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The Power of a Sad Dumpling













On a cold and rainy evening in early spring, I stood in my miniature Brooklyn kitchen as the wind howled outside, sticky-handed with dough, every surface dredged in flour – including myself – with a slow-creeping panic traversing my gut. As I dumped what seemed like the tenth cup of dusty King Arthur into a bubbling pot of peppered creamy white liquid on my stove, I hurriedly whisked the pot like my life depended on it. It seemed too early to call it gravy, though that was the end goal, I kept reminding myself as the “couple tablespoons” of flour the recipe called for turned into cups, and the liquid evaporated almost as quickly as I could whisk.


This wasn’t just any recipe I was making. These were my late Grandma’s Chicken and Dumplings – the veganized version. I found myself yearning for her hearty Appalachian cooking after moving to New York City from Virginia because truly, nothing made me long for the comforts of my childhood more than leaving it. I found myself hungering for home and its idyllic green pastures, rolling blue hills, and dear loved ones, cooking up many of the meals I grew up eating and carry in my memory to this day. In Annia Ciezadlo’s memoir, Day of Honey, she describes her own motivations for connecting with food in new and unfamiliar lands. “... I cook for that oldest of reasons: to banish loneliness, homesickness, the persistent feeling that I don't belong in a place.” In the same vein, as I began to crave familiarity, comfort, and love, the taste of my Grandma’s noteworthy dumplings had quickly pushed its way to the tip of my tongue upon moving, nearly 15 years after actually eating them.


Scattered across cultures and cuisines worldwide, the universal notion of reaching for comfort during times of stress, uncertainty, or unfamiliarity is nothing new. From Nordic hygge living practices that create qualities of comfort and coziness, to early pandemic-era snacking that satiated hunger and boredom – there are elements of this natural human desire in many forms. Even Yale human relations experts note that by breaking bread with those we love, even if it’s done from a safe virtual distance, is “what can turn nearly any food into comfort food.” 

My Grandma’s Chicken and Dumplings do for me what a matzo ball soup, Chinese xiao long bao, or Chilean pantrucas might do for another. A traditional Appalachian recipe, hers was not far off from the Chicken and Dumplings recipe seen in The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery, a cookbook compiled with nearly every rustic dish prepared in Appalachia. Dropping spoonfuls of dough into a rolling pot of salty chicken stock produces round, light, and fluffy “happy” dumplings – most of the time. This method of dumpling preparation is about 90% foolproof, with the other 10% leaving room to chance, thus producing a dense, chewy, flat, and downright “sad” dumpling. 

Growing up, my brother and I made a game out of counting how many sad dumplings came from the pot of creamy white gravy. Their weighty density usually kept them on the bottom of the pot, making them unmistakable in their small, rock-like, under-developed forms. As much as I wanted to escape it, the likelihood of receiving one sad dumpling amongst a bowl of fluffy dumplings was highly probable, and as I got older, I came to expect it. The contrast between the two dumpling styles was drastic, but necessary. Much like life, how can one appreciate the happy dumplings, or good days, without the sad rocks, or bad days, reminding us of how good we really have it? In the title itself, Day of Honey, Ciezadlo references the Arabic phrase, “youm aasl, youm basl,” or, “day of onion, day of honey,” for the bad and good days. Whenever we gathered around my Grandma’s long walnut table, filled with flowery vintage serving bowls piled high with all of our favorite dishes, each one generously salted and prepared with love, it was always a good day. Being served a happy dumpling felt special, like winning your own personal grand prize.

Dining at my Grandma’s house defined our family’s traditions. Small in number, but not in love, a great deal of family gatherings revolved around her. She was the glue that held us together, like Elmer’s, but instead – one part gravy and two parts love. Family and strangers alike were always welcomed with open arms, and more food than most stomachs could handle. As soon as an empty space appeared on your plate, she wanted to fill it with another spoonful. Spellbound by her neverending warmth and unconditional love – a beautiful and gracious pillar of our family – I cherished every last bite with her. 

