Kale was the best food. In the years before I quit dieting, kale had claimed the top spot on my Good food list—the righteous superhero of the produce section. Whether sautéed, steamed, or raw, eating kale made me a Very Good Person. If not quite transformed into Gwyneth Paltrow, I was at least behaving Gwyn-ish. While filled with those saintly greens I could walk to work with my head held high, bragging about my lunch salad all the livelong day.
Bad foods, on the other hand, I never talked about. These were the burgers I ate in front of the television after having a lousy day at work. There were the brownies I baked and ate right out of the pan in my kitchen the day I found bedbugs in my apartment. Then there were all the not-kale things I simply ate because I really, really wanted to. All those foods were without virtue, both representing my inherent lameness and further making me a Very Bad Person.
And then there was the dumpling scenario. Of all the crazy, illogical equations in my head, nothing is more emblematic than the way in which I behaved around dumplings (spoiler: like a lunatic).
Dumplings were Bad, 100%. Thick, chewy dough wrapped around fat-speckled meat that tasted like gristly heaven, dumplings were the first things my eye caught on any Chinese food menu. Fried was not an option. Once, my nanny Karen and I had gone to the movies at a local mall, stopping by Panda Express for a quick dinner before the film. I ate one of the fried dumplings off her plate, and then spent the rest of the night convinced I’d done irrevocable cardiac damage. I was ten.
“You’re not having a heart attack.”
“How do you know? Feel my heartbeat.”
“It’s fine, you’re just amped up because you’re stressing out.”
“Stress causes heart attacks!”
The shushing got so bad that we eventually left the movie theater. I still have no idea what happens at the end of My Father the Hero.
But by the time I finished college, dumplings had risen to the top of the Bad list. They were up there with french fries and full-fat ice cream. They were an absolute no-no, unless split with a skinny friend and followed up with an extra workout and at least one full head of kale, spinach, or cabbage. It wasn’t just that I’d ramped up the crazy by then, but also because I’d discovered gyoza.
Gyoza was Good. It was a diet dumpling, with a slightly thinner skin and a little less meat inside—plus, it came in a smaller container. Fried gyoza was allowed half of the time because it wasn’t a big, fat, fried dumpling but just a small, pan-fried little nibble of an appetizer. (Note that “pan-fried” was different from “fried” because someone put the word “pan” in front.)
Furthermore, gyoza came from Japanese food restaurants. Japanese food was officially Better than Chinese food, what with all the raw fish and miso soup. Japanese lunch specials came with a side of seaweed salad, whereas Chinese food lunch specials came with a side of an egg roll. Chinese food was for cheat. Japanese food was for light work lunches and healthy dinners after yoga. (If you’re now worried that I might be racist, rest assured that I share your concern.)
Gyoza was Good but even Better was shumai. Shumai was basically nothing. If you ate shumai you might as well get a Big Mac afterward, because those tiny, thin-skinned balls of steamed shrimp purity guaranteed that you were officially Good for that entire day. You won. By eschewing the dumplings and gyoza and opting for the least-delicious, most miniature food option, you now had bragging rights for the next twenty-four hours, and had earned a trip to the frozen yogurt shop.
Just a few months after quitting dieting, the dumpling revelation hit. It was a mundane afternoon at work, when I found myself scanning sushi lunch specials online. All at once, I got it: dumplings, gyoza, and shumai are the same damn thing. They’re slightly different shapes with slightly different fillings, but for all practical purposes, they are exactly the same. Verbal Kint is Keyser Söze, Rosebud is a sled, and I have spent twenty years wringing my hands over appetizers.
Oh, I told everyone.
“Dumplings and gyoza are the same thing. Did you ever think about that?!”
“No, not really.” My boyfriend turned around at his desk later that night. He was busy working on a freelance assignment, but by then he knew the tone that meant Turn around so I can astound you with my latest food discovery and all my feelings about it. It was kind of a loud tone.
“You never realized that?! They are!”
“No, I know that they are. I just never thought about it.”
This is the problem with dating someone who has absolutely no food issues beyond a mild dislike of fennel. With this first epiphany, the walls of Jericho came swiftly tumbling down. If dumplings and gyoza were pretty much the same thing in slightly different forms, then neither of them possessed the Good or Bad powers I had so fervently believed in. And if that was true for dumplings, then what other foods might be similar false idols (and demons)?
This is an excerpt from BIG GIRL by Kelsey Miller. Copyright © 2016 by Kelsey Miller. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.