Of Cultural Competence and Gnocchi
Helen Rosner, enviable food writer for the New Yorker; James Beard award nominee for what is perhaps the best piece of food writing I read in 2017—Dear Olive Garden, Never Change; and subject of the absurd hairdryer-chicken-saga, tweeted sometime last year about her distaste for gnocchi in response to a similar confession made by fellow respected food writer Naomi Tomky. The thread refers to gnocchi as, “sad little potato poops” and suggests that, “if you think you love gnocchi maybe … you actually just love sauce.”
Before I began making gnocchi at home, I’d only eaten it a handful of times. Once, packaged gnocchi prepared for me by an Italian friend, served with a simple tomato sauce; on a few additional occasions, a gnocchi dish I ordered at a nearby gastropub, served with roasted vegetables and a rabbit ragù. I didn’t grow up watching an Italian grandmother use the palms of her hands to roll soft potato dough into long snakes, cut them into pieces – three quarters of an inch long - and drop each one into a well-salted pot of boiling water. I haven’t eaten gnocchi during hot summer months spent studying or vacationing in Italy. Nor have I ordered it regularly in fine dining restaurants where it was expertly prepared by classically-trained chefs. Outside of food-loving Italian families and relatively wealthy and culinarily adventurous households, gnocchi is an unfamiliar food.
Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu argued that the material conditions of socioeconomic class shape our relationship to culture, especially in its highbrow or “legitimate” forms. The wealthy acquire knowledge of such culture through immersion. They are, from the beginning, present in spaces where highbrow culture is being discussed and consumed - their parents formal gatherings, the golf course or country club, art galleries and theatres. They develop cultural competence, an ability to see and understand the elements of a cultural product that are relevant to its evaluation as art, through a socialization process that is like a form of osmosis so imperceptible that it is easily mistaken for an innate ability. These conditions often result in a sense of mastery over highbrow cultural forms that translates into an ease, a willingness to play, to take ownership, the freedom to bend and break cultural rules with impunity. The middle classes acquire knowledge of highbrow culture at more of an arms length. They learn its logic and rules deliberately and consciously, often within scholarly contexts normally encountered later in life. An art history elective taken in college, cookbooks purchased in an attempt to teach oneself to cook. These conditions often result in a rigid adherence to rules and an ever-present awareness or fear of the possibility of consuming culture wrong. The rules and principles of culture can be taught, the feeling that they are second-nature cannot. The working classes tend not to acquire much knowledge of highbrow culture at all, and often, perhaps as a result, approach it with indifference, disdain or outright rejection. They might, for instance, scoff at the market value of something like a Piet Mondrian painting, rejecting its artistic value by insisting that anyone could paint such a thing.
These relationships to culture are not merely different, they are treated as though they are ranked; structured hierarchically. Some cultural forms are seen as more legitimate than others: prestige drama is more legitimate than reality tv; wagyu beef and caviar are more legitimate than hot dogs with ketchup, mustard, relish and a 2 litre pop. And, familiarity with the rules of highbrow culture confers status, and thus advantages, in a way that familiarity with lowbrow culture does not. Detailed knowledge of fast food burgers won’t translate into economic advantages in the workplace, the same knowledge of scotch, however, might. As tempting as it is to dismiss as insignificant the cultural products we consume and the ways we consume them, they are part of the complex mechanisms by which inequality operates.
My early life experiences straddled the line between working and middle class. Before reading Rosner’s tweets I assumed that if I were eating gnocchi wrong, it would be because I was unfamiliar with the proper texture of authentically made gnocchi. I hadn’t considered the possibility that the telltale sign of my tenuous grip on the rules of eating might not be that I’m eating gnocchi wrong, but that I’m eating it at all.
Gnocchi are mini potato dumplings shaped like pillows that are usually imprinted with ridges, a technique that allows more sauce to adhere to their outsides. As a culinary form, gnocchi are essentially naked or unfilled dumplings; disembodied soft fillings unencumbered by pastry casings. Such unfilled dumplings are found in many of the world’s cuisines: African Fufu and kenkey are variations of large mounds of dough made from plantains, cassava or maize, meant to be eaten with your hands, and served with meat or fish stews and gravies. Potato and bread-based unfilled dumplings are common in European cuisines, particularly those of central and eastern Europe: Polish kopytka are potato dumplings very similar in composition to gnocchi, but shaped like “little hooves,” and served with buttered bread crumbs or gravy; German kartoffelkloesse or Kartoffelknoedel are potato dumplings served with roasted meats; Serviettenknödel are large dumplings shaped into a long roll and wrapped inside a napkin; Czech Knedlicki; Slovakian halušky. The list could go on.
