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Growing Up Gourmet: Lessons in Gnocchi and Life

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lessons in Gnocchi and Life

I spent the last 2 weeks eating my way through Paris, France and Piedmont, Italy. From steak tartare and moulles frites to fresh Genovese pesto and melt-in-your-mouth Barolo braised lamb, we ate some of the best meals of our lives. The trip was a gastronomic delight.

When we arrived at our rustic agriturismo (a working farm turned bed-and-breakfast) just outside of Alba, Italy, our hostess-extraordinaire met us with hands covered in flour. Alessandra -- inn-keeper, mother of 3 (including an 11-month old), cook, goat-milker, jam-maker, and wife to accordion playing, wine making, farm managing husband, Batista -- was busy making fresh gnocchi to feed nearly 60 people that evening. (Their family serves an 8 course dinner to hungry locals 4 nights a week, featuring cheeses, jams, eggs, meats, vegetables and wine, all straight from their farm. Dinner often begins with several antipasti dishes, followed by multiple pasta and meat courses, and after sipping the farm's own grappa, ends with Batista leading the guests in song and dance well after midnight.)

Make fresh gnocchi in a beautiful Italian farmhouse with an experienced cook? I was only too happy to help.
With my hands now covered in flour, and through my poor Italian and her excellent English, Alessandra and I managed to discuss the things most important to us both: food and family. When I told her that I made my living teaching children to cook, she didn't understand. And it wasn't the language barrier.

"You mean like a nanny?" (Nope.)
"Well, why would you need to teach kids to cook?"
I didn't need to give her my usual talk on the benefits of kids' cooking. We had a different misunderstanding. Though home to Slow Food, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in Italy, kid's cooking classes are a pretty foreign concept.
"Why wouldn't the parents and grandparents simply teach their kids to cook?"

It was true. Hadn't recipes and techniques been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years in Italy and elsewhere? Why had so many parents in America misplaced the know-how, or ran out of the time, to pass down one of life's most important skill sets?

You can blame it on McDonald's or the microwave, 12-hour work days or Applebees. While I don't have the answer, I may have the solution. A lot of American families are busy, hungry, and kitchen-challenged. And yet the children's culinary market continues to grow. By encouraging this impassioned surge of interest that so many children have shown in the kitchen, and by indulging them in culinary lessons, we might just be changing the way the next generation thinks about food. I say, let's give kids the framework to appreciate the joy of feeding their family! Let's teach them to saute, shell a bean, and make soup from scratch! Let's make gnocchi!

And in 20 years these kids' kids might just learn to cook alongside their mom and dad. Just as Carolina and little Giovanni do at Casa Scaparone.

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