Opinion Columns & Blogs

She taught us to make gnocchi, and be grateful

Children can be ingrates, especially when it comes to beef stew — not to mention protecting the little rascals from World War II.

I was about 10 when our generation inherited the end of a world war. We were soon being served with all the fundamental foods for childhood nutrition, along with the sweet return of all the provisions of cookies and pies and kid candy.

We ingrates were oblivious to what was so different for us. We had regular chow, right on into the end of the war. So did the adults on the home front. But our parents never took anything for granted during those years. They had seen the news reels of children starving in Europe. Even when the war did in fact end, moms and dads still watched over us.

That’s probably why school cafeterias sprang up after the war. Those first post-war cafeterias were good enough. But they could be boring. During my grade school years, the cooks repeated themselves incessantly, mostly serving the same dozen or so main meals – burgers, mashed potatoes and pasty gravy, canned corn, canned peas, tons of peanut butter, carrot sticks, carrot-stick soup, pickle soup, chicken feet soup, etc.

And then there was beef stew— a stew that did not wear well with the little ingrates of my lucky generation. Unfortunately, when you boil beef in tomatoes for several hours, that meat tends to come unraveled.

I am sharing with you all these years later because I am experiencing food guilt, whining about the lousy flavoring of school stew in an era of starvation. Our parents knew about that hunger in Europe and Asia, whether we knew or not. There was always a chance the war might keep on killing just a little longer.

Then one year, long past the war, I went to Italy for the first time in my life with my wife, Sharon. Before long, I enrolled in a couple of Italian language schools just to be friendly and avoid getting lost while searching for the greatest pizza on earth.

One day in our Italian language school, the teacher invited us to the home of a middle-aged female restaurant chef. We would be learning how to make a rustic dish of “gnocchi” (pronounced nyee-okki in English).

That dish is about halfway between pasta and dumplings. The dough is part flour and part potatoes, a common commodity for Idaho and Italy. Like most Italian cooks, I include a raw egg to hold everything together. Shape the dough into a long skinny rope and then use a simple table knife to chop the rope into little nubbins.

Bring the water to a boil until the gnocchi floats to the top (about a minute). Cover the gnocchi with a pasta sauce of your choice (a red sauce is perfect).

I learned so much more that night of the gnocchi. The chef didn’t teach us. Her mother did. And there stood her mother, no more than four feet high, making the gnocchi, teaching us cooking and undoubtedly remembering war without food.

The daughter was a foot and a half taller. That made me recognize what had happened. The chef’s mother was about my age. She was another war child who had precious little to eat during her growing years.

That was my lucky food fate.

That was her starvation fate.

Thank goodness she endured. I am grateful to have met the gnocchi and the small Italian lady who cooked it— another hungry child able to share a pleasant platter of survival.

Columnist Bill Hall may be contacted at wilberth@cableone.net or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501