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Every Thursday afternoon, Vicky Bennison gifts the internet when she uploads a video to her Youtube account Pasta Grannies. Each installment documents an Italian nonna, or grandma, rolling and kneading, pressing dough into familiar, and sometimes unfamiliar, shapes. They stretch out serpents of semolina for cutting into cavatelli or pleat squares into tortelloni, an edible origami plump with filling. Bennison has dubbed these women the Pasta Grannies.
Her videos are, in essence, an archival project. They capture a practice on its way out, declining due to an increasing, almost total, reliance on industrial means of production. These are skills that, for centuries, have been the stuff of generational inheritance. Until now, that is: In many cases, the women she records are the last living possessors of a certain pasta finesse.
Bennison was researching a book on Italian food when the idea struck her. “I felt there was space in the food firmament to celebrate old ladies who cook out of love for their family. Everyone says their grandmother’s cooking is the best, but we never see them,” she said over email. She splits her time between Le Marche (on the Adriatic side of Italy’s boot) and London.
She finds most of the pasta grannies by word of mouth, a glutinous whisper network that, for her, is all about who you know. “I work with a woman called Livia de Giovanni who I call my Granny Finder; it really takes an Italian to persuade very shy, elderly women to cook for us. It’s a case of 'Oh well, if you’re a friend of my daughter, I guess it’s okay’ kind of thing.'”
Because of the project’s historical bent, Bennison is often working with an agenda. She identifies a specific type of pasta—Sardinian filindeu or scarpinocc from Lombardy—and sets her sight on a woman who can bring it to life. The videos are simple, but informative. They often take place in a homekitchen; the women toggle between concentration and levity, they dip fingers into bubbling sauces and smile as they present their final dishes. In one video, Mariella, from Rome, prepares gnocchi with a Roman pork short rib sauce. She grasps the bowl, her finished dish, and beams into the camera: “Your gnocchi are ready. I hope you will enjoy them.” I don’t see why not.
Do you have a pasta making nonna in your life? Tell us about her specialty in the comments section.