Home is where my pasta machine is

by Janice Nigro

A plane is that modern vehicle of irony, speeding you through the air at times to areas of the Earth that might still be in the stone age. Or at least into another apparent universe where we don’t understand the language, we don’t look like anyone else, and we don’t have the same cultural behaviors.

Do you start with a kiss on the left cheek or is it the right cheek? Is it two or three times? Or is it just a handshake?

In the absence of familial, social, and cultural structure, travelers can experience a huge sense of freedom from their daily lives. A trip can feel like a bungie jump screaming all the way down right out of your normal life.

But then there’s that baggage thing. “You take your baggage with you everywhere,” people say. My proverbial baggage happens to have a pasta machine in it.

I have hung with some tough crowds in my life. Tough, only because they are discriminating eaters. Circumstances were critical in Norway, where my friends came from France, Spain, Italy, India and Germany, all cultures able to brag of deep culinary and social traditions.

The French would travel to their home country in their cars just to load them up with food essentials (for them). The fragrance greeted you at the door of their small apartment like a densely filled cheese shop, when we were all invited to indulge on the damp, rainy weekend evenings characteristic of Bergen whether it was winter or summer.

Even if I could have driven my car back from the United States after my trips home, I wouldn’t have had much to put on the table. Except for my mother’s meatballs. And those I don’t care to share with anyone.

Yes, I was supremely outmatched in this competition of syrupy thick, golden dessert wines, aromatic cheeses, cider and wiesswurst produced by centuries old processes of western civilization.

But I could make pasta.

I just needed the machine. The pasta machine I used at home didn’t make it into my two modestly sized suitcases containing all that I thought was necessary for a new life in Norway. A long weekend to Italy fixed that. I came back from Florence with a basic model to hand crank out the pasta. I guess I was dying to know how to weigh down my luggage with the least number of items. Although lately I have seen cookware for sale in international airports, so maybe I was onto something.

But I missed my pasta machine. I missed eating fresh pasta, and I missed my go-to tool for connecting with new people in my life. If the Survivor series was to come knocking on my door, my pasta machine might be my one item to take from home. Pasta was something I also could afford to make, and on a regular basis, especially in a country where a turkey costs 150USD.

My pasta was a hit the first time I made it. A few of my new friends crowded around my small IKEA table, elbow to elbow, for pasta with slow cooked tomato sauce topped with freshly grated parmigiano. Preparing that meal was a big leap for me in that group of professional eaters and conversationalists. A French woman remarked that she could even taste the kind of wine I used in the sauce. Intimidating and funny at the same time.

In the end, I didn’t have to say much. I said it with pasta.

Pasta became the dish I could bring. Friends would come to pick me up by car or scooter, and I would pile in/on with noodles and sauce. Once I transported my pasta and sauce on a several hour train ride in winter for a group trip to a mountain hut buried in snow.

That pasta machine made a few miles of fettuccine over the course of seven years in Norway. For some affairs, I would prepare the noodles beforehand. For others, I would invite people over to learn to make pasta with me. And for still others, I was asked to bring my pasta machine over to cut the noodles right into someone else’s pot.

In February (2019) when I was traveling to see some friends who have graciously put up with me many times over many years in Munich, Germany, I had to ask myself what I could do in return.

Make pasta. MAKE PASTA.

I was more concerned about making the pasta than what I would do in Europe for two weeks. I had a plan. A hand-cranking pasta machine is not that expensive. It costs less than one pasta dinner for two in a restaurant. And a pasta machine has the potential for a lifetime of fun, but only if you have cabinet space for it.

I could even try to borrow one from neighbors if possible.

It wasn’t necessary. A pasta machine was already in the house. An unused wedding gift from 20 years ago.

I was confident I could get flour-Munich is sometimes called the most northern city of Italy. But they somehow even had that. As if the universe was just waiting for me to ask if I would make pasta for them.

Their pasta machine was an electrical appliance, an attachment to the standard KitchenAid mixer which isn’t a method I have a lot of experience with. I prefer using the hand-cranking machine to flatten the dough and then cut the noodles on an apparatus called the chitarra.

Although it wasn’t the usual set-up for me, the family’s aunt was there, and she knew how to use the KitchenAid attachments.

I breathed more easily when everyone left the house long enough for me to prepare the dough, a messy, unpromising looking process that I wanted no witnesses for. I let it rest for 30 minutes and then we got started. We decided on the spaghetti mould, the one for thicker noodles, and we made a pile of pasta in less than 30 minutes. The only hitch was that the dough was a little moist so we had to separate each noodle in a time consuming process before boiling them. More time to admire our work.

The sauce was simple; Italian tomatoes heated in olive oil and garlic in a pan, and parmigiano and fresh mozzarella if you wanted it.

The pasta was demolished.

The pot boiled over, but the experience was otherwise a success. No fires, nothing burned down. The KitchenAid itself survived.

The pasta making process worked brilliantly a second time, and even with a different assistant and pasta shape. If I have to complain, the KitchenAid is too efficient. The whole process worked like a Charlie Chaplin scene in Modern Times when the production line gets a little ahead of him.

We were now minus two people, one of whom was a 20 something man. And still there was no pasta left over.

I am convinced that no matter how much fresh pasta you make, there will be none left over.

Some people easily make home wherever they are. Gifted in the social gene, they just need their words. It’s not that easy for me. I think I am in part an enthusiastic traveler because I never feel quite that settled at home. Proof of principle, I’ve only made pasta in Los Angeles in someone else’s home up the street.

But I have successfully made pasta in many cities in the USA and now around the world: Hobart, Bergen, and Munich. So it’s the last time I will stress about what to bring. A powerful lesson in that the gifts are within us.

I laughed along with their joyful conversations in German, although I understood little. We also had some serious conversations about our countries’ pasts and the paths they are currently on. The pasta in a small way represented what people from different countries are capable of building together. I even picked up a new recipe for lemon pasta, something I never would have tried on my own. I couldn’t help but think of the world and politics and wonder what might be accomplished if our leaders all sat down to make a simple, fresh dish of pasta together.

Make pasta, not war. This philosophy used to work in our home growing up.

What’s in your baggage?

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.

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