Volume 4
An Online Literary Magazine
October 30, 2010


Pasta Agonistes


Nick O’Connell


Teresa Galli coaches Nick O'Connell, Writer's Workshop founder, on the finer points of making pasta.


t looks simple. Teresa Galli pours a pile of semolina flour on the table in front of each of us, forms it into a ring, adds an egg, a little olive oil, a pinch of salt. Now it’s up to each of us to turn this into a perfect ball of pasta.


We’re gathered in Teresa’s kitchen in Montalcino, Italy, a lovely little hill town in Tuscany south of Siena, to learn the secrets of Italian cooking. As an amateur chef, I’m looking forward to learning new techniques, confident that with a little practice I can master them. How hard can it be to make pasta?


In the course of the evening, she promises to teach us classic versions of tomato sauce, steamed artichokes and best of all--fresh pasta, the foundation of most Italian meals. Teresa, an excellent teacher, doesn’t mince words. There’s a right way and a wrong way to make these dishes. This is not fusion cuisine. There will be no multicultural mélange of ingredients. “Never mix onion with garlic in a sauce. Never wash the pasta machine. Don’t abuse the flour!”


There are nine of us Americans gathered around her table, here as part of The Writer’s Workshop’s Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class. Everyone seems game to try the pasta making. This is supposed to be easy, right? Just like Play Doh, only you can eat it. Whistle a little Verdi. Sip a little Brunello. Then roll out a perfect ball of pasta.


Tom Remmers, a software engineer, starts stirring his egg into the flour. The egg breaches the ring. He tries to repair it, but the yolk keeps flowing.


“That’s a problem!” Teresa says, helping him corral it.


I whisk in my egg, careful not to repeat Tom’s mistake. The flour congeals into a yellow, gluey mess. I add more flour and water to form a compact ball of dough. The idea is to do this slowly, gradually, so the dough is not too sticky, not too dry.


The dough won’t cooperate. My pasta becomes so sticky I could hang wallpaper with it. When I add flour, a section of it calves off.


“You’re abusing it!” she says. “Let it rest.”


I feel like I’ve flunked kindergarten. Taking a break, I watch the others. They don’t seem to be doing much better. Tom’s wife, Jen Harris, a university administrator, gets a critique.



Bella Toscana: The landscape of Tuscany soothes the soul.

“That’s a brick!” Teresa says. “It needs more flour.”


Yikes! Better get back to work. I knead the pasta, desperate to salvage some self-respect. I keep going, working more flour into the dough. It dries out and falls apart. Frustrated, I mash it together in my hands. The center cannot hold. It collapses, a lumpy, distended mess—nothing to sing about unless it’s a lament for the hopelessness of mankind. Can I hide it under the table? Would Teresa notice if I threw it out the window?


“Here,” Teresa says. “Let me help you with that.”


She picks up the dough and begins patting it, cooing to it, rocking it back and forth in her hands. A little flour here. A little water here. It grows round and consistent, a plucky little sphere.


“You know the last line of every recipe?” Jen asks, handing over her ball. “Make reservations.”


I share her skepticism, but Teresa doesn’t seem to notice. She takes our misshapen messes, and with a pinch of flour here, a dash of water there, and plenty of patting and encouragement, wills them to life.


Blake Hoskins, a tech writer, proudly hands over an immaculate ball of dough. How did he manage that? Has he been secretly practicing?


“Thank you,” she says to Blake. “You are a true professional!”


Confidence boosted, Blake volunteers to run the dough through the pasta machine. This seems elementary, but no one else is game to try it. Instead, we flatten the pasta balls into rectangles, giddy with a sense of accomplishment; we’re finally doing something right! Blake runs the rectangles of pasta through the machine. We make long, wide strips to layer into the lasagna.


Then it’s time to sit back, sip a little wine, and breathe in the heavenly fragrance of baking pasta. By the time we take the lasagna out of the oven, it tastes like something from carbohydrate heaven—warm, doughy, silky, smooth.


I marvel at how Teresa transformed my wretched ball of pasta into culinary perfection. It’s one thing to understand something intellectually, yet another to be able to do it. Like all great instructors, Teresa not only taught me how to do something, but how much more I need to know. Don’t abuse the flour!


Channelling Hemingway: Blake Hoskins composing his story after triumphing at making pasta.


THE COURSE- Travel writing, Food writing and Wine writing are some of the most appealing genres of nonfiction, calling on all of an author's skills—dramatic scenes, character sketches, concrete detail, point of view, scene by scene construction—to compose compelling, engaging travel narratives. This six-day intensive travel writing class will introduce you to essential techniques of travel, food and wine writing and give you expert, insider advice about how to submit and publish finished travel stories.


In addition to learning these skills, you’ll dine at outstanding restaurants, visit some of the world’s best wineries, and explore fascinating historic sights. You’ll enjoy exclusive behind-the-scenes tours unavailable to the general public. Best of all, you’ll receive up-to-date story ideas from local industry experts that you can turn into finished travel, food and wine stories by the end of the course and submit to newspapers and magazines for publication.


The six-day travel writing class will take place in Montalcino, one of the most beautiful medieval hill towns in Italy, and the epicenter of the nation's new wine and food scene. The cost will be $2600 per person, including accommodations and most meals, or $2,200 per person if you sign up before Jan. 1. (Single supplement, $450 per person) Plane fare, transit to and from Montalcino and some meals extra (see itinerary below).


To enroll, please send me a non-refundable deposit of $800 to 201 Newell St., Seattle, WA 98109. Enrollment is limited to 10. For more information, contact me at nick@thewritersworkshop.net or 206-284-7121. The balance for the class will be due April 1st.



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