose mouth forms a third, womb-like protective layer.

Whether one is cast as the giver or receiver, the act of consumption implies an invisible, reciprocating other, who completes the oppositional binary:

mother : child

Like a nuclear reaction, this ‘other’ explodes inclusively outwards through an expanding chain of metonymic signifiers, mimicking the concentric structure of the dumpling and subliminally finding the image of its double through a range of inter-related signs:

Dumplings > Soy sauce > Chopsticks > Chinese-English menu > Spoken Chinese > Surrounding Customers > Waiter > Restaurant > Chinatown > Chinese Culture

Embodying an archetypal figuration of the mother that goes deeper than the purely connotative, the dumpling unleashes a pre-Symbolic potential energy that extends spherically outwards, transcending national differences and joining people together. This is why tables are round in dim sum restaurants and this is why every culture has its own version.

- Thomas Hastings

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