Growing up as the child of immigrant Chinese parents in Brooklyn, Nancy Loo has fond memories of food. Even as her family struggled financially — her mother worked in a garment factory and her father worked at a Chinese takeout — there was always food in the house.
"He would get up in the middle of the night and cook for us," Loo recalled. "We didn't have much money, but there was always fresh food."
The busy family would spend time together by making dumplings. It was a communal event that included sharing and telling stories.
Loo never forgot her childhood immersion in the food and Chinese culture. Now that she is a working mother and wife, dumplings have a whole new meaning. The Montclair resident is the founder of Dumpling Diplomacy, an organization that brings people together for the joy of dumpling making while helping fight hunger — delivering the delicious treats to those in need through the nonprofit Toni's Kitchen.
On the second Sunday of each month, volunteers get together to make dumplings at the commercial kitchen. Experienced dumpling makers are paired with novices to wrap and cook dumplings for Toni's Kitchen's food outreach. Each box is decorated with hand-drawn pictures of dumplings made by students who help with the project.
With a quick movement of the fingers, Chinese-style dumplings are folded and tucked. Different flavors are created each month, such as pork and chive and the popular shumai-style dumplings, which are folded pockets with pork. Dumplings are so popular now that there's a National Dumpling Day in the U.S., celebrated on Sept. 26.
By the end of an afternoon of work, 500 dumplings are made and packaged to deliver. In addition to students from local schools, the dumpling making parties draw volunteers from the community from a wide swath of ethnicities, ages and social classes. Volunteers are thrilled with the work they've done after an afternoon of dumpling folding and regularly want to come back to help, Loo said.
For some, dumpling making is therapeutic. The steady movement of the hands can be mesmerizing. For others, the event is a social outing. It's very common for Chinese families to have a large dumpling making party where everyone pitches in to help while catching up on gossip.
Toni's Kitchen provides the money for the dumpling ingredients, and Dumpling Diplomacy provides the volunteers.
"Toni's Kitchen found a soulmate with Dumpling Diplomacy," said Stacey Cooper, the organization's director of operations.
Loo was connected to Toni's Kitchen, a food ministry of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, by another Toni's Kitchen volunteer, who happened to be a fan of Dumpling Diplomacy. Toni's Kitchen staffers appreciated Loo's philosophy of sharing Asian culture by inviting people in to make dumplings.
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Loo's approach to forming community is by sharing cultural connections through food. It complements Toni's Kitchen's approach of using food to build community and connect neighbors who need a bit of support. Dumpling Diplomacy's monthly groups have become such a hit that they fill up immediately, Cooper said.
"They are a demonstration of the understanding and connections that form around food," Cooper said.
While Montclair appears to be an affluent community, food insecurity exists for some families, Loo said.
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"This is a hidden problem, one of which I wasn't aware," Loo said. "[Asian Americans] are seldom if ever seen on food outreach lines or community pantries. It wasn't until I started food deliveries for Toni's Kitchen that I saw the scope of the problem."
A single trip for dumpling and grocery delivery would take up the entire back seat and trunk of Loo's Honda Civic. A large number of the recipients are Asian American, Loo said.
"They live on Bloomfield above storefronts, in apartments scattered around town," Loo said. "The difference: Whereas most families welcomed their deliveries, Asian American families either had theirs dropped outside their apartments or left in the lobby. They waited until we left before opening their doors to get the bags."
Toni's Kitchen's mission is to serve neighbors in need. Following the lead of a soup kitchen in Paterson, the group treats people arriving for a hot meal as guests and serves them restaurant-style, offering dignity and respect. The group also offers grocery and meal deliveries to those in need.
With the dumpling-making parties being a hit at Toni's Kitchen, Loo and Cooper decided to create a community event to support Toni's Kitchen and promote Dumpling Diplomacy's mission. A fundraiser for foodies to sample four types of dumplings and sauces — Dumplingpalooza — will be held on Oct. 22 at Toni's Kitchen.
When Loo is not busy at her full-time job as a software solutions architect or spending time with her husband, Thomas, and her son, Leo, she enjoys sharing her love of food. She is also the founder of EAT — Essex Asian Table — a foodie group that goes on tours and gatherings around food.
Before moving to New Jersey 12 years ago, Loo lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. After some time living in the Garden State, she began to yearn for the authentic ethnic foods she enjoyed in her old neighborhood. A group of like-minded food aficionados, the members of EAT share in Loo's enjoyment of different ethnic cuisines. She recently hosted a mooncake festival in her backyard, making 45 mooncakes for the Harvest Festival all by herself. Coming up will be an Indian dosa party, during which the group will indulge in the paper-thin crepes.
All races, genders and ages are welcome to join EAT and Dumpling Diplomacy, Loo said. Just as she explores different ethnic cuisines with her foodie group, Loo plans to make different styles of dumplings from various countries, such as the Ukrainian varenyky and the Latin empanada.
"Food has no borders," Loo said.
Mary Chao covers Asian communities and real estate in North Jersey.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Chinese treats brought to Montclair neighbors by two organizations