This summer, after 32 years of animated Pixar shorts, Domee Shi became the first woman ever to direct one. Her eight-minute film, Bao, can be seen in theaters before the long-awaited Incredibles 2. At surface level, the heartwarming cartoon is about a lonely mother consoled by a dumpling that comes to life, filling the aching hole in her empty nest. Many writers have praised the short for its sharp attention to cultural detail, specifically the way it both celebrates Chinese culture and unpacks the relationship between immigrant parents and Americanized children. But at the heart of this story about motherhood, there is another complex relationship to be discovered: the rich connection between women and dumplings.
The short opens on a close-up of the mother’s hands, carefully kneading, cutting, and shaping her dough into rounds that are healthily stuffed and then delicately wrapped into bao, a steamed Chinese dumpling filled with meat or vegetables. After serving her husband, who stuffs his mouth and runs off to work, the mother is left to savor her creation alone. Just before she takes a bite, she realizes that one of the dumplings has come to life as a baby bao that cries and giggles. As the dumpling baby grows up, the mother tends to it like her own child, constantly fixing its folds and keeping it full of meat stuffing.
The short isn’t only animating a recipe, but a ritual passed from mothers to daughters. “My mom and I would make dumplings together on weekends and holidays like Chinese New Year and Christmas,” Shi told me via email. “My mom learned how to make dumplings from her grandma … Dumpling making has always been an activity I’ve associated with family—you make them at home, with your mom, your aunties, your grandmas. And you’re usually doing something else while you’re folding dumplings, like watching TV, or gossiping with each other. It seemed obvious to me that dumplings were a perfect vessel to tell a story about a parent/child relationship.”
While women have been traditionally relegated to the kitchen in many cultures due to gender norms and stereotypes, it is also a place where they have power to shape tradition and manifest self-expression. In Bao, the mother uses food as a way to express her love—she always shares buns and bread with her dumpling son while they are out running errands. When he becomes a defiant teenager, she cooks a giant meal in an attempt to win back his attention. Her plan fails as he retreats to his room to eat shrimp chips and talk on the phone. The last straw comes when the dumpling tries to leave home with his new girlfriend. In a moment of desperation, the mother eats the dumpling whole. When the mother’s human son returns, she bonds with him and his fiancée over the same dumpling ritual from the beginning of the short. The fiancée’s ability to follow the dumpling “rules” allows her to connect with her mother-in-law.
“There’s so many interesting rules about dumplings that I learned from my mom—like how mincing the meat with a cleaver instead of a meat grinder or food processor makes the dumplings taste better, or how there’s two ways to fold dumplings: the easy way … or the harder aka ‘better’ way,” Shi said. “Looking back, these ‘rules’ were just her way of saying that the more love and effort you put into the dumplings, the better they taste. This principle is definitely something I used in Bao, where the mom character expresses her love for her dumpling child through feeding him and cooking for him. To me, that’s how the Chinese women in my life showed they cared for me.”
This connection between women and dumplings stretches beyond Chinese culture. In the 13th century when dumplings were said to be introduced to countries in Eastern Europe, Georgians named their dumplings khinkali, after the word for woman (k’ali). In the American South, chicken and dumplings has been a beloved home food for decades. In this case, chicken and dumplings helped women get their families through tough times with comforting, filling food that stretched ingredients as far as they could go. Food writer Ronni Lundy remembers her Great-Aunt Johnnie making the dish in southeastern Kentucky.
“I am sure Johnnie was cooking chickens she had culled from the flock, and I remember they had a big flavor,” she told me. “She often cooked a huge pot with more than one bird in it, then canned the extra meat in broth and fat to be pulled out in the winter to make chicken and dumplings then.”
In 2015, Part and Parcel started a program in Britain that taught migrant women how to make Polish pierogi. The organization aims to bring women from all different communities together over dumplings to bond and make new friends in a foreign country. As the women knead and shape the dough, they also have a chance to practice their English skills in conversation together.
As mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, and aunts all over the world spend time together folding and stuffing some form of dumpling, a connection is forged between the women and a beloved comfort food. Domee Shi harnessed the love and effort put into each and every dumpling, transforming the food into a meaningful parcel to carry a story about motherhood. It’s only fitting that Shi became the first woman to direct a Pixar short while bringing the special connection between women and dumplings to life.