Life

My DNA Looks a lot Like Spaghetti

Like many of us during The Time of Coronavirus, I found myself lured into the kitchen, partly due to an extreme overestimation of my ability to cook food that tastes exactly like its restaurant cousins, but mostly due simply to boredom.  It turns out that one cannot subsist on watching Netflix alone. 

 

One kitchen experiment that has been gnawing at me for some time has been to make homemade pasta, just like my Italian ancestors.  

 

DNA-wise, I am half Italian.  Even though my Italianess is considerably less than that of my great grandparents, who immigrated to the US in the early 1900s, it was imprinted upon me from a young age that I was not just an American, I was an Italian-American. 

 

How could you tell we were Italian?  For starters, no one in our family would deign to eat at an Olive Garden.  Endless breadsticks?  Good.  Lasagna bearing more resemblance to cardboard?  Definitely not. 

 

Other signs of our Italian heritage were more subtle, like my mom commanding us to “mangia!” at all meals, and our Christmas tradition of making pizzelles, a cookie made using a waffle iron-like apparatus. 

While I had made many Italian cookies over the years, the task of making homemade pasta had eluded me, until there was simply nothing else to do.  

 

 My mom had often recounted fond memories of my Nana, her mother, making fresh pasta at their kitchen table.  She called them homemades, and just the name filled my heart with a warm feeling of connectedness with my Nana. 

Having passed away during my middle school years and lost her ability to remember things, my Nana is someone who I have come to know through my mom’s stories.  On my dad’s side as well, I rely on relatives to share their recollections of our ancestors and their triumphs and struggles as immigrants. 

Although I’ve researched our ancestral homeland (think teeny tiny rural towns), glimpses of the mother country feel impersonal and unrelated to my own life.  I’m pinching my pennies in hopes of one day traveling to Italy to experience my heritage for myself, but I have also found that cooking can be one of the most unlikely, but useful ways to travel back in time and strengthen my ties to the past.  

This brings me back to my adventure in pasta making.  Determined to get to know my ancestry, I found a recipe for homemade pasta online.  The recipe, containing a total of 5 ingredients, seemed deceptively simple. 

As someone for whom the phrase “Beginner Cook” is an overstatement, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was capable of recreating the legendary homemades.  Nevertheless, I persisted.  I kneaded the dough for what felt like ages, until my arms ached. 

And yet, I felt that as I rolled out the dough, I was somehow transported back to a simpler time.  An age where there were no machines or food processors, just hands and elbow grease.  I wondered if my Nana and her mother had spent long, leisurely hours kneading and rolling, as they chatted about their lives. 

In my Italian Culture class from college, I memorized scores of important events in Italy’s history, but longed to know what slang was popular then, or what movies were the most watched at the local cinema on a lazy Saturday evening. 

While making pasta certainly could not tell me what was going on in the day to day routines of my ancestors, it did encourage me to imagine their lives from a new perspective. 

When I had finished rolling out the dough, I dug out our family’s long forgotten pasta maker, which had been hibernating in our cupboards for around a quarter of a century.  Though I cleaned it as best as I could, I was devastated to find that it was too rusted to run the pasta through to form the tell-tale shape of spaghetti. 

Dismayed, I called out to my mom for help (ah, the wonders of Italian mothers), and she suggested we make the pasta as my Nana did, by rolling up the flattened dough and simply slicing off and unravelling strands. 

As it turned out, this way of making the homemades sparked something deep inside of me.  I could feel my Nana next to us, gently guiding her knife through the dough, a soft light shining behind her.  There were tears in my eyes, and we weren’t even chopping onions for the sauce!

In the end, while the noodles were devoured and proclaimed delicious by my family, I knew that this experience had affected me on a deeper level than just my taste buds.  It had brought me closer to my family, all of my family, even if some members weren’t physically present in the kitchen that day. 

Making homemade pasta was more than just the unraveling of a few noodles, it was the unraveling of my DNA, of shared family traditions, of bonds that transcend borders and centuries. 

Turns out I never needed a time machine to bond with my ancestors.  I just needed a pasta maker.

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