Cover Photo: Cooking with the Greats by Michele Popadich

Cooking with the Greats

How making dumplings gave me a new life perspective

There are two chefs that live in the northern part of Chicago that bare the great culinary expertise of their home country, Serbia. And I, a resident of Chicago and grandchild of these said chefs, have always wanted to learn their secret sauce. In an ongoing effort to gather some of their most delicious recipes, I have been going to my grandparent’s house every week to let my grandmother and great-aunt show me how it’s done.

With a camera and notebook in hand, I asked them to make whatever they wanted to make. I took notes, I snapped pictures, I observed, I helped. I punched a lot of dough and picked up a lot of heavy pots. I rushed to forgotten ovens and scraped the burned bits in the aftermath. I scooped dollops of this and that to take a quick taste test. I said, “Yea, maybe a little more oregano” like I knew what I was talking about. I asked questions and wrote down rough translations. And lastly, I gorged myself. My parents and grandfather would join, and we’d all feast over the dining room table on late Sunday afternoons, followed by coffee to settle our full stomachs.

It was only when I would come back to my apartment each night to type out the recipes (while picking from leftovers despite still being monstrously full) that I noticed something: nearly everything I had written was a mosaic of question marks and asterisks and arrows pointing to nothing and sentences left unfinished and notes to myself that said “put a clump of that on the other thing.” To be honest, I wasn’t surprised by the lack of coherence in my notes. Not only was I attempting to multi-task in a chaotic environment, but also I was asking two chefs to tell me step by step how to cook meals in which there wasn’t a recipe written down. They cook from memory. From experience. They go by sight or smell or touch. Initially, I was frustrated for not asking for more specific quantities. But even when I would ask, the answers would be ambiguous. They’d shrug their shoulders, slack their lips in thought, and dictate a range of time or quantity that seemed unreliable to a novice chef like myself. It doesn’t help that they reuse containers. Sometimes a tub of sour cream is really holding coleslaw, so I’m playing a guessing game when they start squeezing something out of a dark bottle with a half ripped off picture of a sunflower on it. The only sure amount of any ingredient in any recipe is butter. And the quantity is always the same: a lot.

I live a very regimented life. So vague quantities and timelines give me anxiety. From the moment I got my first assignment notebook in fourth grade, I became a planner. In fourth grade, it was the planning of field trips months in advance so that I could strategize the ideal spot on the bus next to my friend crush. Throughout high school, I planned out how many extracurricular activities I could cram into a 24-hour period while only minimally stunting my growth and inducing only a handful of panic attacks. By college, I had mastered the craft, giving myself four full years of Google calendar alerts and post it notes showering my dorm room walls to plan every hour of my life.

It was also in college that I decided to put writing on hold. I had been accepted to the college of business. And a future in business felt more concrete than what a future as a writer could offer me. Business gave me a set of instructions for success. Writing gave me blank pages to fill in any way that I wanted. As I scrambled across campus looking for my place not only in college but also in the world, I craved structure. So I convinced myself that I was meant to wear power suits and that I would get a high off of creating spreadsheets and that I would insert the term “NASDAQ” into my every day conversation. It may come as no surprise that I did none of these things and blank pages returned to me as a source of comfort. Each year, I drifted farther from my CPA talking classmates and writing began to inch its way back into my life. First I wrote for a magazine, then I became a news anchor for the radio station, and then I squeezed in an English Literature minor to give color to semesters that revolved around reading balance sheets.

The rigidity that we assign ourselves allows us to track our progress and keeps us accountable for what we want to accomplish or refrain from. But it also makes successes and failures much more brutal. It doesn’t allow for partial accomplishments. It doesn’t bare forgiveness on little failures. It is disregards instinct entirely.

This idea didn’t really cross my mind until I made plum dumplings with my grandma. This was a recipe that had the most ambiguous set of instructions. Ambiguous in the sense that there were none. The amount of potatoes, depending on the size, could range from two to six potatoes. The amount of flour I wrote down was, quote, I honestly have no idea. The size of the dumpling was either a golf ball or a tennis ball. And we could stuff each dumpling with no jam, one teaspoon of jam, two tablespoons of jam, or an entire plum.

As I watched my grandma begin to drop the dumplings into the boiling water, I refrained from asking how long I should let them boil. Because I knew the answer would be a shrug of the shoulders and a range of time that I couldn’t depend on. So instead, I asked, How will I know when they are done?

This, she knew the answer to.

When they are swimming, she said.

I watched the dumplings sink below the surface of the water and a few minutes later, bob to the top.

This was instruction I could rely on.

Now that I’ve been working a few years, the habitual nature of planning continues to be equal parts wonderful and intrusive. Initially, the time I spent as a business student felt like time wasted and I quickly became rushed to make up for lost time. I’d spend my lunch breaks at work determining timelines to return to my writing roots. I’d wake up at ungodly hours to strategize short and long term goals. I worked backwards: If I want a Pulitzer Prize by this date I should be published in the New York Times by this date and I should get my MFA a year prior and at what point should I become best friends with Oprah. It wasn’t long before my business background had helped me develop a solid cost benefit analysis for the route of life I wanted to take. But planning for it didn’t mean I was actually doing it. In fact, the pressure to achieve was stifling. I wanted to skip the process of what I thought it meant to become a writer and just be one already.

Cooking with my grandparents has taught me to ask more tactful questions and strategize in more forgiving ways. I’ve learned to ask less about quantities and timelines. Instead of asking the when or how much questions, I ask the how ones. And the answers have been much more satisfying.

When baking cheese pita, I’ve learned to mine for the color of gold. When testing the heat of oil, I’ve learned to throw in a piece of potato and wait for it to sizzle. When letting dough rise, I’ve learned that we are really letting the bread sleep for a bit. When making cookies, I’ve learned there’s no wrong way to knead the dough, but the best way is to put the whole bowl in your lap because that’s how the women in the old country did it.

I think the most important distinction that I’ve made is that a thing doesn’t become a thing solely upon completion. The process is as integral as the final product. The potatoes were meant to be dumplings before we’d even pealed them. I am a writer even though I’m currently working in tech as a project manager and the main thing I write are emails to our clients reminding them what an Internet browser is. But now, when people ask me what I do, I always mention that I am a writer first. Even though I still strategize and contemplate hypotheticals and plan for every worst case, a potato can still be a dumpling if that’s the intention we set for it. I am a writer as long as I am writing.

As we were preparing the dough for the dumplings, my grandma was becoming frustrated with the consistency. It wasn’t quite “doughy” enough, she exclaimed poking her finger into the heap. She consulted with my great-aunt, who waved her hand, unconcerned, instructing her to add a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And before long, I had crossed out and rewritten the amount of flour six times, before surrendering to the unknown. They didn’t have measuring cups. They had their hands and pinched fingers and their eyes and the spout of containers to use as their guide. Soon enough, the quantity doubled. But as we pierced our dumplings with forks and watched the steam curl above and jam spill out, this did not feel like a failure. This felt like more of an accomplishment than the one we initially set out.

Sometimes I would certainly like a concrete answer. I want to know exactly how long to bake this and exactly how much flour to add to make that. I want to know exactly how each decision and path I’ve taken will determine future paths I don’t even know about. But ambiguity has shown me the power of possibility. Despite all efforts to abandon writing, it came back to me in even better ways. Despite planning on making eight reasonably sized dumplings, we ended up with sixteen giant ones instead.