Dumplings, Road Trips, and 'Gung Hei Fat Choy!'
Last spring I got an email from someone named Peter Lo:
“I am from New York City and I’ve been living in West Virginia for the past 13 years. I recently moved to Clarksburg 1.5 years ago and wanted to inquire about having a few friends join me in one of your workshops to eat and learn about some Appalachian cuisine.”
Peter and his crew eventually visited the farm on a Sunday in early-June. That evening, as dusk turned to dark, we dined on kilt greens salad, salt rising bread and chow chow in the front yard. There were seven of us — we’re all good friends now — seated beneath a few-dozen tiny light bulbs strung up between maple trees. In the center of the table, amidst a cluttered array of platters, glassware and ceramic dinner plates was a white and turquoise serving bowl half-full of pork and dumplings in a rich tomato gravy.
The main component of that dish comes from a family recipe — “Aunt Floda’s Dumplings” reads the scribbled top line on a card in my grandma’s recipe box. My mom tells stories about these soft, fluffy squares of boiled dough — how they used to steal the show at Decoration Day picnics, or how, as a kid, she’d hike for miles to enjoy them at Aunt Floda’s house across town. They’re a simple, common food made from simple, common ingredients. But those dumplings mean something to me, and I relish opportunities to share them.
Before the group’s arrival, Peter and I made plans for a day of foraging and cooking demonstrations, leading up to a picnic-style feast. We hiked into the woods and gathered mushrooms, dandelions and nettle leaves. I pointed out patches of withered ramps, fresh wood sorrel and aromatic wild ginger. We eventually backtracked through knee-high grass to the kitchen, where we baked a rhubarb upside-down cake, mixed a dandelion-sorghum dressing, and rolled out the dumplings just before dinner.
After our plates were cleared, then replenished, and cleared again, Peter suggested we all join him for pork dumplings from his own family traditions, for Chinese New Year in early February. The warm season had barely arrived, but Peter’s invite already had me looking forward to winter.
Chinese New Year is one of several East Asian celebrations tied to the lunar calendar, which begins sometime between late-January and mid-February. Vietnamese, Tibetan and Korean New Year festivities also occur during at the same time. I eventually hear from Peter that he plans to host a New Year dinner on a Saturday night, just a few days before the official holiday (which, this year fell on Tuesday, February 5th).
Since the ingredients he needs are hard to come by in Harrison County, Peter plans a shopping trip to an Asian market and fishmonger in Pittsburgh. He tells me I can come, “if you wanna ride with me all the way to the Strip District,” so I make plans to tag along.
I wake up to near-whiteout conditions that morning. Dangerous road conditions have closed public schools in nearly every West Virginia county. I nix morning travel plans of my own and get in touch with Peter, certain he’ll cancel the trip. But a few hours later, I find myself in the passenger seat of his truck, and we begin our journey north.
“Yeah, so we’re driving in about four or five inches of snow,” he says, laughing to himself as he merges onto a stretch of slush-covered highway where vehicles move along sluggishly, well below the speed limit.
“And we’re doing this for food,” he says. “We might end up in a ditch, but we’re just doing this for food.”
In a way, Peter’s right. We’re throwing caution to the wind, embarking on a road trip in a snowstorm for a few groceries. But I’ve never been invited to a dinner in West Virginia — especially one that involves dumplings — that was just about food.
Peter moved to West Virginia in his mid-20s, taking a job as a chemical specialist at a manufacturing plant near Parkersburg. Immediately after his arrival, he made two significant purchases to mark his transition from city life: a truck and a deer rifle.
He says his family members often question why he’d want to live in a place with no sizeable Asian-American population and few big-city amenities. But he says he cherishes Appalachian people for their humble, neighborly qualities that rarely showed up against the urban backdrop of his childhood.
Peter’s adopted the mountains, and, for the most part, he says, mountain people have adopted him back. But for someone born into an extensive Cantonese-speaking family in a densely-populated Brooklyn neighborhood, Almost Heaven can seem like a far cry from home, especially when it comes to food. “Being in West Virginia does make me miss what I had growing up,” he says.
Within a few miles of Peter’s house in Clarksburg, there are five Chinese restaurants, but there’s no sizeable Chinese population in Harrison County. The Americanized offerings available at these places can be delicious, he says, but they don’t match the traditional cuisine he learned from his father, a cook in a Chinese restaurant back in New York City.
“I don’t have access to what my dad used to cook,” Peter says. “But this is why we’re driving two hours to get fresh ingredients, so we can get at least close to what my dad used to do for me.”
