Getting a little nerdy for this talk about dumplings
I don’t think it’s news that the restaurant industry is facing a labour shortage well into 2022. But even before the pandemic, hiring dim sum chefs has been challenging, and perhaps it has been exacerbated by the fact that there isn’t a replenishing pool coming to North America. It’s been mentioned in a Grub Street profile from half a decade ago that Nom Wah’s been tinkering with machines because we’re trying to keep a business going where the skillset is becoming rarer and rarer.
Drawing on a reading from college, I want to revisit anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr.’s Real Black to get a slightly philosophical discussion of what it means for the diminishing presence of dim sum chefs in Chinese American kitchens and the connection to and questioning the taboo around machine-made dumplings.
Defining the theoretical framework
When we talk about scripts, we refer to cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah’s idea that collective identities serve as the foundation of the narratives that people use in shaping their lives and in telling their stories.
Unfortunately, these constructs can, at times, be so tightly scripted whereby social differences appear absolute and natural. As an example, Jackson employs the script of American patriotism, positing that if we were to follow the stringency of the script, someone wearing a burka would not be accepted as it deviates away from script. In following a script so closely, there is no leeway or flexibility to one’s thinking, and instead, it serves as a framework for stereotypes and typecasting.
To build off of the above, let’s also add Jackson’s discussion of sincerity vs. authenticity into the mix. I previously mulled over authenticity in relation to sociologist Erving Goffman’s concept of dramaturgy. However, I want to revisit authenticity, but this time, through the lens of objectification.
Where sincerity establishes a connection between two subjects, authenticity instead assumes a relationship between subject (validator) and object (inanimate). In essence, this idea of authenticity reduces what is being examined to the status of object. The subjectivity that sincerity accommodates is inadvertently muted.
Similarly, where in the previous essay I’ve described the audience’s expectations of what has been and assumption of how it should continue to exist, there is a faulty logic that permeates through this notion of authenticity. Those who conform to the script are deemed authentic; whereas those who do not instead face rejection and are dubbed inauthentic. Both Goffman and Jackson’s viewpoints here demonstrate the trappings of these syllogisms—a fencing off of other realities by way of prejudice, if you will.
And to take it one step further, as Jackson does, adding the notion of race wherein racial authenticity lends itself to a subject reducing people to “little more than objects of racial discourse, [and] characters in racial scripts”. Considering such leads me to ask at what point do certain scripts retire from the vernacular, or are they only in continued existence because of the expectations set forth by racial authenticity?
Retiring an age-old script: Chinese American dim sum chef
Cooking hasn’t been a glorious profession for many Chinese Americans, especially given that it was one that was foisted upon Chinese immigrants who fell victim to the late 19th and early 20th century’s racist immigration policies. Immigration to the U.S. continued during the 1960s and 1970s on account of China’s Cultural Revolution, which motivated many to leave Asia. And with few English language skills equipped upon leaving China, restaurant life made sense as a straightforward path to earn a living. Both the business of food and cooking as a skill were things that could be taught within an infrastructure that had been established close to a century prior due to the the Chinese Exclusion’s Act’s racist laws.
But in the decades since then, Chinese restaurants are closing, and it’s not due to a lack of interest in the cuisine. As former NYT journalist Jennifer 8. Lee pointed out: “It’s a success that these restaurants are closing… These people came to cook so their children wouldn’t have to, and now their children don’t have to.”
Sure, there are still bound to be new immigrants arriving from China who may take over the restaurants of those who came decades prior (as the NYT piece duly noted), or a revamping of the narrative of the Chinese American restaurant all together, but the scripts of the first-generation Chinese American restaurant owner or cooks are ones that are no longer as pervasive as they once were.
In particular, the dim sum chefs that I’ve seen throughout my childhood in Toronto and during my twenties in New York have aged with no clear heir to their stations. And frankly, they don’t need to have someone waiting in the wings for them. This expectation that there will always be “traditional” dim sum chefs is a signifier of the comfort that we have in scripts and racial authenticity.
To be able to see the middle-aged or elderly man crafting pork buns and dumplings with such ease, or to see him misanthropically standing with a cigarette dangling form his mouth are the trappings that our society has bestowed upon him. We—as subjects—have collectively expected these chefs follow the tropes—the script—that allow us to comfortably contextualize and ascribe them—reducing them to objects—as markers of what fits our fantasy of the Chinese dim sum restaurant.