This global assortment of unfilled dumplings emerged, in part, independently, as resourceful cooks developed strategies for using common locally available carbohydrates to stretch out more expensive proteins, but also through culinary hybridization as dumpling variations followed the patterns of the migration and mixing of people around the world, over time, for reasons of economics, war, and politics (Gallani, 2015). Wherever people went, so too did their dumplings.
Generally associated with Italian cuisine, Northern Italy seems to be the most commonly cited location of gnocchi’s origin. Origin, and the related notion of authenticity, are culinary characteristics that often underpin the rules of “eating it right,” but they are difficult to define with certainty and precision. Where does gnocchi come from, precisely? What makes gnocchi authentic, definitively? Within Italy there are many regional variations of gnocchi. Some are made with potatoes, some with bread, still others with ricotta cheese, often mixed with greens and referred to more accurately as gnudi. And, each of these variations can be paired with a variety of sauces: tomato, cream, ragù, brown butter, pesto.
Moreover, while the dish itself may have been conceived in Italy, the main ingredient of its most recognized version - the potato – was first cultivated in South America. Potatoes were brought to Italy and adopted into Italian cuisines sometime during the 16th and 17th centuries. And, turning full circle, when great numbers of Italians emigrated to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of them went to South America, taking their gnocchi recipes with them. Today, it is a tradition in Argentina, to serve gnocchi on the 29th of every month. Called day of gnocchi, or Dia de Ñoquis, it is a tradition that, like the dumpling itself, was born of resourcefulness, of the need to make a meal out of what was left, just before payday. Most produce and dishes have a history of criss-crossing the globe which complicates and undercuts, if only to a degree, whatever rules of “eating it right” are based on notions of origin and authenticity.
But these are not likely to be the culinary characteristics behind the criticism lobbied at gnocchi. Such criticism has more to do, I assume, with their flavour and, especially, their texture. Consisting primarily of cooked potatoes, gnocchi often lacks both. But, like origin and authenticity, preferences for textures and flavours are complicated and are inextricable from socioeconomic class and cultural competence.
As a child, I developed a habit of mixing everything on my plate together into a mush. That this was often possible speaks, I think, to the relative texturelessness of white people’s food. I remember sitting in my grandparent’s basement with a group of younger cousins, huddled around a coffee table that served as that thanksgiving’s designated kid’s table, instructing them on how to mix their meal together. I was like a less culturally insensitive, but just as unnecessary, chef Tyler Akin telling the Bon Appétit readership how to properly eat Pho. Meat-and-potatoes represent the cultural identity of many white, working and middle-class North Americans, and I was there to instruct the as-yet uninitiated on how to turn them into mush. My cousins seemed unconvinced. Years later, I sat at a long table of teenagers dressed in black tuxes and fluffy pastel gowns, mixing a piece of chocolate cake together with the vanilla ice cream that had once sat respectably on top of it until it resembled a brown and white speckled paste, as if it had already been chewed. My prom date seemed disturbed. Well into my adulthood, when I wanted a late-night snack, I would take leftover mashed potatoes and stuffing out of their plastic Tupperware containers, mix them together in a bowl, flavour the concoction with ketchup and poultry seasoning, and pop it into the microwave. There was no one around to judge.
This could be the sort of habit familiar only to me. But, then again, many of my early food experiences, shaped as they were by the material conditions of my young working-class but upwardly mobile parents, defied the culinary rules of texture and flavour that seemed to come so naturally to those around me with more culinary cultural competence. Perhaps these early experiences predisposed me to like the creamy textureless feel of gnocchi; to read the phrase “texture-less blob of tiny potato poops,” knowing that it is meant pejoratively, yet wonder where the problem lies.
I don’t mean to call out Rosner; her food writing is unpretentious - the brilliant Olive Garden piece is a case in point. Perhaps the tweets were even meant, in part, to undermine the potential boastfulness of claiming to love such a relatively uncommon dish in the average North American diet. Nor do I mean to suggest that anyone’s rules of eating should be taken too seriously. Just as one’s class position can be complicated, one’s relationship to taste and food culture can be ambivalent. While I am often led by the middle-class in me to anxiously wonder, “am eating it wrong?,” the working-class in me insists upon a degree of irreverence towards legitimate culture – my penchant for turning a meal into a pile of mush is a case in point. When it comes to personal taste, rules shouldn’t matter; anyone should be able to eat whatever they want, however they want, and preferences, however seemingly incompatible, don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I love gnocchi and I love sauce.
