Of Valentine's jinxes and packaged gnocchi

Ever since I dumped my eighth-grade boyfriend, I've been single on Feb. 14. I also couldn't make homemade pasta. Turns out, these things are related.

Published February 14, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

I. In the eighth grade, I dumped my boyfriend on Valentine's Day. He was my first boyfriend, and when I say "boyfriend," I mean he was my best friend. The fruits of our romantic liaison included: one meal at a flowery restaurant of indeterminate European origin (my first experience with both veal cannelloni and steak tartare), one school dance, one viewing of "When Harry Met Sally" while sitting awkwardly on a couch, and hours and hours spent obsessing over the romantic comedies of the 1930s. We did not kiss. We may once have held hands.

I dumped him because, sometime that winter, I also made a new female friend, who asserted that my faux-relationship was silly. She was, in many ways, correct. As Valentine's Day approached with all its humiliations and hormones -- the in-class carnations and kissing and public tallying of desire! -- she and I cooked up a plan to spare me any awkward proclamations of affection from a boyfriend with whom I had no sturdy romantic bond: I would ditch him first. I fooled myself that my actions were both kind and direct, but in truth I had veered carelessly into the barbaric margins of adolescent femininity. I was tone-deaf to romance. And in the tenderest of years, on the most nervous-making of teenage days, I broke up with my closest friend.

I feel so bad about what I did that I have effectively scrubbed all of the most shameful details from my memory. (Though I don't believe my ex-boyfriend has; he remains a friend, the most talented person I know, and often calls to wish me a happy Valentine's Day.) What I recall is that the exchange took place in our school library, and I think there might have been a poem, and possibly a piece of music he had written in my name. Whatever he gave me, I promptly returned to him, along with a few frosty words. He was surprised and saddened. I was determined and unmoved. Whatever happened in the Friends Free Library that Valentine's Day, I emerged a single woman.

And a single woman I have remained, on each of the subsequent 18 Valentine's Days. It's not that I haven't been in relationships since. But remarkably, never on Feb. 14.

I lived through the rest of high school without dating; all white carnations for me. College, of course, was a four-year Valentine's Day joke. I didn't have any long-term boyfriends, and if I had, everyone was way too cool (and broke and drunk) to mark it in any earnest way. During my 20s in New York, I was mostly single, and even during a nearly four-year relationship, my boyfriend and I managed, rather inefficiently, to break up annually just before Christmas and reunite in the spring, leaving us single during the cold Januaries and Februaries of our acquaintance.

Don't misunderstand. I have never given a good goddamn about Valentine's Day. Only intermittently has it had any emotional impact. Once, in the midst of a particularly agonizing winter breakup cycle, my jaw went slack during a sushi dinner with a girlfriend who was devastated that her swain would be out of town on business for the big day. "I'll know I have a boyfriend, but I'll feel so pathetic when all the women in my office are getting ready to go out for dinner and it'll look like I have nothing to do!" she said, as I quietly wondered if I could drown myself in a shallow pool of low-sodium soy sauce.

I recall a few limply defiant all-girls gatherings, designed to take the sting out of being single on the biggest Hallmark holiday of the year. But most of those ended at a dive bar, gossiping about jobs and boys. Putting energy into hating Valentine's Day is as hackneyed and old hat as hating New Year's Eve. There's no traction or originality there.

At the same time, it would be disingenuous to say I haven't noticed my singlehood each year, that I haven't joked about my Valentine's Day curse. As the stores begin to look as though someone hosed them down with Pepto-Bismol, as the lingerie store around the corner fills with more heart-shaped cone bras than anyone needs to examine on her morning commute, I think back to my eighth-grade bad behavior. Every Feb. 14 is a minor milestone, another year affirming what has long been clear to me -- that I am a person who does exceptionally well on her own and has never shown much aptitude for romance.

Not showing aptitude for romance has, all in all, not been such a bad thing. Especially in recent years, I have been rather exquisitely happy single. Of course I have hoped that I would fall in love, find a best friend, perhaps someone with whom I could discuss the romantic comedies of the 1930s. (News flash to my callous eighth-grade self: These men are not, as it turns out, so easy to find.) My Valentine's Days are spent like any other day -- working, eating dinner with friends, drinking a few glasses of wine, reading a book, watching "The Daily Show," getting a good night's sleep. I am very lucky, and I enjoy my life, even if it does occur to me, around this time of year, that I may never work off my bad junior-high juju.

II. Around the time I dumped my boyfriend on Valentine's Day, I became obsessed with cooking. I cooked constantly, with the compulsiveness only a teenager can muster, preparing certain dishes over and over again and driving my mother batty. This may be a common observation in a post-Nigella universe, but those cookbooks were a form of pornography, bursting with tastes and textures, images of raw ingredients and dirty fingers, the suggestion of appetites and the promise of satiety.

I especially loved making pasta, a big pot of which, bathed in sauce, spoke to me of delicious plenty. I worked through my mother's basic meat sauce and then memorized Marcella Hazan's Nazi-strict recipe for a classic Bolognese. I made fusilli with sausage and cream, tortellini with artichokes, penne with vodka, shells with Canadian bacon and four cups of onions, and some Alsatian thing with carrots and cream. In the summer I poured hot pasta over fresh tomatoes and basil and mozzarella; in the winter I combined it with St. Andre cheese, walnuts, pancetta and parsley.

