I made ñoquis (also known as gnocchi) for dinner tonight. It is a kind of pasta made from potatoes, eggs and flour. I once learned how to make it from scratch from two very special ladies that showed me love when I was a stranger in a strange land.
My first-born was a picky eater. Up to the age of two she hardly tried anything other than milk. Most of the pureed fruit and vegetables ended up on her clothes and the high chair instead of in her. She also never sat still. My theory was she was too busy moving around and exploring her world to sit down and eat. That’s why she preferred a bottle or Sippy cup that would allow her to be mobile.
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One night we went out to eat at an Italian restaurant and I ordered the one thing on the menu that was completely new to me. When the plate of ñoquis arrived, I offered a bite to Miranda and was surprised that she actually took it and asked for more. She almost cleaned the plate for me. It was such a momentous occasion in my life as a young and inexperienced mother that I told the story to whomever I met.
I had two Italian neighbors in my apartment building. Both widows, both immigrants to Venezuela after the Second World War and both living alone, one two stories below me, and one in the building across. Neither had grandchildren so they had adopted Miranda as theirs. They loved to hold her and play with her and watch her while I cleaned or cooked. Couple of days after I shared the news of Miranda’s devouring ñoquis with the two Señoras, there was a knock at my door. It was Silvana, the tall, blond one who looked like Gina Lollobrigida. She grabbed Miranda from my arms and ordered me downstairs to learn how to make ñoquis. Laura, the soft-spoken, more grandmotherly one, was busy in her beautiful kitchen taking potatoes off the stove. She put the boiled potatoes through a special instrument, which I later learned was a potato ricer, added some flour and cracked an egg on top. She kneaded the mixture until it resembled a softt dough. She then rolled pieces of the dough into long strips, cut them into ½” sections and used another special instrument to press a pattern into each piece. The pasta was cooked in boiling water in a couple of minutes while she made a simple tomato sauce. She served Miranda the homemade ñoquis and we all sat around and watched her eat.
I went out immediately and bought a potato ricer and all the ingredients. If this was what would make her eat, I would be making ñoquis every day. The first batch turned out fine. The second one was a bit doughy. Luckily, I found a place in town that made fresh pasta everyday and I became a regular customer.
When I eat ñoquis, I do remember it as Miranda’s first food, but the sweeter memory is of the two ladies that befriended me at a time when I lived in a country away from my family. I didn’t have a lot of friends yet. I didn’t know what to do with a baby. They must have remembered how they had felt when they first came to Venezuela as young brides, lonely, not speaking the language, not knowing the culture. They became my guides, my mentors, my friends. I often wonder how they are doing these days. Are they still living in Puerto Ordaz? How are they bearing the difficulties the country is facing? Did they migrate back to Italy? Wherever they are, I hope they know how much their love and friendship meant to me. I know I cannot repay them. I can only pay it forward by showing kindness and friendship to others. And by making ñoquis from time to time.