When I was a child, my grandmother was my biggest fan and my most loyal friend. There was just zero doubt about it: abuela Hortencia was a lot less complicated than any of the girls at primary school, swim club or dance class.
My abuela played a welcome role in ferrying me to and from these different places, somehow always knowing the right note to strike when she arrived. Abuela was criolla, which in Argentina means of Spanish heritage.
She was proud of her ancestry: Spanish with a touch of Corsican. She would often appear in a particularly glamorous fur jacket, offsetting her white hair and thick eyebrows.
Abuela would move between Spanish and accented English depending on who she was speaking to, and graciously exited conversations by announcing that Pablo (her little white car) was waiting to whisk us away.
From then on, her priority seemed to be to care for me, which included feeding me.
Back at her apartment, she would move slowly around her tiny kitchen, and extract from me all the details from my day. These would pour out of me: everything that I did not understand, all the injustices, all the excitement one pre-teen could imagine.
That she listened was a tribute to her kindness; I never got the impression that my childish ideas were anything less than fascinating for her. I was a big child, growing quickly into puberty that I did not understand and alarmed at how much I was sticking out: tall, big-haired and large.
In her kitchen, she would cook spaghetti the way she had learned in Argentina. That is to say: from a packet. Abuela had always worked, through two husbands and across two countries, and she made delicious food that encouraged talking.
Abuela would look at the pasta in the big metal pot, look at me, smile, and then add a little bit more.
As she cooked, she listened, and interrupted occasionally to verse me in the gospel of pasta:
"Remember to add salt to your water, always."
"It says, 'Cook for ten minutes'. We'll add a minute extra." It's rubbed off; to this day what my husband thinks of it like al dente I think of as 'raw' pasta.
And always: Un poquito más. A little bit more.
Abuela would look at the pasta in the big metal pot, look at me, smile, and then add a little bit more. For her sauces, just a little bit more salt or an extra tomato. For her delicious creamy mushroom sauce, it was never complete until she had looked, tilted her head, and decided to add just a little bit more cream.
There's no doubt that part of her loving me also involved overfeeding me. When I looked up healthy guidelines for adult serves of spaghetti, I can only imagine those scientists never had to defend their logic to a room full of Latin grandmothers. It's a much lighter dish; the recommended version.
For Argentines, spaghetti (called fideos or espaguetis) is a key part of the national menu. It has been reported that the country has the largest Italian population outside of Italy, and to twirl your spaghetti-wielding fork correctly into your spoon and demolish a hearty plate of carbs is to both love your heritage and replenish all the energy expended that day.
We cook spaghetti longer and we eat it in large quantities. For me, a bowl of espaguetis is a form of self-nourishment and a way of remembering my abuela.
Just the smell of spaghetti cooking in boiling water makes me feel happy. As the water turns cloudy with starch, I remember abuela teaching me how to cook pasta. The essentials were: salt and oil in the water, add a little extra pasta, add a little extra time and we'll taste it together before draining.
I would love to see my abuela again and show her the family that I have now. She would love how easily they grab at spaghetti after a busy day outside, how well my daughter twirls her espaguetis.
I have photos of her in our home and I can hear her voice clearly, even though she left us long ago. More flavour, more time, more talking: I agree with all of it.
My grandmother's creamy mushroom and pancetta pasta
- 200–230 g spaghetti (depending on your portion size preferences)
- 100 g pancetta, chopped
- 150 g or a handful of mushrooms, chopped
- 1 garlic clove, sliced
- 150 ml cooking cream
- Olive oil, and black pepper
- Parsley (optional)
- Bring water to boil in a large saucepan. Add some salt and a dash of olive oil. Add spaghetti. Cook according to pack instructions (or a minute more).
- Heat a tiny bit of oil in a frying pan and fry the pancetta. As it crisps, add the mushrooms.
- Lower the heat and add the sliced garlic.
- Add cream and reduce heat to a simmer. Stir and let bubble gently for the remainder of the spaghetti cooking time. Add black pepper to taste.
- Drain spaghetti and pour into the sauce. Mix well.
- Serve with parsley and a glass of red wine.
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