Pasta experiments: Learning to be mindful and indulgent from Italian nonnas and Stanley Tucci
My foray into Italian cooking somewhat resembles – at least on a visual level – the kind of pasta I saw on TV as a child, when I spent hours watching cooking and travel shows with my mother.
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The pasta of my teenage years had an unforgettable taste: it was goopy, slack, and filling. It was the sort of pasta you’d eat at a streetside stall or a college canteen, the kind that was brought to life by heaping amounts of oregano and chilli flakes. The red sauce was ketchup, in a glorified form, and the roux of the white sauce was often bordering on sweet. Don’t get me wrong – we ate it all with relish, because it had that umami element that makes street food delicious.
The pasta of my 20s — which I cook myself — mirrors my own life in some ways. It features far less drama, and has a much more defined flavour. I know what a sofrito is now, and have upgraded from using only penne to preferring fettuccine and linguine. Previously, I’d let pasta water down the drain; now I know that its starchy saltiness is ideal to thicken a sauce.
My foray into Italian cooking somewhat resembles – at least on a visual level – the kind of pasta I saw on TV as a child, when I spent hours watching cooking and travel shows with my mother. I understand why Anthony Bourdain loved cacio e pepe, a sophisticated Roman mac-n-cheese for which he said he would give up vital life experiences. I haven’t yet managed to make it perfectly, but the magic of freshly ground pepper and sharp cheese comes through even in my own amateur attempts.
Watching Samin Nosrat learn how to make pesto in Salt Fat Acid Heat — crushed using a mortar and pestle, as is the traditional way — inspired me to make my own. Samin’s encouragement to experiment, some resourcefulness, and a writer’s salary nudged me to figure out that pine nuts could be replaced with cashews.
This, to me, is the essence of living through your 20s – the desire to have a better, freer life, and some indulgence with limited means. The operative word here is indulgence.
Burnout, increasingly demanding careers, and an abysmal job market have meant that many of us are running on fumes. And burnout, combined with the financial stress of the pandemic, is a dangerous cocktail. So how do you snap out of this Mobius Strip of sinking mental health?
You buy yourself a little treat — an act that feels life-saving. You drink gallons of coffee even though your organs are begging you to consume the minimum amount of water required to function. And if you’re like me, you make yourself a pot of pasta at 11:47 PM.
I’m not sure when I became infatuated with the idea of cooking pasta, but a scene from Jon Favreau’s Chef where he whips up aglio e olio definitely had a part to play. It looked greasy, satisfying, and deceptively simple – which is reason enough to try a recipe. After some experimentation, I learnt that the only deceptive bit was the speed at which he cooked it for an excited Scarlet Johannsson, because no box of spaghetti that I’ve used ever boils that quickly.
Perhaps that is one of its virtues. If you work anywhere between 10 and 12 hours a day, your eyes are probably flitting between the big screen you work on and the small screen that is inextricably tied to your body. It’s easy to lose control of time (and delay eating a meal). Boiling a pot of spaghetti until it turns al dente, and slowly frying garlic to a crisp golden is a way to steal 30 minutes out of a work day — if you hasten either process, you’ll end up with hard carbs and burnt garlic. Pasta demands some mindfulness.
It also demands a natural curiosity about and awe of the ingredients and process. In Searching for Italy, Stanley Tucci embodies this notion with his reactions to food, whether he’s in Naples eating San Marzano tomatoes plucked fresh from a field or hugging the chefs in Rome who made him a plate of carbonara. Tucci doesn’t hold back, so much so that one writer called his sighing and moaning 'Tuccissimo.' Quite unlike the kitschy imagination of Eat Pray Love, Searching for Italy is just shot after shot of the actor enjoying the food he seeks out, and being respectful of the labour it involves and the history of its origins.
I’ve indulged in some Tuccissimo of my own: After days of eating khichdi and store-bought paranthas, biting into a soft, lush piece of bocconcini cheese feels luxurious. On particularly busy weekdays, when the most elaborate meal I can make is buttered toast, I wish I had bottled up my favourite red sauce — cherry tomatoes roasted in olive oil with garlic and basil — to eat and to get a whiff of. I reserve the leftovers of strictly mediocre wine because they prove far more useful when I use them to deglaze a sauce, lending a fruity earthiness to protein and fat.
Writers seem to have a particular fascination with pasta. In his short story The Year of Spaghetti, Haruki Murakami’s narrator says that cooking this dish was his pride, joy, and one great hope in life — and in the end, a metaphor for his loneliness. The story features some intense self-monologuing, but the descriptions of food are exquisite. “Fine particles of garlic, onion, and olive oil swirled in the air, forming a harmonious cloud that penetrated every corner of my tiny apartment… It was a fragrance one might have smelled on ancient Roman aqueducts.”
In an essay about how she holed up in Airbnbs, and cooked herself pounds of pasta so she could work on her book, Jia Tolentino compares the two activities, rating pasta over writing: “Every time I sit down to write something, I understand that the likely outcome is that it’s going to be awful. Conversely, after you’ve made a pasta once, you’ll probably get better at it. Unlike with writing, pasta will only ever be more precisely like what you wanted it to be.”
Pasta can serve as an anchor in the lives of fictional and non-fictional people because of the rhythms and rehearsed labour that it commands.
There’s no more compelling evidence for this than the YouTube channel Pasta Grannies, where Italian nonnas above the age of 80 shape and cook various kinds of pasta in the same way that they have for decades. Their fingers bring together eggs, flour, and water with the ease of a sculptor to create the most elegant shapes and forms — they rely solely on instinct and muscle memory.
The rhythms and rehearsed recipes are invaluable even to an amateur cook such as me. It’s possible to leave behind the unpredictability of things like unanswered pitches and delayed invoices by walking into the kitchen, knowing just how much salt to pour into boiling water and how much bacon to keep out for thawing.
Read more from the series here.
Neerja Deodhar is a writer and researcher based in Mumbai. She tweets at @neerjadeodhar.
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