Friday Mental Massage: No key to the gnocchi
It’s a guilty little pleasure, I suppose, my repeated viewing of the movie “Days of Thunder.” It’s the type of thing I’d never mention in front of my more enlightened friends, but when the NASCAR flick comes on TV, I don’t turn it off. When Robert Duval jokes, “We’re eating ice cream,” I laugh. When he lumbers off into an old man’s run at the end of the movie, saying, “I’ll race your ass,” I can’t help but think, “Damn, right!” Like riding mopeds or enjoying the song “Lucas with the Lid Off,” we all have things we do that we wouldn’t want our friends seeing.
That, I hope, serves as some explanation for what ran through my mind last night as I stood in the kitchen with my hands buried in a giant bowl full of dough. Everything in my amateur culinary mind screamed, “This is going to be a disaster. Abort! Abort, you arrogant son of a bitch!”
But, on a more subconscious level, I heard the voice of Tom Cruise as Cole Trickle. It said, “There’s nothing I can’t do with a race car.”
I didn’t consider the Dianetics involved or whether I was under the influence of a psychiatrist at the time. Instead, I thought to myself, “There’s nothing I can’t do in the kitchen.”
In reality, I know this to be untrue. It’s not been six months since I made an uneducated and overconfident foray into the world of Thai food. My noodles ended up looking like something that came from a monkey’s skull. A couple of years ago, I tried to experiment with a chile pepper and incorporate it into fairly simple Mexican dish. We ended up ordering a pizza.
Still, for a guy who is so afraid of failure, I have a bit of hubris when it comes to things involving pots and pans. I received an early education from my mom and grandma, two women who I still consider to be the best homestyle cooks I’ve ever known. Since then, I have spent countless hours reading, practicing, experimenting, and believing that, indeed, “There’s nothing I can’t do in the kitchen.”
I know people who cook better than I do. I don’t think I’m the best by any means. For instance, when we invited my friend Shep on an annual camping and music festival trip we take, I was only looking forward to his company. He showed up and built a mobile kitchen. He ended up cooking two meals a day for 20 people, all of whom raved–after the food was gone and there was nothing left to shove in their mouths. No, I am not the best, but cooking is something at which I am competent. I am not afraid to cook for people. In fact, I enjoy it.
That’s how I ended up covered in flour and using a particular twelve letter phrase indicating Oedipal lust.
Some time within the last year, I developed a fascination with gnocchi. For those who don’t know, gnocchi are small Italian dumplings. They’re made with potatoes, wheat flour, or bread crumbs. The recipes for gnocchi are as varied as you could ever want. I chose to go with the potato variety.
There’s nothing I can’t do with a potato.
If there had been a camera on me and a camera on my food, they would’ve shown two different things. Over the course of an hour, the bowl went from filled with boiled potatoes to full of the most perfect looking dough you could ever want. The dough formed into balls. It morphed into perfectly sized snakes and then into small, fork-pressed dumplings which eventually found their way into a boiling pot of water.
During that same time, the camera on me would’ve been something that would show up on You Tube…a sweating, cursing, flour-covered thirty-something man shoving raw dough into his mouth and shaking his fist at an unseen culinary deity. I think I knew halfway through the process that I was going to fail. However, I couldn’t admit it to myself. There’s nothing I can’t do with a boiling pot of water.
Duval’s character would’ve finally had it up to his trucker hat with me. As I constructed my sauce, sauteed shallots and garlic, and tossed it all with with some shrimp, I could almost hear the disembodied voice of Harry Hogge saying, “I can’t talk to that son of a bitch. I really can’t.”
I looked at the clock. The dinner hour had passed. Hell, the dessert hour had passed. My kid was in bed, the dog was sleeping, and the wife was starting to look ill. I strained the gnocchi from their watery grave and popped one in my mouth.
I muttered that twelve letter phrase and forced myself to swallow the lump. Something was wrong.
I grabbed another dumpling and swirled it in some Extra Virgin and herbs. I can’t remember what bad word I used then, because I was too busy forking a third dumpling and dunking it in a pot of Mornay sauce. It was like the moment Cole Trickle just couldn’t take it anymore, jammed down on the clutch, and blew his engine. I couldn’t decide if I hated myself more for blowing the gnocchi or spending my time making a Mornay. What in the hell was I thinking? Mornay with a dumpling? I might as well have fed my wife Elmer’s Glue Soup with a giant matzo ball.
In any amateur cook’s life, there is a visible moment of concession that usually begins with a resigned sigh and ends with the sound of a whirring garbage disposal. In between, for me, was a trip to the pantry where I pulled out a half-full box of Spaghetti Rigati and threw it at the boiling pot of water. I can’t even remember how I plated the food. I only remember my wife saying, “This is good,” and me wanting to ask her how often she lies to my face. I was afraid to go to bed with her for fear of being lied to there as well. An hour or so later, my plate was sitting–still full–on the counter. My wife’s was empty in the sink. Her lies, apparently, extend to the ability to hold down my culinary missteps.
“Days of Thunder” ends with Trickle in victory lane. My day ended in a two pound lump at my curb. The trash man had a little extra weight to carry this morning. Me? I carry the burden of knowing that there are things I can’t do in the kitchen, and apparently making gnocchi is one of them.