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Eating the Past: What is a dumpling

A dish of potato gnocchi

Tammy: I’m Tammy Proctor, and I’m pleased to welcome listeners to season three of Eating the Past! We are excited to continue the series this year with the addition of a new host, Laura Gelfand.

Jeannie: this is Jeannie Sur. We start this year with a yummy theme – the mysteries of dumplings. Tammy, shall we talk about what makes a dumpling?

Tammy: Well, Jeannie, I think the definition might be kind of squishy, but yes, let’s dig into the topic. As a British historian, I started where I usually start when I want to define something – with the Oxford English dictionary.

According to the OED, the earliest usages seem to be early modern (around 1600), and this definition was: a kind of pudding consisting of a mass of paste or dough, more or less globular in form, either plain and boiled, or enclosing fruit and boiled or baked. (originally attributed to Norfolk.)

By 1743, the definition had changed somewhat to: a pasty mass like a dumpling. It could also be used to describe a short or dumpy person or animal. What is really interesting is that the OED lists some other related words that its lexicographers considered either synonyms or closely related objects.

Here’s a sampling: gnocchi, macaroni, knödel, johnnycake, pierogi, matzo ball, potsticker, etc. I don’t know about you, Jeannie, but now I’m really confused about what dumplings actually are.

Jeannie: Same Tammy, same. Initially I thought it would be a relatively easy topic. but as the hosts of Eating the Past met to discuss episodes we started to question what a dumpling was.

The definition the dictionary provided seems to encompass quite a bit as a dumpling, but I’m wondering if I’m a conservative or a liberal in this case, just kidding, but seriously, do I think anything called a dumpling is a dumpling for example the southern dumpling, in the American south which is essentially a dough ball, is that actually a dumpling.

Does it need stuffing? Jamie Sanders and I might disagree over this. Also is there a size restriction to a dumpling. When I think of dumplings I think of the Asian dumplings, such as gyoza, mandu, or momo, or something petite like a ravioli but is a calzone a dumpling? And for me the[SN1] interesting question is about the history of dumplings as well. Every culture seems to have a dumpling.

Is this form something that is just so universal with every culture? Can it even be traced back or is it that there is just something so enticing and absolutely delicious of stuffing things into dough, something universal to every culture and people?

Tammy: So prepare yourself for a wild ride with dumplings. You may have insight into this difficult dumpling dilemma. if so, send us foods you’d like to nominate as examples of dumplings.

Jeannie: Next week Jamie and Laura will explore dumplings further by asking ‘what is in a name?’ when it comes to these tasty treats. Join us for Eating the Past every Sunday at noon, right before the Splendid Table.

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.
With a BA in Political Science and a Master of Divinity, Jeannie Sur has been at USU since 2017. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Jeannie loves Utah for the outdoors and its mountains, although she misses the Pacific Ocean. No matter where she's lived, she's been a listener and supporter of public radio. Jeannie enjoys mid-size cities, textiles, and individual sports, especially cycling and swimming. If she could have one superpower, she would shrink furniture for easy moving. She hopes to one day have more animals and a sauna. (#lifegoals)