Back in my own kitchen, pacing and fretting nervously about making and veganizing her Dumplings for the first time ever, I recapped all of the tips my Mom had walked me through earlier on the phone, re: dumpling success. My Grandma's recipe is slim on specific quantities, and about as vague as they come. With my fiance and soon to be sister-in-law a mere 15 minutes away, expecting if not a delicious, at least an edible dinner, I thought to myself, “Here goes nothing,” and had already picked out the neighborhood takeout spot we’d resort to if this thing went south. After a second anxious phone call home to make sure I was on the right track, I began dropping spoonfuls of sticky dough one by one into the rolling pot. Taking off my shiny new engagement ring, as to not subject it to the glutenous mess that now enrobed my hands, I dropped in the last spoonful of dough, covered the pot, and prompted Alexa to set the timer for twelve minutes. Throwing up my hands, This was it. There's always takeaway burritos... As I waited, I began picturing my Grandma making the Dumplings, strictly from her own memory. She never knew the exact measurements, and why would she need to? Like so many other exceptional home-cooks, it’s always about the feel of it. To truly observe, respond, and improvise to what a dish needs defines the craft and artistry of the very best cooks. By the book instructions are secondary, and perhaps sometimes even irrelevant.

Twelve long minutes and a sing-songy Alexa chime later, I timidly peeled back the lid. Steam pouring out, now doubled in size, the fluffy, bubbling orbs of gluten-filled joy I had grown up cherishing floated before me. I couldn’t believe it – they looked and smelled just like hers. Then, like clockwork, my family arrived, and I folded in the faux "chicken" to serve.

Sitting on our dual living room-turned dining room apartment floor, we sank into our bowls of warm, soupy Dumplings. Though many elements of both the dish and the dining environment differed a great deal from the Dumplings I grew up eating, the taste of home was still at the forefront. Suddenly, I was transported to her beige carpeted dining room, seated facing the mahogany china hutch filled with antique glassware and silver butter dishes. We chatted and remarked over how authentic the vegan version tasted, and how even though she may not have understood the reason for changing her recipe, my Grandma would’ve been tremendously proud just that I had made them. After dinner, I sent a photo of the final product to my parents. My Dad, her only child, texted back right away, That looks like one happy dumpling. Good job!

A comfort food that is undoubtedly as dense as it is belly-warming, I had long resigned myself to the idea that as a now adult vegan living far from home, it was more important to seek out new food experiences in the city as a new-to-New Yorker. And yet, on my journey to recreate a meal deeply entrenched both in gravy and in my heart, what I found felt more like home than I could’ve imagined. Transformative by nature, food has a unique way of taking eaters to places we never thought we’d go again. It roots its way deep into our subconscious, flickering on like a lightbulb in our mind, often when we need it most. Feeling closer to my Grandma now than I have in over a decade, I know now that it’s okay to have a sad dumpling every once in a while. It won’t be long until you’re served a big bowl full of happy ones.


Vegan Chicken and Dumplings

By Alison Lee -- Adapted from Dollie Lee’s Chicken and Dumplings recipe



  • Vegan chicken substitute (I used Sweet Earth Chick’n Strips)

  • 1 or 1.5 Vegan chicken bullion cubes, depending on sodium content and preference)

  • 2 stalks whole celery

  • Pepper to taste

  • ½-1 cup flour to make gravy

  • 2 Tbs. olive oil


Dry Dumpling Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour

  • 4 tsp. baking powder 

  • 2 tsp. salt


Wet Dumpling Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbs. melted vegan butter substitute 

  • Just under 1 cup oat milk



  1. Cook chicken substitute according to package directions until warm. Remove from heat and set aside, cover to stay warm.

  2. To make broth: Bring a large pot of water with celery stalks to boil. Add bouillon cubes to taste or according to package ratio directions. Boil for 20 minutes, or until aromatic. Remove celery stalks.

  3. To make gravy: In a separate large pot, heat olive oil on medium heat and stir in 2 Tbs. of the flour at a time, forming a paste. 

  4. Slowly begin pouring in 1 cup of broth at a time, whisking to combine with the flour mixture. 

  5. Continue adding 2 Tbs. of flour and 1 cup of liquid (broth or water), and simmer on medium heat until the liquid thickens to desired gravy thickness and quantity. Whisk until all clumps of flour have dissolved. 

  6. Add black pepper to taste.

  7. To make dumplings:  In a medium size bowl, mix dry ingredients together.

  8. Combine the vegan butter and oat milk to make 1 cup of liquid. Stir into the dry ingredient bowl until combined. (Small amounts of milk can be added to the dumpling dough, but it should be stiff).

  9. Bring gravy to a boil, then reduce heat and drop dumpling dough by large spoonfuls into the pot.

  10. Once all of the dumplings have been added, cover the pot and simmer for 10-14 minutes. 

  11. When the dumplings are fluffy and cooked on the inside, reduce heat and stir in the chicken to warm.

  12. Serve immediately.

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