And where time has caught up to them, our perceptions of expertise and value frankly haven’t. I’ve addressed before how we undervalue the skill, labour, and time of dumplings. It makes sense that few want to entertain a narrative that not only yields so little reward of both pay and respect, but also carries such strong typecasting when they don’t have to. It’s a tedious career that has never paid enough and also finds itself limiting when it comes to the self.
Running counter to racial authenticity is racial sincerity. The latter is similar to Goffman’s backstage where the actor is able to shed the guise that they have put on for both audience and front stage.
To build on that, Jackson highlights how racial authenticity or the expectation of such can be undermined by two common mistakes:
Mistake #1: rejecting someone as inauthentic, but they are sincere and true about themselves
Mistake #2: accepting someone as authentic who performs the script insincerely (i.e. playing a role)
In addition to what we’ve talked about thus far on why we see fewer and fewer dim sum chefs, let us dive in a bit deeper into both common mistakes.
Starting with Mistake #2, not only is it tiring but it is also doing ourselves a disservice by catering to a script for a head nod of being racially authentic. We need to move beyond these rigid boundaries to have a more honest talk about how the collective narrative can change and evolve.
After all, it is, for me, the elder dim sum chefs who are helping to build the “inauthentic” bridge to machine-made dumplings. They are brutally honest that the skillset that takes decades to master and its accompanying workforce are becoming harder to find. And because of this diminishing set of folks, the current chefs are also on board to figure out how to mechanize the process and to take advantage of tools that can scale their experience.
Their commitment is very much sincere, yet they aren’t following the script that we are so accustomed to, so are we to consider them inauthentic? And if we consider them as inauthentic all because of a machine, why does that equation of machine = inauthentic only apply to the dim sum chef and not to the pasta maker who, too, uses an extruding device to hasten and increase volume of their gigli? The latter doesn’t seem as subject to criticism; it’s not even as front of mind as the Yelp reviews that complain of our machine-aided bites.
If we take the time to check ourselves and question the collective narratives, then we can see that these dim sum chefs are merely doing what their sifus have done—pass on their teachings, all the while making use of the tools that exist. It’s not cheating; it’s making use of what is available. And what’s available has been modernized.
“Inauthentic”, yet sincere
We can talk about how certain things don’t taste the same, such as har gow (shrimp dumplings) whose skins are far more delicate and fickle when handmade. To work with that crystal skin is such a marvel; I remember growing up that we’d count the pleats and holding it under the lighting to see how thin and translucent the skin could be.
Now, when making shrimp dumplings with a machine, the skin is thicker, yet sturdier. The pleats aren’t as much of a marvel, since it’s a mould that consistently leaves the same shape. Perhaps it’s not to the liking of those that are focused solely on nostalgia. They are perceiving the information of this dumpling on what should be out of habit, instead of trying to give the dumpling their rapt attention, and evaluate it on its own merits. And that’s where we entrap ourselves with Mistake #1: citing inauthenticity, without recognizing sincerity.
To be able to go beyond the script of the dim sum chef and his repertoire of the handmade is in its own right a sincerity to appreciate. To be able to operate these machines is akin to learning how to fold all over again. The decades spent getting to know the doughs, fillings, and their interactions with one another are a necessary foundation. And it is with greying hairs and callused fingers that these men approach these tools with such youthful curiosity and eagerness.
Outright dismissing these dumplings on account of not aligning with one’s nostalgia is in its own way reinforcing racial authenticity, a reducing of the chef and his product of work to an object that fails to fit within unnecessary boundaries.
Is there room for improvement? Of course. There are always opportunities to iterate, and I hope that the machines can one day manipulate a thinner crystal wrapper. But by no means are we to call these dumplings any lesser in the interim. Nor are we to maintain such a strong hold on collective narratives to ensure that we never leave our comfort zones.
Instead, we should be appreciating and celebrating the interiority of these chefs who are as willing to colour outside the lines with the second-generation Chinese kids who, more often than not, also fall in the crosshairs of Mistake #1. With one foot steeped in their first-generation parents’ culture and the other in the hegemonic Western culture for all of our lives, it’s not as daunting for us, per se, to buck authenticity and opt for sincerity. It’s a certain level of trust that these elder dim sum chefs have in us that our intuition and sincerity can surpass a century-and-a-half of typecasting and rigid identities. And you know what? That in itself is commendable.
Resy: “We knew it was over”