FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - The tapestry of pork dumplings on Calvin Shea’s Instagram feed has been popular in quarantine. But not nearly as popular as his 80-year-old mom, Shirley.
“OMG, she is so cute!” one commenter wrote this summer on @calvindumplings, an account with 14,000 followers that consists entirely of Calvin and Shirley cooking dumplings at home in Fort Lauderdale. “My mornings are better seeing her do her thing,” another commenter wrote in June. “Her artistry is amazing!” wrote someone else. “I could never get my folds to look that perfect.”
“I can’t tell you why this account blew up so fast,” Calvin says. “I think people just love my mom.”
What started as a way to renew their relationship after living apart for decades has turned, practically overnight, into an all-consuming dumpling business.
When Calvin created the account in March, in the stifling boredom of self-quarantine, he wanted to celebrate his mom and bond over a savory dish they hadn’t cooked together for 30-plus years: homemade dumplings. For Shirley’s safety in the pandemic, Calvin and his mom have stayed together since February.
Now Calvin, 48, feels bewildered whenever he flicks through the @calvindumplings account.
For eight to 10 hours every day, Calvin and Shirley stand side-by-side at their kitchen island, making 1,000 dumplings a week from scratch. It started small, at first, then came a tidal wave of direct messages, all from followers who loved his “old-school Chinese mom” and begged to try their dumplings.
Scrolling through the @calvindumplings feed feels like peeking into private moments of happy domesticity. In one video Shirley, who stands 4 feet 11 inches tall with a flattering silver bob and bangs, silently chops Napa cabbage and celery with a chef’s knife. No one speaks. Only the rhythmic dicing of scallions.
In another video, Shirley and Calvin (often off-camera) stuff dumplings with pork and vegetables, pinching folds in the dough. In another, the dumplings are presented like artworks on a serving tray: dimpled, crescent-moon potstickers arranged in a tight, clean bouquet.
Calvin’s not sure what made Shirley Insta-famous. Perhaps millennials and Gen Zers are drawn to elderly folks who still rock it? Maybe it’s the warm wholesomeness of a mother-and-son team going D.I.Y. amid a global pandemic, a time when quarantined parents, children, siblings, spouses are also cooking at home? Maybe watching these videos is a balm, a relatable way to fuse food and family with the present moment?
“I don’t know about that. I have so many messages saying, ‘The way she chops vegetables is so soothing,’ ” Calvin says at his home, flipping sizzling dumplings on the skillet. “Making food is soothing? OK, I’ll take it. To me, it’s just Mom. To others, it’s therapeutic.”
Shirley, who’s chopping garlic nearby, smiles. “They get therapy by eating them, that’s for sure,” she says with a laugh.
MOM, THE BREADWINNER
When Calvin was 5, Shirley would wake up at 5:45 a.m. and take her sleepy-eyed son to the market, where they bought fresh garlic, cabbage and other ingredients. One of his earliest memories, he says, was sitting at their dining-room table in Zhongli, Taiwan, watching his mom diligently chop celery and carrots.
“That short window of time at the market was my time to spend with her,” Calvin recalls. “Then she went straight to work.”
Because she worked two jobs – accountant by day, personal assistant for a famous calligraphy artist on weekends – Calvin and his younger brother, Danny, would stay with their aunt and grandparents. Calvin’s father, who created “financial problems” for the family, stayed out of the picture, he says.
“We went through a lot of hardship the first 10 years,” he says. “My mom was the quote-unquote breadwinner. I remember once I literally ran into her at my grandparents’ house when I was 6 – just, BOOM! I cried so much because she’d only stopped by for a visit and had to go back to work.”
Dumplings brought them together in the evenings, after Calvin finished his homework and Shirley her house-cleaning.
“It was hard for us to spend time together,” Shirley adds. “Only after school. It’s not easy. But I fixed it. That’s why we came over to the States.”
After spending a year in Los Angeles, they settled on Long Island, and Shirley continued to work in accounting.
