Are We Forgetting How To Cook? (And a recipe for Chicken Paprikas with Nockedli)
About ten years ago, I had an experience that changed my thoughts about cooking forever more. Let me explain:
I was working for Saveur magazine, sitting in my dark little cubicle somewhere in Manhattan’s midtown, on the telephone to Italy, interviewing three middle-aged women in the city of Bologna about their traditional recipes for the famous Italian meat-sauce Ragu alla Bolognese. After a year of living, eating, and cooking in Italy, I wasn’t really surprised by the way they described the feelings they had about their recipes.
One said, “For me, ragu' is a special dish that I make at home for my children and my grandchildren. It is important for children to grow up on this kind of nutritious food. For my grandchildren, no one's lasagne beats grandma's.” Another reported, “My ragu' is my mother's, and her ragu' was my grandmother's. It's the original. For me, it's the top, and making it gives me immense joy.” And yet a third remembered, “I learned my ragu' from [my grandmother]. I don't remember one particular lesson. I learned it like I learned to talk, little by little. I started as a child […].At 5 years old, I was a chef.”
It was the third memory that really got me thinking: Today's food world is a world of cookbooks, recipe websites, and food magazines. Foodies, especially here in America, enjoy a strange and trendy combination of microwaves and takeout, kale and quinoa, cronuts and molecular gastronomy. For how long will people, in particular immigrants now removed from their families and their culture of origin, be able to say they learned to cook something traditional at their mother’s or grandmother’s apron strings “like [they] learned to talk”?
Only a few days later, I found myself in a sterile demo-kitchen at the French Culinary Institute, watching a visiting Hungarian chef make nockedli, a traditional Hungarian dumpling much like the better-known German spätzle, using a nifty little modern contraption. He chuckled as he cooked, saying, “Well, my grandmother used to do this the old-fashioned way, but it’s almost impossible to find anyone who does that anymore.”
And my heart sank.
I, too, had a Hungarian grandma. I remembered watching her make her nockedli by cutting dough from a cutting board deftly and swiftly into a pot of boiling water. She never taught me how, and I suddenly longed for that knowledge which was lost when she died at 95, almost 12 years ago. I then set out to learn how to cut nockedli the traditional way, ironically enough, by watching a video on YouTube, which was posted by someone I don’t know at all.
And, so, about ten years ago, in the span of a few days, between my chats with three Italian nonnas and learning the cuisine of my own grandma from a stranger in a demo-kitchen and a stranger on the internet, I came to the realization that the way we learn to cook is changing right under our noses, and a bevy of questions surfaced that I have yet to be able to answer: What will happen to the traditional knowledge that lives in the hands of our mothers and grandmothers? How will we pass on the automatic movements, the knowing-by-touching and smelling and hearing? What will happen to the stories that are shared while standing together by the stove? How will we remember, and how important is it to remember, anyway?
I’d love to know what you think: Is it important to preserve old-fashioned ways of making traditional foods, or are YouTube, cookbooks, and other less personal sources a perfectly good way of archiving and passing on this knowledge? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Grandma Rose’s Nockedli (or Hungarian dumplings, or Hungarian spätzle)
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons oil
½ cup water
1. Heat a pot of water to the boil, and add a generous pinch of salt.
2. Mix the salt and flour, and make a well in the flour mixture.
3. Mix egg , water, and oil together and pour into the well.
4. Mix hard with a wooden spoon until the dough is stiff.
5. If necessary, add a bit of water, just so that the dough is stretchy and soft, but not at all runny.
6. Spread the dough onto a cutting board.
7. Wet a butter knife in the boiling water. With the butter knife, cut small pieces from edge the dough, and scrape them into the pot of boiling water, using one fluid movement. This will take some practice. Alternatively, form the little dumplings using a modern spaetzle maker.
8. Allow the dumplings to cook until they are all floating to the top of the water. Don’t worry that some will start to float to the top as you continue to cut more dough into the pot. You can just take them all out of the water together once the last of the dumplings have cooked.
9. Drain the pot, and serve, alongside anything, but especially Chicken Paprikash (recipe below).
Grandma Rose's Chicken Paprikash
1 whole chicken in pieces, or your preferred combination of bone-in thighs or drumsticks.
½ tablespoon butter
½ cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon Paprika
½ tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ of a 15 oz plum or any whole tomatoes in juice, (just don’t drain off juice)
½ cup (i.e. half container) sour cream
2 tablespoon chopped parsley