For the New Year celebration, Peter plans to make: Shumai — an open-topped steamed dumpling filled with pork, shrimp and shiitake mushrooms; Lo mai gai — sticky rice and chicken filling stuffed into lotus leaves and steamed; bok jam gai — poached, sliced chicken; Jing yi — steamed whole fish; and gon chow ngau ho — stir-fried beef and scallions with noodles in a brown, gravy-like sauce.
On our drive he tells me more about the symbolism behind the menu, how each dish represents a specific tradition related to themes of wealth, prosperity and, especially, luck. “Luck is such a huge part of Chinese culture, especially around Chinese New Year,” he says.
An affable guy who wears thick-rimmed glasses and a perpetual grin, Peter has an immense passion for food and a witty sense of humor — both of which I greatly appreciate. He often injects wisecracks and comedic anecdotes into conversations about otherwise weighty subjects, like the sentimental cooking of his father, who passed away several years ago.
“There’s this stuff,” he says, interrupting himself with a deep belly laugh, as he describes a symbolic ingredient his father would put in every New Year dish. Somewhat grass-like, somewhat moss-like, fat choy is a dried vegetative bacteria used in Chinese cooking for its symbolism more than its neutral flavor. Peter says, as kids, he and his siblings would snicker at the appearance of fat choy, a scene I can easily imagine by the way he laughs about it now. In its dried form, fat choy looks like tiny strands of dark, wiry human body hair. Its name literally translates to “hair vegetable,” but because it sounds like part of a traditional Chinese New Year salutation — “Gung hei fat choy!” as Peter wrote on Facebook the morning of February 5 — it’s become symbolic of luck. “So yeah,” he says, “I’m going to put fat choy in everything we make.”
The conversation is fitting in the moment — I think we could use some luck. As we drive north, we pass a smashed navy-blue sedan being loaded onto a tow truck and then a gray minivan stuck between the north-bound and south-bound lanes. We hit an icy patch, causing us to skid ever-so-slightly, then we’re nearly side-swiped by a tractor-trailer crossing lanes. I notice serpentine patterns left by vehicles that skidded into the snow-filled median earlier in the day. Perhaps luck was at play, but just as we crossed over the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania, the snowfall and cloud clover were replaced by sunshine and crystal-clear blue skies. The road conditions were markedly improved. I think Peter’s words about lucky ingredients might just keep us safe.
We finally arrive at the Strip District as the sun sets behind the Pittsburgh skyline. Its amber rays bounce off icy sidewalks onto the beige facade of WFH Oriental Market — our first shopping destination. Just outside the entrance, Peter pulls a wad of cash from his wallet. He tells me about a Chinese New Year Tradition he remembers from childhood when married people would give little red envelopes stuffed with cash to their unmarried family members. He jokes this is why he’s single at age 39 — “I gotta keep that money rollin’ in!”
We enter the market’s automated front doors to a vibrant scene — an abundance of brightly-colored produce, enigmatic fragrances and dozens of shoppers speaking what Peter says are probably multiple Cantonese and Mandarin dialects. He turns to the first cashier he sees and asks, “Hey, do you have any fat choy?”
“Fat choy, yes, this way,” she responds, leading us to a display of dehydrated items packed in decorated cellophane pouches.
“See,” Peter says, in his usual irreverent tone. “I told you it looks like pubic hair.” As much as Peter jokes about fat choy’s peculiar aesthetic, he understands its importance — his father would be using it were he still around. He places the small packet of fat choy into his shopping basket and we move on.
As Peter grabs the ingredients on his list — dumpling wrappers and shiitake mushrooms; noodles and oyster sauce; dried lotus leaves and sticky rice — he points out other foods and teas and ferments and trinkets and medicinal herbs, describing their significance in Chinese culture, or within his family specifically.
Separated by a hundred-or-so miles, the grocer in urban Pittsburgh and my farm in rural West Virginia are, in many ways, worlds apart. But moving down the aisles, I’m taken back to our hike through the woods in June, when we gathered fresh ingredients for dinner and told stories of my people along the way. When Peter points to a crate of taro root on the floor, the concrete surface feels almost parallel to the bed of damp, leaf-covered humus where I introduced him to May apples and large, late-season ramps. When he reaches up highly-stacked shelves for bottles of flavorful sauces and pastes, I think of towering shagbarks, from which I peeled rigid flakes of bark, demonstrating how to make sweet hickory syrup.
I can’t help but notice how the market, though seemingly exotic and foreign to me, feels so comforting, so familiar — so Appalachian, in a sense. When we pass walls of dried vegetables and fermented pickles, I think of leather britches and sour corn preserved after summer’s harvest. An aisle of dried fish and Chinese charcuterie reminds me of salt-trout and venison sausage. When I see the frail hands of elderly women sifting through boxes of tapioca root and bitter melon, I recall my grandma sorting green tomatoes and squeezing cantaloupes to gauge their ripeness.