Shirley and Calvin rolled dumplings by night. By age 11, Calvin could scratch-make the dough (fine flour, warm water, generous salt), dice the vegetables, fold them shut, fry them up.
But Calvin lost interest by high school, when sports and hormones consumed his free time.
Eventually, Calvin moved away and got a business degree in Rhode Island. After some odd jobs, he bounced around from Oakland, Calif., to Fort Lauderdale and back for 20 years, working as a student recruiter for international universities.
Whenever he grew homesick, he says, “I thought about Mom, that she loved to teach me, and so I made dumplings.”
Although they lived apart, Calvin called her every day, Shirley says. “We talk about life and dumplings,” she says.
Spending long hours together in quarantine has helped Calvin make up for lost time – but also revisit warm, and sometimes painful, memories of childhood.
Three years ago, Calvin sat his mom down and told her his cousin had abused him when they lived in Taiwan. It happened at his aunt’s house while Shirley was busy at work.
His mom only stared at him, devastated. Then Shirley phoned his cousin to force a confession and “that’s when it all came out,” he says.
“Let’s put it this way: It was way worse than physical abuse,” Calvin says. “You don’t want anything like this happening to your child.”
They don’t talk about details because there’s no need to talk about details.
“There’s no words you could say to take back what happened. But she is home with me now because she feels guilty that she wasn’t there.”
EVERY DUMPLING IS A FINGERPRINT
The folding technique for a dumpling is like a fingerprint: No dimple or shape is ever the same.
Calvin has made dumplings since childhood the same way Shirley does - always three crimped folds on each side, six altogether - but there are subtle differences.
“See how mine’s flatter?” Calvin says, pinching shut his dumpling on the kitchen island. “Hers is up, puffy, perkier. It sort of reflects our personality. Mine’s flatter than my mom’s, and it’s like me: overweight and short.”
After moving back to Fort Lauderdale last November, Calvin decided to open a Calvin Dumplings booth at the Yellow Green Farmer’s Market in Hollywood. The business lasted a month before the COVID-19 pandemic forced South Florida into lockdown.
Calvin flew back to Taiwan in January to celebrate Chinese New Year with his mother, who had retired there in 2017. Both returned to Fort Lauderdale just before Super Bowl Sunday, he says, and have stayed in quarantine ever since. He’s turned his dining-room table into a makeshift office for his day job, recruiting for St George’s, University of London.
Shirley wakes up every morning at 6 a.m. and walks 9,000 steps around Coral Ridge, often at George English Park. When orders started pouring in on the @calvindumplings account, Calvin was concerned about her stamina.
“I’ve decided she is more machine than mom,” he jokes. “She does all this with an artificial hip. I thought she would be tired after five, six hours of making dumplings, but she’s like, ‘No! I want to make more!’ ”
Making dumplings is always a two-day process, Calvin says. On day one, Shirley and Calvin chop fresh celery, Napa cabbage, ginger, scallions, garlic, carrots and protein. In between Calvin’s Zoom calls, they sweat out the celery and cabbage with kosher salt.
The flavors marinate overnight in the fridge - a critical step - and on day two, they roll the fillings into dumpling wrappers. They’ve perfected this rhythm over 40 years: Shirley folds, Calvin pan-fries. Shirley chops veggies, Calvin makes dipping sauce.
Because customers are clamoring for Shirley’s dumplings, they often form up to 200 dumplings a day. Customers submit orders over Instagram. Calvin doesn’t deliver but offers curbside pickup at his home. He currently sells four flavors in vacuum-sealed frozen 12-packs: $15 for pork, $16 for chicken, $22 for shrimp, $26 for jalapeño-scallion.
Does Shirley enjoy making dumplings every day? “When I make dumplings and you eat them and feel happy, I enjoy that. I can’t believe we sell so many. It’s very healthy for you people.”
When the pandemic is over, Calvin plans to honor his mother again by opening a dumpling restaurant. He’s still scouting locations, so nothing is decided.
“My mom is my greatest hero, period, bar none,” Calvin says. “We are stronger together. How can I stop doing something that brings more smiles to her?”
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