This year, I finally started doing things I’ve always heard were good for me. Exercise has been beneficial, though I still don’t love it. Tracking my spending gets much the same review. Meditation, though, has been an excellent addition to my life. So has cooking, and not just because it helps me save money and practice portion control. Cooking, I’ve found, can double as a form of meditation. This is especially true of making pasta.
I have brief, vivid memories of helping the women in my mother’s family make pasta when I was just a toddler. Only a few details have stuck: the thrill of cranking the dough through the pasta machine until (in theory, at least) you could read a newspaper through it; the excitement of pressing the back of a fork onto the edges of fresh ravioli so that the tines leave little teeth marks around each perfect square.
These pasta-making memories mingle with flashbacks of the same women frying squash blossoms — or was that just a story I heard? I know for certain that we cut dough into perfect circles, which we’d then pinch into bow ties, fry up, and sprinkle with powdered sugar. I can almost summon the scent of the flat, lacy waffle cookies we made on the pizzelle iron. The iron was pretty cool-looking, but it wasn’t as mysterious as the metal contraption we used to make pasta.
Some people call it a pasta maker. We called it a pasta machine. I don’t know if the two terms are regional, like “Italian ice” (New York) versus “water ice” (Philly).
My mother is Italian and Sicilian, and, yes, the difference matters. Sicily is not part of the boot; it’s an island unto itself. It’s been conquered a lot. Countless legal goods go through the port of Naples—countless illegal goods do, too. Due in no small part to their region of origin, my grandfather’s Sicilian people were of a lower social stature than my grandmother’s Southern Italian people, even though everybody lived in the same tiny town in New Jersey, where they all did the same working-class factory jobs. When my grandfather left my grandmother, Rose, to raise two small children on her own, she went to work in a diaper factory and had to live on food stamps.
My mother cooked sometimes, when I was very small. She made meatloaf and cookies and spaghetti from a package and marinara sauce from a jar. Her father’s family joked that her recipe for sauce was “open a jar.” But the joke was rooted in some truth; she’d never learned how to make her own. She claimed my own father didn’t like her cooking, but I suspect the truth was that she never derived real pleasure from it. And she got busy. So she stopped.
My father’s culinary skills extend to heating up soup, microwaving leftovers, and making toaster waffles. His mom was a good cook, but his dad didn’t make anything in the kitchen. My grandfather, Pop-Pop, did, however, teach me to mix Grape-Nuts with Cheerios, which is a true breakfast masterpiece.
Once both my parents went to work full-time, we turned into a takeout household. We ate a lot of meals from Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s. Boston Market made an appearance on special occasions. McDonald’s, being notoriously unhealthy, didn’t make the cut. But I still have faint memories of my earliest years, when fast food was a rare, special treat and spending time in the kitchen meant bonding with my mother’s mother’s family.
Cooking is magic, in a way. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to alchemy. And every Italian woman in my life has a bit of the witch about her, even down to my great-grandmother with her apparent skill for reading tea leaves. I study tarot cards. But I see it as more of a meditative exercise than a supernatural one. To me, great cooking is way more mysterious than any tarot reading.
Today, I live 2,700 miles from my family. The past two and a half years of my life have involved enormous change, a lot of risk, some reward, and some failure. I’ve learned to savor joy as best I can and accept that I can only control so many things. Here are two of those things: I can make myself sit down in the morning and meditate for 10 minutes; and I can make myself cook at least two meals a day.
I use an app to help me meditate. I work with a nutritionist to help me eat well. She and I talk about choosing foods that are low on the glycemic index—sweet potatoes over white potatoes, for instance. I want to avoid the Type II diabetes that eventually led to the death of my grandmother Rose.
I wish Rose had more time to garden and cook, in the same manner as the older generations. But time is a luxury that spousal abandonment and poverty did not afford her. Through no effort of my own, I have so many advantages that my grandmother never did, and time is one of them.
I came to believe that I’d get something back by devoting some of my time to re-learning how to make pasta. It would give me a connection to the generations of women who came before me, whom I only knew for a few years at the end of their lives—my great-grandmother Lillian and my great-aunt Irene. It would connect me to their mothers, and their mothers’ mothers, and so many other women I never knew.
