Last September Isabelle and I were driving to her first college interview when we got the news that one of her friends from her old school had taken her own life. That morning. It was overwhelming, horrible, sad news. I pulled over to let the college know we weren’t coming to the interview. Then we turned around and headed home, crying most of the way. I wanted to change things, turn back the clock, erase what had happened. But I couldn’t. All I could do was take us back home.
Neither of us felt like eating. I asked Isabelle if she would like to make some of the foods she and her friend had made at our house awhile back when they had a cooking extravaganza. Pork Dumplings and Fruit Smoothies. She told me she wasn’t hungry and I understood. I wasn’t really hungry either. Then when I drove past the exit for the supermarket she turned to me and wanted to know why I wasn’t getting off to go to the store. I got off at the next exit and headed back to the supermarket. We bought the ingredients for pork dumplings, and went home.
I am not saying that cooking was able to assuage our feelings about this girl’s death. Nothing could do that. It was a way for us to remember her. Remember her smiling and laughing self. Remember how silly she and Isabelle had been when they whizzed together fruit smoothies and steamed up heaps of dumplings. Remember her when she was in Isabelle’s life. We cooked dumplings because we missed her and were mourning her not being there.
This recipe is from Susanna Foo’s book Chinese Cuisine. There are many recipes in this book which I love, and these dumplings are a family favorite. We make a meal of them, which would probably have Ms. Foo raising her eyebrows, but they are so delicious we eat them until we have to roll away from the table.
Part of my family doesn’t eat pork so I always make a double batch of dumplings – one pork and one tofu. Also in my grocery stores Nappa cabbages are usually the size of footballs so by making a double batch I can use up most of the cabbage in one massive dumpling marathon. If you do make both remember you’ll need to double all the other ingredients (tamari, toasted sesame oil, ginger, cabbage & carrots). I find one package of wrappers is not enough for a single batch of dumpling filling, but two is too many. If you are doubling the batch go with 2 or 3. You can buy the extra package of wrappers and use the leftovers for something else. Or the lesser amount of wrappers and when you run out use the remaining dumpling filling for a quick stir fry. In all the years I have been making these only once have I had the perfect ratio of filling to wrappers. Don’t sweat it if things don’t come out evenly.
Pork or Tofu Dumplings
1 1/4 pounds ground pork or 1 pound firm tofu
1 cup minced scallions including greens
3 Tablespoons low sodium tamari or soy sauce
1 1/2 Tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 generous Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 pound Napa cabbage, sliced into very fine slivers
2 carrots, peeled and finely grated (optional)
2 packages dumpling wrappers (gyoza or wonton)
dipping sauce – recipe below
In a large bowl combine the pork or drained and crumbled tofu with the scallions, tamari, sesame oil, and ginger. Mix well and let sit for a few minutes so the flavors of the different ingredients to absorb and blend with one another. Then mix in the cabbage and carrots if you are using them. Nappa cabbage is sometimes also labeled as Chinese cabbage. If you can’t find it you can use savoy cabbage but add 1-2 tablespoons of water since savoy is a bit drier than Nappa.
Set up your steamer, I use one I bought from an international market years ago. It just fits into one of my large frying pans. I line the baskets of the steamer with pieces of parchment paper or the whole outer leaves of the Nappa cabbage to prevent the dumplings from sticking to the bamboo.
In the original recipe Susanna Foo called for round dumpling wrappers. I cannot find them at my local store so I make my dumplings with the square wrappers. To form the dumplings have on hand a small dish of water. Scoop a tablespoon of filling into the center of the dumpling wrapper and then moisten the edges by dipping your finger in water and running it along the edges. Then fold the wrapper so two sides match up. You can try to pleat the edges together, though lately I have been lazy and just sealed them shut flat, with no fancy pleats. I make the tofu dumplings into triangles and the pork dumplings into square, four-seamed packages so everyone knows which is which when they come out of the steamer. Steam for 11-13 minutes over gently boiling water. Serve while hot with dipping sauce. Don’t forget to occasionally add more water to the pan, as the water boils dry when making lots of dumplings. You can also freeze formed but uncooked dumplings. They will simply take longer to cook from their frozen state.
Dumpling Dipping Sauce
Toasted sesame oil
Rice wine vinegar
pinch sugar or drizzle of honey (optional)
I have little dipping bowls I just line up and add the ingredients to, tasting as I go. My mix is roughly 1 Tablespoon tamari to 1/2-1 teaspoon sesame oil, a small splash of rice wine vinegar, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of water. See what works for you.
I have had very little experience with suicide, however there are a few people from our church St. John’s who are wise and wonderful and who sadly have had their own personal devastating contact with suicide. They supported our family by listening and offering to share some of their own observations in the days and weeks and months after this young woman’s death because it was not easy. I don’t think it ever gets “easy”. They were also ready with an endless supply of hugs and kleenex and checked in often to see how we were doing. The teachers and headmaster at Isabelle’s school were likewise incredibly caring and willing to reach out to us however and whenever we needed.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given regarding teen suicide survivors was to let them make decisions about their own life, especially in the time immediately following the event. Whether to go or not to go to the funeral. Whether or not to take the SATs. Whether to get out of bed and go to school some days. There is no right or wrong way to deal with this, but it does help to affirm their choices. Also remember to let those who are in your son’s or daughter’s life (teachers, friend’s parents, coaches, therapist) know what has happened. They may not have heard, especially if the suicide victim went to a different school.
The number for the National Teen Suicide Prevention hotline is 800-273-8255.
Isabelle’s friend really loved art. If you would like to make a donation in her memory you can send it to the Frontier Regional High School Art Department, North Main St., South Deerfield, MA, 01373 c/o Jack Purcell who was one of her art teachers.