Creating connections between community, culture and cooking has always appealed to Francie Dekker. It’s part of what inspired her career as an educator working with food systems and sustainability, starting at Wellspring in 2007. 
Over time, she came to realize just about every culture has a dumpling. They’re also delicious and relatable comfort food, and the inspiration behind Dekker’s first children’s book.
Tapping into the theme of community and cooking, Dekker takes readers inside the kitchens of an apartment complex where dumplings served range from kreplach and khinkali to Johnny cakes and jiaozi with “Our World of Dumplings” ($17.99, little bee books, in stores Sept. 6).    
Dekker lives in New Berlin with her husband and two kids. The native of Northbrook, Illinois, is already working on her next children’s picture book project.
It started for me in college. I was meeting different people and trying food from different places. Some of these were really memorable food experiences. … I got into the whole food system and sustainable thing.
After college I decided I wanted to go into garden education. It was a joke with my family, you can’t really do that! Lo and behold it was a real thing. I moved to Wisconsin. In 2007 there was such a vibrant agriculture system. I found myself at Wellspring farm. That was really foundational for me in knowing where your food comes from and the farming sphere. I would have all sorts of youth and adults to the farm for educational programs. … From there I worked for UW Extension with the Milwaukee extension doing nutrition education and support for healthy food access. 
My work has always been about food, and I’ve always had this secret maybe not so secret desire to write children’s books. 
I knew nothing about writing children’s books. I just knew I wanted to do it. I found the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They had great resources. … I signed with  little bee books in October 2020, the middle of the pandemic. 
Wellspring, that was really foundational in my approach to prioritizing personally where my food comes from and being able to support local and seasonal agriculture, as well as my cooking. At Wellspring, we had a big staff, and every day of the week we had group lunch. We’d rotate who was cooking for the day. You’d have about an hour, and it would be for anywhere from six to 12 people. You have this bounty of produce to pick from to make lunch for everyone.
It helped me become more creative and focus on using seasonal ingredients in my cooking, and helped open me to different recipes and food globally and how they use seasonal and local ingredients. Wellspring was the starting point. 
When I came up with this (book) idea, I could list off about 10 or so dumplings I’d tried, but when I really dug into it this was mind-blowing, how many different types of dumplings there are out there. 
There is not one single definition of what is a dumpling. Between chefs and food historians, they mostly just agree to disagree what encompasses a dumpling. That makes it tricky, too. 
The word dumpling comes from dumping a piece of dough into a broth to cook. So if you think about that kind of dumping, it doesn’t even include a pierogi, which is stuffed. There are all these parcels of goodness that people eat and consider dumplings around the world. Because there was such a convoluted evolution, I came up with a version. … It is a children’s book, I didn’t want it to be too limiting, but I also wanted it to be not taking too much liberty. I wanted it to be accurate. 
The definition I came up with (for the book) is “Dumplings can be sweet or savory, stuffed or rolled, fried, baked, boiled or steamed. All dumplings though, are a labor of love. Often requiring multi-step processes, dumplings are best prepared and shared in the company of friends and family.”
I wanted to use that as a framework. From there, it was fun to create a list of dumplings that was a balance based on geography and based on cooking techniques.
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My family is Polish, and we’d have pierogi for the holidays. Dumplings are a universal thing. Almost every culture has a dumpling. Food is such a unifier, and in my own career it has been this unifier from different angles. 
My cousins and I as we grew, we wanted to teach ourselves to make pierogi. We used to make lots of recipes. Each Christmas we’d roll out a pierogi dough recipe and we’d get closer to what was in (Grandpa’s) memory. Now around Thanksgiving, a couple cousins and I get together and make hundreds of them. We freeze them and make them on Christmas eve and fry them up as a glorified appetizer. They’re usually gone before Christmas dinner even starts. That’s been a fun way to get to know our culture …
We have done some wacky flavors, but our audience voted for the more traditional ones. We do sauerkraut and mushroom, that’s the big favorite, then a potato and bacon, then a sweet. When I was in Poland, my favorites were prune and plum. You stew them down and add a touch of honey. We do cherry and farmer’s cheese. We tried to use ricotta. It just doesn’t work, so I went and got farmer’s cheese at a grocery in Chicago. That’s been added to the lineup permanently. 
We are going to have some recipe cards with our family’s pierogi recipe that we’ll share at some of the book events and school events I will be doing. 
My first book event is Sept. 3 at the Book Bin in Northbrook, Illinois, my hometown book store. Then Sept. 24 I’ll be at  Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave. 
Originally for the Italian dumpling I had ravioli. In doing more research there were some pretty strong voices out there, Italian chefs who were of the mind that ravioli is a filled pasta versus a dumpling. Gnocchi is the go-to dumpling for most regions in Italy. That was really interesting to learn, so we ultimately put gnocchi in the book rather than ravioli. 
At some of the book fairs people seem to be asking about ravioli and gnocchi, so that will be fun to have debates about dumplings around the world. 
One of the perpetual debates I would have about “what is a dumpling” was about the size of a dumpling. Some people claim a Cornish pasty is a dumpling. It fits the description, except for size. We really believe it is something you have more than one of, not just one. We settled on Peruvian empanadas, which are a little smaller.
My sister’s in-laws are from Peru, so it was fun to talk with them about their favorite Peruvian empanadas. There  is a shoutout to my sister’s mother-in-law in the book, as Carmen is her name and that is the name of the mother in the book. 
After getting started with this project I realize this is where my passion is, and I’ve started to work on some additional stories. Writing for kids is especially fun. 
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Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email psullivan@gannett.com.
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Francie Dekker.will speak about “Our World of Dumplings at 4 p.m. Sept. 24 at Milwaukee’s Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave. Admission is free, but advance registration is required. Visit boswellbooks.com/upcoming-events.

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