Pan-Fried Gnocchi with Roasted Beets and Sage Butter Sauce
This dish has soft gnocchi with crispy outsides, earthy beets, sautéed greens, a sage butter sauce, and crunchy chopped walnuts. If you opt to save time with a pre-made gnocchi, I wouldn’t blame you, but if you opt to make your own (it is so much better!), this recipe makes enough for 4 servings. Because Gnocchi is time consuming and does not keep well as leftovers, I like to make a larger batch than I need, cook half, since I only need to feed two people, and freeze the other half. That way, I get two meals out of the time I spend making the gnocchi. Double the vegetables and sauce and cook all of the gnocchi if you are feeding four people.
Gnocchi is a good way to stretch out leftover protein. I made some recently to stretch leftover Austrian Goulash into another meal after I ran out of the dumplings that had accompanied it. Any leftover stew or meat with sauce could be paired with the gnocchi. Alternatively, you could make only the gnocchi and the sage butter sauce and serve with a salad.
Makes: Enough Gnocchi for 4 servings. Sauce & vegetables serve 2
- 3 lb Russet potatoes (about 6-8 small-medium)
- 3 egg yolks, beaten
- 3/4 cup flour, divided
- 3-4 small-medium beets
- 1 bunch Beet Greens (or kale, spinach or arugula), washed and cut into thin strips
- 1/3 – ½ cup walnuts, chopped
- Goat’s Cheese, to taste
- 1/2 stick of butter (1/4 cup)
- 8 sage leaves, cut into thin strips.
Vegetables & Garnish
- Preheat the oven to 450. Prepare the potatoes and beets for roasting: scrub potatoes and prick them all over with a fork. Set on a rack placed on top of a baking sheet. Cut the tops off the beets, setting the leaves aside, and peel. Coat beets in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and wrap inside tin foil. Place the beets and tray of potatoes into the oven. Roast until they are easily pierced with a fork. About 45-60 minutes (depending on their size). Chop beets into bite-sized pieces and set aside.
- Fill a large pot with water, salt generously, bring to a simmer.
- Meanwhile, prepare the gnocchi dough: While potatoes are still hot, cut them in half lengthwise. With a large spoon, scoop out the cooked flesh and run it through a potato ricer, spreading the riced potato on a clean workspace in a rectangular shape. Sift 1/2 cup of flour over potatoes. Drizzle egg yolks evenly over potatoes and flour. With a bench scraper, chop down into ingredients to mix them together. Using the bench scraper, bring dough together in a loose ball and lightly “knead” by folding the dough over onto itself and pressing down. Sift the last 1/4 cup of flour over dough and repeat the fold and press motion until dough comes together. Shape into a log.
- Working with 2 inch sections of the dough at a time, use the palms of your hands to shape the dough into a long snake, about 1/2 inch thick. Do do this, start in the middle of the dough, pressing down, rock your hands back and forth while moving them outward. Repeat motion until you have an evenly thick, long, cylindrical shape. Use bench scraper to cut the snake into 1 inch sections. Transfer gnocchi to 2 floured baking sheets (one for freezing and one for cooking). Repeat until all of the dough is shaped. If only serving 2, set aside half of the gnocchi to freeze.
- Melt 1 Tb butter in a 12 inch skillet over medium high heat. Working in Batches, scoop gnocchi into a sieve and drop into the simmering water. Once gnocchi float, continue to simmer for 20-30 more seconds. Use sieve to transfer gnocchi to the hot skillet in a single layer, making sure to drain as much water as possible before dropping them in. Season with salt. Brown gnocchi 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a large plate. Repeat with remaining gnocchi.
- Prepare the sage butter sauce. Melt butter in the skillet used to brown the gnocchi. Add thinly sliced sage leaves. Cook until butter begins to brown. Add greens and sauté 2-3 minutes until wilted. Add browned gnocchi (along with some of the cooking water if it is too dry) and toss to coat with sauce and mix with the greens. Transfer to a platter with the beets, top with spoonfuls of goat’s cheese and walnuts. Serve immediately.
To freeze gnocchi: spread uncooked gnocchi on a sheet pan so that they are not touching each other, place pan in freezer until the gnocchi are frozen on the outside, about an hour (this is so that they will not stick together). Transfer gnocchi to a freezer bag. The Gnocchi will keep well in the freezer for up to a month.
To cook frozen gnocchi: do not de-frost in advance. Drop frozen gnocchi into a pot of boiling, well-salted, water, remove with a slotted spoon once they float to the top and transfer in batches to a pan on medium-high heat.
Source: Gnocchi Recipe from Serious Eats