Saturday Nights – A Family Story

It was Saturday night in St. Louis and a young girl and her grandmother were cooking. The sound of bubbling water around 2 lbs of boiling potatoes was present while the girl played with flour. She felt the odd texture of the flour on her hands, and it got stuck underneath her nails. She patted her hands and watched the air in front of her turn white. It was a messy project; the counter top and floor were covered with white.  Her grandmother didn’t scold the girl, she was too focused on the boiling potatoes. They couldn’t be overcooked. It was important the potatoes didn’t absorb too much water and break apart. Soon, these potatoes would be combined with the messy flour and create something heavenly; gnocchi (nyo-key). These Italian potato dumplings comfort the soul with warm, buttery goodness and with just a little bit of Parmesan cheese, the gnocchi are perfected. They were a family favorite, and the young girl spent many Saturday nights cooking them with her grandmother.

My great-grandmother loved making gnocchi with my mother, but she was particular about the ingredients. My mother said that most of the time spent cooking gnocchi was actually preparation. My great-grandmother needed the best ingredients, especially the Parmesan. They had to go to a certain store to get real Parmigiano-Reggiano – commonly known as Parmesan – cheese, which they would grate themselves. My great-grandmother went out of her way to get the cheese; she didn’t own a car and had to take a bus. She did this for her love of cooking, but she also did it because she lived in Rome for a period of her life and knew what real Parmigiano-Reggiano did to gnocchi. She wanted it to be authentic.

In America, we have our food. We have our burgers, pancakes and pies. But America is a mix of ethnicity and cultures and we have a large variety of food from other countries. We can find food from almost every country. Italy, Lebanon, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Greece, Germany, Thailand, France, England, China and anything else our hearts desire. But how authentic is this food? Is Chinese food actual Chinese food, or is it an Americanized version? Today, so many Americans consider themselves to be cultured because of the food they eat, but usually that sticky orange chicken with fried rice isn’t real Chinese, or that pasta with the name no one can pronounce isn’t authentic Italian. The foreign food that is made and consumed in the United States is becoming Americanized to please the American palate, which means Americans aren’t getting the chance to try delicious dishes from around the world. My great-grandmother understood this, even during the late 60s, and went to great lengths to make her gnocchi authentic.

After the potatoes finished boiling,  but were still slightly hot, the girl and her grandmother grated them. This was a long process. There were many potatoes and only one grater. The grandmother showed the girl how to grate the potatoes, how to hold the grater and press the potatoes firmly onto it. It wasn’t the first time the girl had been taught how to grate potatoes but her grandmother was forgetful. Besides, this was the girl’s favorite part. As she and her grandmother took turns grating the potatoes, her grandmother told her stories of Rome. The grandmother had lived in Rome for a short while, and told the girl of fantastical stories of the Spanish Steps and the delicious food she tried. She spoke of creamy cheeses and the overwhelming flavors of pasta sauces. Then, after the grandmother reminisced they planned their trip to Rome. They would visit the Spanish Steps and the small apartment the grandmother lived in on Via Condotti. They would sail on the Mediterranean sea over clear blue water while soaking up the sunshine.  And then they would eat authentic pasta and gnocchi and they would be in heaven. The girl could only imagine that Rome was the most fascinating place on earth.

My great-grandmother and my mother never went to Rome together. My mother doesn’t remember the exact reason why they didn’t go, but she thinks my grandmother didn’t want her going. But my mother wanted to be cultured; she wanted to experience new places and explore the world. Unfortunately, my grandmother didn’t think traveling was important, which is a view shared by many Americans today.

Perhaps Americans don’t travel because we think we become cultured when we eat food from other countries and therefore don’t have to leave the United States. But again, most of our “foreign” food has been modified to American tastes and is completely different from the food it’s imitating. So we aren’t as cultured as we think. The only way to be cultured is to go abroad and eat the food there. We need to get out of America and eat real Italian, Greek and German food. We need to know what spices Indians use in curry and bring that knowledge back so we can make curry that will do India justice. This is why my great-grandmother only used real Parmigiano-Reggiano because she needed to cook gnocchi that could be found in a small cafe in Rome.

Once they had grated all of the potatoes they slowly mixed them with 6 1/2 oz of flour and kneaded. The girl stuck her hands deep into the mix and felt the sticky, gooey wonderfulness of potatoes and flour. But they finished kneading quickly and created a dough that was damp but not sticky. The dough was perfected. The grandmother covered the rolling pin in flour and lightly rolled out sections of the dough. She rolled the dough into thick, long ropes. Once the dough was even, the grandmother cut the ropes into 2 cm long pieces. The girl watched intently, resting her arms on the counter top with her chin pressed into her hands. The grandmother pressed each dumpling with a fork and her thumb into a concave shape, flipping them as she went. She did this so the dumplings would cook evenly and hold the sauce. Then, the gnocchi were put into a large pan of boiling salt water and sank to the bottom. The girl waited patiently for the gnocchi to rise, which was a signal that they were finished cooking. This took about two to three minutes. Once the gnocchi had risen, the grandmother removed them. The only sauce she added was a generous amount of butter and some Parmigiano-Reggiano. The gnocchi were finished, and they were warm and delicious.

When my mother was twenty-two, she finally visited Rome. She went with my grandmother, who had to be talked into going, and they visited the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti, the small street my great-grandmother  lived on. My mother ate real Italian food, including gnocchi, and even though she thought some of it was odd she enjoyed the experience. She still makes gnocchi for our family sometimes and tries to use real Parmigiano-Reggiano, though it is difficult to find. My mother tries to cook authentic gnocchi because my great-grandmother taught her the importance of traveling abroad to becoming cultured, but my great-grandmother never would have understood the importance of traveling if she hadn’t lived in Rome for a short while. So maybe we should follow suit. We should travel outside of America and experience new flavors, and maybe then we’ll understand why my great-grandmother needed to use Parmigiano-Reggiano.

View of Via Condotti

View of Via Condotti from the Spanish Steps. Photograph taken by Barbara Neubert.