We leave the market with several fully-packed grocery bags and walk down the street to Penn Avenue Fish Company. It’s a different scene — a joint where loud electronic music blairs over the speakers while raw oysters are shucked and served to young guests sipping Pinot Grigio in the adjacent cafe. Fresh fish is the most precious, irreplaceable ingredient on Peter’s menu. Unwilling to risk going home empty-handed, he’s called ahead to reserve some black sea bass. He says its flaky texture and the fat content of the skin are ideal for steaming. “This is probably my favorite thing to eat,” he says, picking out two plump and meaty fish packed in ice. “I’m going to steam it just like my dad steamed it.”
On the drive home, Peter describes the way his former community in Brooklyn takes Lunar New Year so seriously — how families come together, focusing on food, while everything else screeches to a halt. “The reverence for Chinese food, by Chinese people, is quite strong,” he says. “And in some ways, I feel like, if you’re an immigrant, you have more reverence for keeping that culture alive, keeping those dishes passed on.”
He worries about portions and sequencing and timing and such. “My anxiety level for this dinner is sky high,” he says, and I sense the pressure he’s put on himself to get it right.
When we meet up on Saturday afternoon, Peter’s assembling the shumai dumplings he’s talked about for months. They’re small, under two-inches wide, filled mostly with pork, shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. He cloaks them tightly in thin doughy wrappers, pinches them together and leaves the tops exposed.
“Well,” he says, pulling the finished product from the steamer, pleased with the way they hold form, “That’s not as good as a nice, 81-year-old Chinese woman would do it, but it’s good enough for me.”
Sticky rice cooks on the stovetop. Dried lotus leaves soak in a large plastic container beside the sink. Stir fry ingredients marinate in a variety of sauces and spices. This is a moment Peter and I have both looked forward to, in different ways, for different reasons, since June.
“Food is culture, for the most part,” Peter told me on our drive back from Pittsburgh the night before. “Pretty much the majority of other people’s culture, you experience through food.”
This comes to mind while Peter slices ginger root, and light smoke rolls out of a hot stovetop wok. There are three others huddled inside the small kitchen. There’s Lorenzo, of Spanish heritage; Vanessa, who’s mother immigrated from the Philippines, and her husband, Scott, from proud Polish roots. They talk about convening for other heritage-focused meals throughout the year, like when Lorenzo makes Spanish tapas, or when Vanessa cooks her mom’s chicken adobo. This is a snapshot of the West Virginia Peter’s claimed as his own — an accepting community willing to share something meaningful, anxious to pay it back with tokens of sincere curiosity.
When dinner concludes, we’re full and satisfied, much like we were after the first meal we all shared in June. We’re indoors, but the scene feels the same. On the table before us is a disheveled scene of glassware, empty dinner plates and serving bowls. I see a rectangular platter that still contains a few pork shumai, and, knowing how meaningful dumplings can be, I think Peter’s dad probably would have been proud.
As a West Virginia-based cook who geeks out on heritage food, I’m often asked to define Appalachian cuisine. This is generally something I despise. I’ve had West African stews and Peruvian empanadas from cooks born in far-away places who are damn proud to live here now. I’ll always consider those dishes more Appalachian than the ramp-infused “humble cuisine” of big-city chefs who’ve never foraged the north-facing slopes of a holler, and probably never will.
Sometimes, when asked, I’ll respond with a few words about a resourceful place-based culture, or a knack for ingenuity that fostered nourishing abundance from limited means — or a number of other arbitrary qualifiers, depending on my mood. Almost always, I’ll backtrack to acknowledge the region’s constant evolution, with the arrival of new residents, often immigrants, that embody more of certain traits — reverence for cultural heritage, connection to the land, desire to build community — than most folks whose families have been here for six or more generations. There’s obviously more to it, but these are qualities I look for when pondering Appalachianness — or what I want it to mean, anyway.
I mull this over this as I’m driving home from Peter’s dinner, late at night, alone on the highway, under pitch-black skies. I think about our hike in June, our road trip through the snow and the ambassadorial power of dumplings. I’m convinced a traditional Chinese spread for Lunar New Year was the most Appalachian meal I’ve had in quite some time.
It’s after 1 a.m. when I finally get home and put a container of leftovers in the fridge. Through the clear plastic lid, I can see strands of fat choy, and I believe in their symbolism. In that moment, I feel very, very lucky.