Comfort Me With Gnocchi

I met M on a farm just outside Boston on a rainy day in June. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was trying my hand at farming. I’d always had a knack for books, though I was itching to spend some time outdoors, coaxing something real from the ground. M was a handsome, painfully shy twenty-three-year-old with a slight scar beneath the curve of his left eyebrow. He wore an army green felt hat that cast a shadow over his strong, deeply tanned face and dark eyes. His shoulders were slender yet muscled, and I caught myself glancing at his chest beneath his threadbare t-shirt and instantly regretting my decision that morning to wear baggy hiking pants and a curve-concealing turtleneck fleece. He was one of the assistant growers for the season. In other words, he was my boss.

That first day he barely spoke to me. I left the farm intrigued, knowing little more than he was originally from Uruguay and had recently moved to the tiny milling town of Waltham, Massachusetts.

My second day on the farm, M and I moved a pile of wooden posts from behind a crumbling red barn in a remote corner of the property. The posts, which had been left untended for more than a year, were infested with ants. When I climbed into the cab of the truck next to M—on whom I’d already developed a crush—I realized with horror that a few ants had crawled up my shorts. I squirmed in my seat. M turned to me, a smile playing at the edge of his lips.

“What’s going on?” he asked, amused.

“I think I have ants… in… my pants… ” I stuttered while wriggling and forcing a half smile as the little buggers pinched. He guffawed and turned his gaze back to the rutted farm road. An awkward silence ensued.

I desperately wanted to change the topic, to not come off as a complainer. “There’s an Edward Hopper exhibit about to open at the Museum of Fine Arts,” I blurted out. “Any interest in going?”

Ours was a relationship built on, and measured by, 29ths. Our first date, to see that Hopper show, took place on June 29th. A month later, for his birthday on July 29th, I wrapped a used copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in newsprint. And come August 29th, we were camping together, announcing to our coworkers  in neighboring tents that we were, officially, an item. The 29th became the box on the calendar that we marked in bold red.

It was also the day we marked with a ritual of a different sort, something softer and more fleeting. In M’s native Uruguay, the 29th of each month is El Dia de Ñoquis, or the Day of the Gnocchi, a custom that Uruguayans still fervently, almost obsessively observe. The tradition began in the late 19th century, when nearly everyone was paid on the first of the month. By the time the end of the month came around, wallets had typically grown thin and pantries bare. Uruguay being a country where conviviality is practiced with as much devotion as religion, the situation was spun into a celebration in which families and friends gathered and flour, potatoes, salt, and eggs created a thrifty, filling meal. Given the belief that diners who slip a coin under their plate can expect the next month to be filled with prosperity, it was a lucky meal as well.

M and I fervently played up the double celebration of private anniversary and cultural ritual on every single one of our shared 29ths. Whether for luck or just for kicks, it’s hard to say. On those days, we’d peel a pile of potatoes, boil them until soft, and press them through the ricer. As M’s hands were sufficiently calloused and practiced to withstand the still-steaming starch, he’d mix the potatoes into a mound of flour along with a few eggs and some salt and gently knead until a pale yellow dough formed. I still remember my first time, how he gingerly showed me how to separate the amorphous lump of dough into logs, cut them into pieces just so, and, with a graceful, delicate turn of his fingers, deftly roll each one of the pillowy little dumplings along the curved tines of a fork before placing it on a semolina-dusted baking tin. He was endlessly patient in the kitchen, in stark contrast to my hurried and often slapdash cookery, and his tenderness with the dough resulted in gnocchi so light, so airy they bordered on indefinable.

Six months under our belts, we marked our anniversary with a gnocchi supper, as was our custom. It was December 29th, and our relationship seemed as though it was going strong. If you think about it, this made sense according to Dia de Ñoquis logic regarding luck. That same logic intimated that the new year, a leap year, ought to be unusually lucky. February was typically a wash for gnocchi revelers, whereas this year afforded an extended month in which to squeeze an extra celebration as well as an extra entreaty for good things to come.

