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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
On the Tongue
The dumplings were not as I remembered.
I had recalled them in exquisite detail: their pliant, near-translucent skin, the spiraling closure of exactly eighteen hand-wrought folds. The pressure of chopsticks squeezed the skin enough to lift a dumpling from the base of the bamboo steamer basket, but not enough to rupture it before it had been deposited into the mouth, upon the tongue, where, because the temperature of the broth within was hotter than the outer skin, and because the meat within was firmer and more substantial, the dumpling possessed a living, organ-like quality; it seemed to pulse, and biting into it gave one the impression of biting into a beating heart.
When you bit into a pork and crab dumpling at Din Tai Fung Restaurant in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, the skin ripped to release a surge of fragrant broth. As the broth pooled in the lower pockets of your mouth, you chewed into the soft lump of meat, seasoned with ginger, chive, sesame and soy, a dark flavor, fermented and faintly sweet. The whole process —bite, chew, swallow—took a few seconds. The sensory experience contained within those seconds is, I think, the closest I have ever come to ecstasy.
• • •
The year we lived in China, my fiancé and I made pilgrimages to Din Tai Fung on special occasions: Christmas; birthdays. We’d order pots of pu’er tea and pitchers of chilled plum juice, chicken thighs marinated in Shaolin rice wine, chopped cucumbers in vinegar and sesame oil, dumplings by the dozen. We’d eat ourselves into a stupor and then, in states of dizzy bliss, wander back out into the city to walk the long way home.
Three years later, after we were married, we returned to Beijing. My former fiancé, now my husband, had been awarded a Fulbright to do research in China, and I’d come along for a few weeks to get him settled.
I was afraid of the year ahead, the thousands of miles and dozen time zones that would separate us. We had already been apart for two years by then, attending graduate schools in different states, and I feared that a terrible, non-geographical distance was growing between us. But I couldn’t articulate these fears to my husband, nor even to myself. I was not willing to admit the possibility of doubt.
Before I left Beijing, we returned to Din Tai Fung and ordered our favorite soup dumplings. Were they as flawless as they’d been three years earlier? I don’t know. I was distracted, and couldn’t taste much at all.
• • •
I had not eaten soup dumplings since then, but recently I had occasion to attend a conference in Seattle, which is home to one of the only branches of Din Tai Fung in the United States.
The restaurant was miles from the conference, technically not even in Seattle but the nearby suburb of Bellevue. Still—as I assured friends I was trying to recruit—it wasn’t impossibly far, and the dumplings were worth it.
So one night, a friend and I set out from Seattle to add our names to the restaurant’s long wait list. Other friends would join us within the hour. As our taxi crossed Lake Washington toward the suburbs, I rested my hands on my fluttering stomach, giddy with anticipation: soon I’d be in the presence of the sublime.
Everything after that was wrong. Din Tai Fung Beijing had been an upscale restaurant of leather banquets and white linen tablecloths. Din Tai Fung Bellevue was in an overlit mall of furniture stores and video arcades; it was as loud and glaring as any cheap chain.
The friend I’d come with fell ill soon after our arrival and caught a cab back to Seattle. Then my other friends called to cancel after getting terribly lost en route. I hung up and paced the halls, contemplating the sadness of solo mall dining. My friends called back minutes later to say they’d come, after all, but they did not sound pleased about it.
I kept pacing. I took a photo of the restaurant’s exterior and debated sending it to my husband.
It was nine months since he’d returned from China, and we were no longer together. We’d been undone by predictable things: time and distance and change. Since we’d separated, I often wrote letters to him with no intention of sending them. I wrote them in my head, or on the back of a napkin, or typed them as memos on my phone. There were things only he would understand, things I didn’t know how to tell anyone else. We’d been together nine years. I’d only ever been to Din Tai Fung with him.
My friends arrived after more than an hour in the taxi, looking battle-worn and grim. When we sat to eat, their eyes flicked impatiently around the room, their jaws pulled tight. At least our food came quickly: soup dumplings in bamboo steamers, side dishes of shiny greens. “The dumplings are really good,” my friends said, which was their kindness to me, because we’d arrived at this table at great time and expense—it wasn’t worth it—but we were stuck here, in horrible Bellevue, at the horrible mall, and they were trying to make the best of it.
I was trying not to cry. The whole ordeal was my fault, and in forcing it I had profaned a thing I loved.
I stretched my chopsticks toward the steamer basket and began another letter to my husband in my head. I’m sorry, I wrote, the dumplings were not as I remembered.
But I raised one to my mouth anyway, and set it on my tongue, and perceived for a moment the hot and pulsing heart of it before I bit through the skin.
Ariel Lewiton‘s essays and stories appear in Vice.com, The Paris Review Daily, Ninth Letter, Wag’s Revue, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and is a former writing fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives and teaches in Iowa City.