On Pasta

When we lived in Elk, we used to make a fair amount of pasta. My father would work in the woods a couple of days a week, but on other days we would putter around the house, working in the garden, cooking, and doing odds and ends. I remember making pasta vividly because we used to use the spare mangle to roll out the dough, since we lacked a pasta machine, and it seemed like a kind of frivolous purchase when we had a perfectly good spare mangle sitting around.

We used to feed great wads of dough through the mangle, finishing up with pasta which would end up nearly four feet long, and sometimes even longer. After we ran it through to the desired thickness, we’d cut it, and then hang it for drying, usually coiling it so that it would be compact during storage. We’d eat some fresh, of course, but part of the fun of pasta making was the creation of little nests of dried pasta which we could cook up quickly on nights when there wasn’t much time for fussing about; dried pasta cooks quite quickly, and you can slap some butter on it and call it good, especially with greens from the garden.

This was in part made possible because the house in Elk was fairly large, and had room for pasta operations. In a smaller house, undoubtedly it would have been a colossal mess and a big hassle. Making pasta dough itself is fairly easy; throw an egg and some oil in some flour, and go to town. We also used to make spinach and tomato and other flavors of pasta, which were a bit more complicated, but not that hard.

Pressing out the pasta was a pain, though. You had to hold it carefully to support it as it moved through the mangle, so that it wouldn’t break. And you had to flour everything so that the pasta didn’t stick, and the longer the sheets got, the more challenging it became, because of course four feet of pasta is kind of a lot to handle. Cutting also had to be done with care and precision to get reasonably evenly-sized strands, and then there was more flouring and coiling and hanging to dry. It was definitely a procedure, something we did on Saturday mornings when several hours stretched ahead of us and we knew that we would have time for everything, including cleanup.

I was aware, on some level, that pasta also came in boxes, and occasionally I would have box pasta at a friends. It was different. Not necessarily bad, mind you, just different. Homemade egg pastas, as many readers are no doubt aware, tend to be softer and denser and much richer. Box pastas are chewy, a texture I like, with a more light flavor. When we moved to Caspar, we started using box pasta because the mangle didn’t come with us, and I probably acquired a bit of a taste for it, although I always had a soft spot for fresh pasta, because nothing really compares. Box and fresh are like apples and oranges, both good, both different.

I acquired a pasta machine a few years ago and started making fresh pasta on a reasonably regular basis, something which people seem to view with astonishment. It’s really not very difficult for me, and it’s much, much cheaper than buying fresh pasta at the store. A basic package of fresh fettucini is easily $6, and the cost for producing that at home is much lower. Yes, it requires some work, I’m not going to lie, but if I tend to make a big batch and dry it, and thus the labor doesn’t seem quite so bad, especially when I’ve had a long day and I just want some good food and I throw a little pasta nest in boiling water and it unfurls and cooks in minutes.

I tend to make a lot of things from scratch, because that’s how I was raised, and if there really is a quality difference, or something can only really be made from scratch, I’m willing to put in the effort. Clearly, my upbringing had a profound impact on my tastes when it comes to food, and I certainly developed a taste and liking for things made from scratch, as opposed to packaged foods. It’s not a snobbery thing, although I used to be quite snobby about it, it’s just that I know what I like and I feel fairly confident about it. And I have the ability to make things I like, so why not make them?

And, you know, this probably sounds odd, but I don’t feel like cooking is work, for me. I haven’t been feeling very inspired about food lately, but it’s not because I dread the thought of the work of cooking, it’s because I can’t think of anything that I want to eat. For me, being in the kitchen is enjoyable, and I like working on “projects” like home made pasta. Sometimes I put on some Buffy or something to entertain myself while I do it, but it’s still not really work, for me, or for my body, for the most part. And I like cooking things for other people (but not with, I have learned, I prefer to cook alone), and I like to take pleasure in cooking.

That definitely puts me in a position of privilege; I have the time to work on cooking projects which might take an hour or more, I’m only satisfying the needs and tastes of one person instead of a group, I don’t have a disability which makes cooking a burden. I can stand for an hour in the kitchen, I can handle heat and steam. The recognition of my cooking privilege, so to speak, has really changed my position on cooking. I used to be snobby about it because I didn’t recognize that, for other people, cooking from scratch actually is work and it may not be work that they are able to do. Which gives me a deeper appreciation of the fact that I enjoy it, and can do it, and can make fresh pasta if that’s what I want to do.

And it makes me especially happy when I can feed other people who may not be up to that level of work. It’s turned from a sanctimonious act for me in which I prove the superiority of cooking my way to a gift to someone else, and I think that’s a much nicer approach to cooking for people, don’t you?