Sure enough, things seemed to be going well that year, at least at first. M had lined up a better-paying farm gig for the following spring, and I was spending my winter break traveling with my best friend, Anna, eating my way through the Pacific Northwest before returning for my final semester of school. But by the second week of February, it became obvious that my mom, who’d been battling pancreatic cancer for more than three years, didn’t have the strength to rebound from yet another round of treatment. Her doctor recommended we stop the chemo. I immediately dropped out of school and, on Valentine’s Day, moved home to the suburbs of New York to care for her. A month later, my mother passed away.

Left suddenly without the structure of class or caretaking, I found myself filled with an urgent need to flee the shadows of sickness and death. I packed what was left of my life into the car and I moved back north with M to a ramshackle apartment in Amherst.

I’m not quite sure what I expected to happen in that creaky wood-paneled house with the tiny galley kitchen. I think I was hoping that by playing house with M—establishing a routine built around cooking, laundry, and making the bed— I would reclaim some sense of stability and home. Instead, I found myself more and more confused. From within the thick, sucking muck of grief, M seemed inaccessible and far away. And rightly so—he was wholly unfamiliar with this sadder, weakened version of me. It became impossible for me to distinguish my sadness about the cracks spreading in our relationship from the ache of missing my mother. The harder he and I fought to find one another, the farther apart we seemed to drift.

What kept us hanging on during those long months were the hours we spent together in the kitchen, our shared love of the rituals surrounding food: The unmistakable aroma of onions caramelizing in butter; the satisfaction in mincing garlic cloves; the simple effort of whisking olive oil, vinegar, and mustard for salad dressing; and, on the 29th of each month, the shared act of making gnocchi.

We still mustered the courage to celebrate the end of each month, raising a tattered flag in honor of our custom, just as we’d always done. M would race home from the farm on his bicycle and burst through the door to our room, sweaty and exhilarated, a goofy grin on his face. “Baby, it’s gnocchi day!”  he’d gasp. (As though I hadn’t been counting down to this day, too.) Then he’d lift me from my desk chair where I’d been writing and squeeze me in one of his almost-too-tight hugs. I’d follow him into our stuffy, closet-sized kitchen, where we were kinder, softer to one another.  Suddenly we’d be transported back to the early, weightless days of our love.

The next day, without fail, we’d snap back to our distant shores.

The following January, it was time for M to make a pilgrimage to Uruguay. He hadn’t seen his father and half-sisters in five years, and I decided I wanted to go with him. In my imagination, the trip would be filled with tears, reunions, and an extensive, confusing web of relatives who would soothe the aching loss in my own family. M’s loved ones did, indeed, welcome me, and I allowed myself to fall into the easy rhythm of lazy days at the beach and long, lively meals at night.

On the 29th of that month, M and I showed up on his grandmother’s doorstep with plastic bags bulging with ingredients for gnocchi. Together we quietly moved through the motions of prep. Relatives peered in the kitchen, observing our teamwork. As I rolled dumplings down the tines of a fork, I was having trouble imagining a life without this monthly ritual, without M. I wasn’t sure I could bear another loss. As I arranged the gnocchi on a pan, readying them for cooking, I thought, if we could prepare such beautiful meals together, perhaps we had the mettle to tough it out after all.

That night the gnocchi were sublime, the best we’d ever made, light and bathed in a rich Bolognese. The wine flowed freely. We all lingered into the night, sipping whiskey long after the dishes had been cleared.

That was our last Gnocchi Day.

It had become clear to me that our private rituals, however beautiful and steadfast, were never going to be enough to fill the glaring void in my own life. Nothing would. I needed time and space to heal. It was time to let go. Our luck had run its course.

It’s been three years since M and I parted ways, and just as long since I’ve rolled gnocchi. These days my faith in luck has dwindled, although things are actually looking promising. My love of food has turned into something of a livelihood. I’ve a new lover, one who seems better versed in the ways that loss sculpts us. And while I’m wary of false starts, I’m thinking this year, in which we’re once again granted an extra day tacked onto the end of this month, is going to be better than the last few have been. Although just to be certain, come February 29th, I may have to set my big stock pot to boil, pull out my pasta board, and make some gnocchi.