What Dumplings and Thrillers Have in Common / by Emilia Morano-Williams

Spinach dumplings

I avoid the news in the morning. Russia conspiracies and French elections feel extra jarring without a layer of work, wine and weariness to inure me. But the stories filter through. Usually in the form of thrillers and dumplings.

This isn’t a new form of alt-facts—I’ve simply noticed more discussion of thrillers and dumplings recently. It started with the James Patterson paperback I saw on my next-door neighbor’s stoop, which quickly morphed into a breadcrumb trail of Jo Nesbøs and Donna Leons scattered along my morning walk. I’d return home and peruse a dumpling showdown in New York Magazine before receiving a PR email about The Dumpling Galaxy cookbook and scrolling through Tasting Table’s newsletters filled with recipes for gyoza and gnudi. At first I thought this was all coincidence, but with each new instance, I realized that thrillers and dumplings illustrated how we were responding to political and social upheaval.

Back in February, around elect fell from Trump’s political position, The New Yorker Radio Hour ran an interview with Adam Davidson who mentioned that he read Alex Berenson's John Wells spy novels to cope with chaos in Washington. These are thrillers of the kind that seemed hoary when our president oozed rockstar-coolness and we felt we could overcome racial inequality. New York discussed this point in a feature discussing the novel in the age of Obama. They argued that during Obama’s tenure the liberal novel writing elite felt comfortable enough with the political situation to present realist novels that confronted the thorny social issues that we believed our cooler-than-cool head of state would resolve. Meanwhile Trump and the populist crescendo reminds us that we still need to fight for an equal society. And so we turn to thrillers.

It’s not just escapist literature helping us to cope. Food also offers comfort, though we’ve swapped the tacos and thai food we ordered with aplomb during the election cycle for tortellini and manti and the occasional knish. Within the space of a week, the food website Tasting Table published no less than six articles about dumplings with the tagline “Every culture has a dumpling.” Following Trump’s inauguration and the ban on arrivals from select Arab countries, this slogan read not as a declaration of deliciousness, but as an assertion of unity. If every culture has a dumpling, then there must be some essential underlying essence that we all share that drives us to make them. As thrillers always end neatly, a dumpling dinner concludes with no leftovers.

On one hand, dumplings aren’t a trend because we grew up knowing they were the a safe noodle-wrapped introduction to exotic cuisines. On the other hand, the food world’s recent focus on them parallels the thriller’s newfound superstar status among the literary intelligentsia. As political times turn uncertain, we’re looking for ways to comfort ourselves that still bestow distinction. The most popular thrillers aren’t tatty paperbacks—though as my morning walk proves they’re making the rounds as well. The most popular ones are writen by people with knowledge of the system like John le Carré. Then there's 1984, which has topped The New York Times bestseller list since the inauguration. Dumplings are similar. While a dumpling can a delicious deep fried samosa, it can also be a matzo ball in soup when we’re ill. They can offer consolation or a new way of cooking and being in the world.

Although thrillers and dumplings have so far been the harbingers of the Trump era, that doesn’t mean they’ll stay this way. Soon we might be seeing translations and noodles or science fiction and stir fries taking their place. The next four years are up in the air. But we’ll have to get through them somehow. Let’s hope they’re delicious and deep.