Learning the art of collaboration by making pasta
by Janice Nigro
I grew up in the Midwest where winters are fairly brutal. So brutal that when I was moving to Norway from San Francsico and Norwegians joked about whether I needed some help with how to cope with winter, they became quiet when I told them I grew up near Chicago.
My mother claims not to be an artist, but anyone who can find activities to keep four active kids (with very different personalities) entertained on those days when it was not safe to go outside is a genius. We did get thrown out there occasionally when we got too wild but a lot of the time we were indoors we did something together, usually involving food.
My mother learned Italian recipes from my grandmother from Sicily. I think my mother learned them almost better than my father’s mother. If I go back to Sicily, I can find the same recipes being cooked by relatives I hardly know. One of the things that could keep us preoccupied in winter was making pasta.
As I remember it, it really started out as making ravioli. It is a quite time consuming process, but she would have us making the ravioli that we would get to eat for dinner. Our participation in this process would guarantee a plate/bowl of them for dinner.
The thing is there was always pasta dough left over to make actual spaghetti-the noodles. This was a process I remember my younger brothers somehow to be in charge of. They loved cutting the noodles on the hand cranking kind of pasta machine. And what they loved more was hanging them on the chandelier in the kitchen to dry.
They insisted on cooking them and even my mother, who didn’t like the mess of spaghetti with tomato sauce and kids (we always got fusilli to which my father once declared at dinner, I have four Italian kids and they don’t know how to eat spaghetti. Sounds like an irrational statement but when I watched my 90 year old grandfather eat spaghetti, I understood what my father was talking about), had to admit that they were the best noodles ever. Somehow the noodles took over ravioli making.
Even my uncle was involved in this process as his company was developing a pasta flour. Whenever we needed it, he would have a sack of flour, I am talking like potato sack size of sack of flour sent to us. And we would analyze it.
My mother started to make pasta about twice a week. She was generally the one making the dough and then we helped roll it out. For the most part, these were fettucini or spaghetti, but we were pretty free to do what we wanted with some of the dough at the end.
I never thought about it being a collaborative process until a few weeks ago. One of my brothers got the wise idea of purchasing a chitarra a few years ago. A special instrument for making cut pasta. Don’t ask me how, but he found some guy in Pennsylvania who puts these things together like some kind of a special stringed instrument.
And they are. I guess in certain Italian villages you will hear “music” at a certain time of the day emanating from the homes. If the chitarra sounds bad, you need to tighten it or it will make cutting the noodles supremely difficult.
I was dying to get one myself or better yet for my other brother who lives nearby and is the real cook. You can not beat tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Unless you have your mother to make tonnarelli pesto alla Genovese. Sure enough, his chitarra arrived somehow the day my mother arrived for a visit from Chicago.
And then it began. My mother brought her fresh basil from her garden from Chicago. My brother ordered the chitarra from Pennsylvania. And I came over to make the noodles. It goes quite smoothly. Someone has to make the dough and then it is necessary for at least two people to roll it out and then cut the noodles on the chitarra.
I had minimal experience using the chitarra last month, but I had a good idea. It was a perfect experiment.
But I later realized that more than an experiment, what a magnificent collaboration it was and always is. Someone, usually my mother (or brother now) makes the sauce. I am relegated to making the dough-sometimes-but I am at least responsible for getting the noodles cut.
With the chitarra, everything has to be ready including the boiling pot of water (and plates on the table) because they really must be cooked immediately once they are cut. No intermediate drying. We managed a month ago when my mother was in town to repeat this process four nights in a row.
It is a funny thing. We all know what the goal is-eating the pasta. We are not quite sure exactly how we will make it, but we throw a few ideas out there (maybe depending on what is at the market), decide, and then begin.
We all know clearly what our roles are in the process, but we are all capable at least of performing all of the steps if someone is absent (some are better than others at all of the steps). The ingredients have to be collected, sometimes requiring special trips to special stores. Some are fundamental and are never changed whereas others are under constant modification depending on the season or what was the latest exotic dish on a trip to Italy.
We make the noodles, the sauce gets mixed in, and we eat the pasta.
I have seen pasta making by people who have done it their whole lives. I once tried to keep up with a 65 year old woman making orecchiete. She did this by hand. Without much help because we could not exactly keep up with her. In about 45 minutes, she had a table full of the beautiful pasta for midday dinner on a steaming hot day of summer in small Italian town. This wasn’t really a collaboration, although we wanted it to be; it was impossible-all we could do was watch and make futile attempts to try. And try to keep the process in mind at least for how to achieve this goal on our own.
I have always wondered what made it so easy for me to work with others. An advisor wrote in a reference letter once that of all his trainees I was one of the easiest he had ever worked with and could work with anyone. But it was clear what the goals were in that lab. We were reminded on a daily basis. How we would get there was a matter up for discussion. Like for making the pasta, find the tools (research), after that everything else is a technical issue (or more time input).
In science, just like for pasta, good ideas can come from anyone-student, postdoc, technician, PI, or someone sitting at computer screen on an island somewhere (little brother, sister, grandmother, or father). One of the most important lessons taken from my PhD was that the person at the top creates the kind of work environment where the goals are clear and good ideas coming from people with diverse personalities/ages/backgrounds could be technically and effectively worked out (smart mother, opera music, and a good recipe).
I could say it was my nature to work well with others, but I wonder if my nature was born of the pasta making at home with my family.
©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com