What I really wanted to learn, though, was how to make my own pasta dough. I was at that earnest age when I believed anything short of complete mastery of a meal was a cop-out. I'd study the line drawings of pasta preparation in Hazan's books, so clean and direct -- a mound of flour, or semolina, or potato, hollowed out in the center, into which you would drop an egg or two, or some water. You'd work from the inside, mixing the flour into the liquid, until it formed a dough; you'd knead it until it was smooth, work it until it stretched a bit, till it bit you back. Then you'd roll it out very thin, cut it into strips for fettucine or parpadelle, or squares to fold over filling for ravioli, or maybe roll it into little ears for orecchiette, or grooved dumplings for gnocchi, letting the board on which you worked give the dough texture to which the oils and creams and rendered fats of the sauces would cling.

Except, of course, this never worked for me. I was a good cook, I really was. But pasta was not something I could manage. The little crater of flour would crumble, letting all the eggs and water spill forth onto the floor, a small volcano of unrealized carbohydrate goodness. If I managed to keep it together enough for the dough to cohere, it would become gluey, coating my mother's cutting boards with a layer of adhesive goop. When it wasn't too sticky, it was too dry and would crumble like a bad pie crust when I tried to knead it. When I rolled it out, it tore. If I got far enough to try to shape it into ears or dumplings, it stuck to my fingers. On the rare occasions that I managed to produce a cup or two of gnocchi that looked anything like gnocchi, I would throw them in a pot of boiling water triumphantly only to fish out lumpen balls of leaden potato dough.

My mother, an excellent cook, didn't understand why I pursued this mission. Pasta was a product we could purchase, and as far as she was concerned, I was just covering her kitchen with flour and using up her eggs.

It was a little less dramatic than realizing I wasn't any good at love, but it was a lesson nonetheless: I was not born to make pasta. And that was OK. I could live as a lady who bought boxed spaghetti and only ate gnocchi at restaurants.

III. Some months ago, I fell for a guy who cooks. When I say he "cooks," I mean that he cooks. I mean that he makes not only his own pasta but also his own bread, his own duck confit, his own Key lime pie. His freezer holds a collection of chicken stock, turkey stock, duck stock and beef stock, all of which he has made himself. Soon after I met him, he bought some pork bellies and jowls from a local farm. We now have our second batch of pancetta and guanciale hanging from his kitchen window. His food is not fussy or overwrought, just direct and careful and delicious.

While I have never felt more at home, or more myself, with someone else, the one thing I am self-conscious about is cooking for him. He's simply so much better at it, and even though he is anxious for my company in the kitchen, I fear messing up some meal that would otherwise be perfect. In my years on my own, I stopped cooking much for myself or for anyone else, unless I was home for holidays. My social life is built around restaurants and takeout, and so I've grown rusty, lost my feel for salt and heat and when to stir a pot.

A capable, flexible chef, he's encouraging me. He wouldn't care if I screwed something up, and so slowly, some rhythms of the kitchen are returning to me, especially as I watch him move deftly, and with good humor, from saucepan to skillet, warming and slicing and searing. I even worked up the courage to make one shy (but flavorful) pasta sauce from our first batch of pancetta.

A couple of Sundays ago, we decided to cook at home rather than go out for dinner. He picked up the lone potato on the counter, boiled it, and put it through a ricer, making a small mountain of it and hollowing out the center. Into the middle of the mound, he broke the last egg in the refrigerator. He picked up a fork and began to make a dough, adding flour and cheese as he went. It wasn't the first time I'd seen him make pasta, but still I watched him and smiled and shook my head slightly in admiration as the dough began to knit, to grow smooth and elastic in his big hands. He rolled out a thin rope of dough, and cut it into small pieces. I knew what was coming next; I'd seen the line-drawn fingers of Marcella Hazan nimbly rolling the gnocchi. He took out a little wooden board with grooves in it -- one of dozens of fun kitchen toys he owns. He used his thumb to push the piece of dough down the board and then allowed it to fall off, a perfect little striped gnocchi. "Now you do it," he instructed, handing over the board. I demurred, explaining that I couldn't, and wouldn't, risk ruining the dough that he'd made with our only potato and our only egg.

"You're not going to ruin it," he said. This wasn't some emotional imperative; he just wanted me to make the gnocchi while he cooked down leftover rabbit for our sauce.

So I started rolling the little pieces of dough, and as the first couple stuck to the wooden board, and to my fingers, adolescent frustration boiled up in my brain. "It's fine, just be gentle," he said, coming over to look at my work. Great, thanks, I thought, knowing full well what he didn't: that pasta dough and I just don't understand each other; it's not my thing; I don't have a feel for it.

And then I rolled a perfect gnocchi. Seriously, it was beautiful. And I rolled another one. And another one. This is not literary hyperbole: As I was making the gnocchi, and they were falling into a little pile of swirled potato, I felt like I might cry. Not because I have thought often about my pasta shortcomings, and not because I have spent 20 years trying desperately to master this thing that has never been my forte. I was caught off-guard because I hadn't been desperate to figure it out; I'd accepted that mastery of this skill was not in the cards for me. And that moment -- standing in that kitchen making gnocchi with a guy messing with rabbit at the stove across from me -- took me utterly by surprise.

I hate the fact that I'm concluding an essay with some dippy, smug implication that my story ends cozily, on the first Feb. 14 on which I'm not single. First of all, who knows how anything ends, and secondly, I cannot imagine marking the holiday in any way, save for cooking and eating an ordinary meal -- which with this guy means an extraordinary one.

I suppose all I'm saying is that I have recently learned that our youthful patterns do not have to cripple us forever. Sometimes, our curses can be broken. Sometimes, we learn to make the gnocchi.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

MORE FROM Rebecca Traister

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Valentines Day