Hypothetical Drink Personality Test: Eliza Chen (BFA GD 2019)
Who Said What, and When?
You are at home and open your fridge to pull out a drink. What is the beverage? Mine: apple cider, cloudy in the jug, its color that of road dust kicked up by back wheels, and to boot it teeters on rancid. A discerning voiceover might note a faintly alcoholic undertone to the clove and apple profiles. I suddenly recall the Boxcar Children series of grade-school chapter books. The books loom huge in my youth, little me, when one-hundred pages were long. I recall with particular force the story where the siblings are taken on as seasonal laborers at a family-owned apple farm. What is their work? How, exactly, are they treated? I cannot remember. But in the end, after an indeterminate amount of labor, the children have some kind of dinner al fresco where they eat apple dumplings.
Up until that disorienting moment in my childhood when I first heard of apple dumplings, I’d conceived of the dumpling as an exclusively savory construction which was either boiled or fried in the jiaozi-gyoza-manju format, a loose meatball skinned with a light eggless peel, homemade or coming frozen out of bags. Chive and shrimp, pork and chive, pork and cabbage, beef and diced onion, mushroom-carrot-vermicelli, boiling water, hissing oil, steaming on a plate. Like some kind of movie, I remember the vast majority of the dumpling-called dumplings I’ve had, Rolodex of dumplings eaten in this life, and the color that accompanies the flavor is juicy, Morton-Salt blue.
I pause in this high-quality daydream to check some facts. Which book was this, even? Initial questions posed to the browser yield vague, unsatisfactory results. The only Boxcar Children book set in an apple orchard makes no mention of communal meals or farm work. Most of the dumpling-related hits come from a companion 1991 Boxcar Children cookbook. In the “Desserts” section, the last recipe is “Mary’s Cherry Dumplings.” In a sparkling burst of clarity, I remember that none of the children are named Mary. A blog post on the topic asserts that the recipe is extrapolated from the end of the very first book, the original, wherein the children encounter a country doctor who also owns a cherry orchard. This first book, eponymous inauguration of the 149-volume Boxcar Children saga, is available through Project Gutenberg, as it was published in 1924. Somehow, classic children’s books are always older. Older than? Just older. I find the passage about the orchard with its cherries and its dumplings, and I discover that the core facts of this memory were all contained within a single chapter. They’d spilled over my brain’s fields and crevices into a whole fraught saga. What actually happens is that the children arrive on a casual invitation and, in the naive-pastoral way, they are allowed to work one day of the cherry harvest in exchange for a cute but sustaining wage.
It’s “Irish Mary,” the cook of the orchard-doctor’s family, who bakes cherry dumplings for the household. These are dumplings in the pastry sense, as in buttery dough filled with fruit compote; as in crust pinched up and covered in sugar that crusts golden-brown while baking. This dumpling composition is assumed within the book’s latent understanding of foods that exist; the dumplings are called dumplings and not further explained. It’s only reading this now, as a non-child, that I perceive the pastry associations at once. But the same non-child me is surprised to find that the dwelt-up procedure in this part of the book is when Irish Mary makes something called cherry slump. This is a sweet cherry stew, a dessert served only to the laborers. The cherry dumplings are bestowed an extra special glow because it’s uncommon that the Boxcar children, random kids from who-knows-where, are allowed to eat them. The children devour the sweet baked dumplings with superlative relish. The two adult orchard workers have slump.
So it wasn’t apples—cherries instead. When I was a child, I didn’t know that cherries could be cooked. I’d only eaten them raw, and even then not so often, because the stone pit was so big and locked in the fruit that my teeth couldn’t maneuver around it. Cooking cherries seemed like an impossibility. Cherries couldn’t be stewed any more than whole grapes or peeled oranges. How would you cook a fruit like that, which contains its juices in a watertight skin? There would be no liquid to simmer in the fashion of stews. The possibility of crushing the fruit was obviously beyond me. And in marveling at my ridiculous lack of imagination as a child, I remember how the fruits were switched. Apple for cherry, apple then ossifying into the false pillar of this real memory. The first thing I ever baked from instructions not given by a box or my mother was apple turnovers. It was cinnamon sugar and diced apple paste nestled inside re-formed croissant dough from the can, the entity then baked into something my Home Economics teacher called “apple dumplings.” A revelation. I didn’t know that this type of food, more often called “turnovers,” could also have another name with such different associations. It’s all somewhat ridiculous, and Wikipedia reveals that most “dumplings” are boiled or steamed or savory, having numerous combinations of non-turnover characteristics. But in this life I reach into the refrigerator for apple cider, thinking of apple, apple, apple dumpling. Then the whole sequence of confusions and false names and misdirections returns to me, inexorable like a flavor.
Eliza Chen is excited to eat everything in the future.