A Different Kind of Home Ec

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Bart Nagel

To learn Samin's recipe and technique for basic handmade pasta, click here.

Whenever I prepare to teach one of my Home Ec cooking classes on a new subject, I do the kind of research only obsessive-compulsive cooks like me would bother with. I scan my bookshelves for every single cookbook that might have anything to say about said topic and start reading. I Google maniacally. Sometimes, I email food historians and scientists in the middle of the night just to get a better picture of where and how everything begins.

My favorite bit of research is to figure out the exact point in the history of humankind where the origins of each recipe lie. (Oh, were you wondering if I'm a total geek? Let me answer that for you: yes!). When I was preparing to teach a pasta-making workshop recently, I was delighted to learn that humans have been making pasta since Neolithic times. That's basically when we figured out that wheat is edible once the chaff is removed. First, we mushed it up with water and cooked a sort of gruel out of it. Then the gruel became a denser paste that we turned into dumplings and boiled in water. Eventually, the neo-folks started to smash the dumplings into flat cakes, and one day, someone cut the cakes into strips and viola, pasta was born. Amazing, right?

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Bart Nagel

Maybe you're not quite foaming at the mouth with excitement as I was, but for me, it actually was amazing to learn this, because it factually supported the beliefs at the philosophical root of my cooking classes. I believe that as a teacher, my work is not to show people how to do things they have never done or been able to master, but rather to water seeds of knowledge about how to nourish themselves that were planted by their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents and never tended to. I'd always known that no matter what race or ethnicity, no matter where we grow up or how, we all have the innate knowledge of how to perform these beautiful, simple kitchen tasks, such as turning flour and eggs into pasta or butchering a chicken, but now I could prove it. My theory was no longer a theory, but indisputable facts complete with footnotes.

Whenever I sit down with a new group of students, I ask what's brought them to me, and more often than not the answer comes back to fear—of ruining expensive ingredients, of entering the kitchen in the first place, of not knowing where to even begin. I myself am intimately acquainted with these types of fears, for though I grew up in a family that gathered each night around the table for a handmade meal, I wasn't much of a cook until I developed an interest in food when I worked as a busser at Chez Panisse in college.

Without any formal training, and prone to clumsiness, I was destined to make a lot of mistakes, and I did. As an intern and then fledgling cook in that kitchen, I ruined countless dishes and made many others unnecessarily complicated for myself. (Looking back, I'm actually surprised they let me stick around for so many years.) I made pasta nearly every day for a year, and still it took me two years of cooking in Italy for the intricacies of dough-making to become second nature. And now, after more than a decade of pasta-rolling, if I get distracted, cocky, or try to hurry things, the pasta won't turn out right. Being a good cook is about three things: practice, patience, and being present. This never changes.

So now, each time I teach a class I ask students to follow their fears and deconstruct them. I do my best to empower and encourage people to get into the kitchen in the first place, because honestly, how hard is it to crack an egg and mix it with some flour? We can all do this; to do it well is another story, and that will come with time, with practice, and with sensitivity. But it will come. It always does.

Recipe: Basic Handmade Pasta