I consulted the nation’s finest culinary resource, Instagram. Based on what my friends Ben and Kirby seemed to be doing in their kitchen all day, every day, I made a few purchases. I ordered a cookbook, a pasta machine, and some 00 flour from Italy — fine, but not as fine as the 000 flour. Then I ignored it all for several weeks, until I decided to procrastinate on a writing project. This is the best time to try a new thing, or re-try a new (old) thing. I lit a Scorpio candle, asked God or whoever was listening for help, and got to work.
The book said the basic pasta-dough recipe takes one hour, including “resting time.” Why pasta dough has to rest, I don’t know. I assume it’s because of some complex scientific process that involves pasta molecules having a loud, emphatic conversation. Italians can look like they’re fighting even when they’re agreeing, so maybe that’s what happens on a chemical level.
I am not good with my hands. But that night, when I made pasta for the first time as an adult, I realized I was born to do this. (Or maybe it’s just really easy.) It felt so familiar. I applied the principles of meditation at each step, even while Frank Sinatra blasted in the background. (This is a requirement when cooking Italian food in the Italian-American home, especially if you’re from New Jersey.)
I breathed through the process, sometimes to the rhythm of the kneading or cranking of the machine. When my mind wandered, I brought it right back to the present. My mind wandered a lot. I kept bringing it back.
When I finished, I felt calmer and happier than when I’d started. I felt proud. And then I ate my pasta and felt even prouder—because it was actually good. It actually turned out the way it was supposed to.
Here’s my basic pasta recipe. It serves one or two people, depending on how much you eat. And like any advice that comes from another person, it is inexact and may not be right for you:
- Take about a cup of 00 flour. Make a mound of it and then, with your finger, dig out a hole in the middle.
- Drop an egg in the finger hole. Note: Crack the egg first. Then get rid of the shell, please.
- Smoosh it all together with your fingers until a ball of dough forms. This can be really fun! You get to make a mess! Play with your future food! (Or, if you hate squishy sensations, you can use some sort of utensil to do this.)
- Knead the dough for 7-10 minutes, until it’s pretty smooth.
- Wrap it in cling wrap and let it rest.
- Cut a small piece of dough off the well-rested ball of dough. Roll it lightly in some flour. Run it through the pasta machine on the 0 setting. Sprinkle more flour on it. Fold it in half. Run it through the pasta machine on the 0 again. Do this a couple more times.
- Move your pasta machine to the 1 setting. Run the dough through it. Some people sprinkle more flour on the dough at each step; some people don’t.
- Move your pasta to the 2 setting. Run the dough through it. Do this until you’ve reached the proper setting for the thickness required by your intended pasta shape. Instructions may vary, so read the guide that comes with your pasta maker.
- Cut your pasta into the correct shape. My pasta machine has options for fettuccine and tagliolini. My friends Ben and Kirby have some fancy extruder that makes other shapes. The pasta-machine industrial complex hooks you and then sells you add-ons for your machine. Dive in. It’s worth it. Or learn to make hand-cut, hand-rolled pasta. Or both.
- Lay out the pasta on a damp tea towel. Toss it in some boiling salted water as soon as possible. Fresh pasta will probably take 2-4 minutes to cook. (I’m not sure about tortellini or other types of filled fresh pasta — listen, I’m a beginner here.)
- I assume you’ve been heating sauce in a pan, right? Cool. Once your pasta is done cooking, drain it and pour it into the saucepan.
- Do whatever else you want, so long as it results in a tasty meal.
The next time I make pasta, I’ll crank out enough to make one small serving for myself. I’ll store the rest in jars to give away as gifts. Maybe I’ll dye some of the dough to impress the hell out of my gift recipients. I’ll definitely tie some enchanting ribbon around the pasta jars — maybe with dried flowers or herbs, ooh! — to drive home the illusion that this is all I do all day.
The entire time, I’ll breathe. Over and over, I’ll bring my mind back to the dough, to the mystery of yolk and egg white meeting flour. I’ll knead myself back in time and then return to the present, one breath later. I’ll share my work with others so they can enjoy it, so they can know I care about them as much as I’m learning to care about myself.
And at some point, I’ll learn to make sauce.