Making Gnocchi

Gnocchi

“Everyone else here is Mormon,” I realized as the instructor oriented us into the cooking class.

My boyfriend and I took positions at the end of the counter, white aprons tied around our waists and necks. A bored assistant stood callously off to the side as the chef explained we would be making three different kinds of gnocchi and sauces, and that we would be given instructions and recipes to take home with us, with a ten per cent discount if we wanted to purchase any supplies while we were there.

I surveyed the room as he spoke. Mike and I were the only gay people in the room (well, so far as I knew). To our right stood a blonde and smiling couple in their mid-20s, and to our left a family unit of great-grandmother (in her 60s), grandmother (in her 40s), and two blonde moms (in their young 20s), one of them with a newborn infant wrapped tightly against her chest. The multi-generational Mormon women made conversation about how they could make delicious gnocchi for Sunday dinner the following week, and muttered about how impressed their husbands would be. The younger couple made eyes at each other from time to time, clearly in love. I kept waiting to see if any of them would give us errant glances for, well, for being gay, but they barely seemed to take notice of us, and I started to relax.

I become hyper-aware in situations like this. Something as simple as walking down the  street holding hands with my boyfriend, I’m never quite sure how civilians and pedestrians will treat us, and it can get more uncomfortable in contained situations like this.

“Which one of you does the cooking?” the chef asked the Mormon couple, and the wife raised her hand with a smile. “And how about for you two?” he indicated to us, and Mike rose his hand. This question definitely made it apparent that we were a couple, but again no one seemed to react, positively or negatively. We were just two people in the class, nothing making us stand out. It felt nice to just blend into the surroundings.

As the chef helped us carefully mix, set, and roll out our three different gnocchi noodles (one standard potato, one a semolina flour base, and one a ricotta base), teaching us how to roll them into ridged noodles and cut them into pieces, we all made small talk. All four of the female relatives were housewives whose husbands worked, and they were all Mormon, and the young couple were both students in med school with no children. I admired the 6-week old baby (with the adorable name of Florence) and talked about my children. We asked the couples how they met, and they asked how we met, and how long we had been together.

Soon we broke into teams, half of the group cooking the various types of gnocchi while the other half made the sauces. Some noodles went into the oven to be baked while the others were dropped into hot water, cooked only for 2-3 minutes until the noodles rose to the top of the water. Pans were coated with oil, goat cheese was blended, butter was browned and mixed with chopped sage, olives were chopped, shallots and garlic were minced and blended, and then three kinds of sauces were blended with three different noodles, and soon all eight of us stood around with full places of heavy, salty, starchy pastas, all with buttery, thick, oily, salty sauces. We moaned over the deliciousness of it all, and complained about how full we were, and then went back for more food and moaned some more.

When the class ended, we left with handshakes and ‘hope to see you again at another class sometime’s, and well wishes, and everyone had smiles on their faces. Baby Florence was packed up, we all bought gnocchi-making utensils, and everyone walked their separate ways.

As I walked away, my belly far too full with rich food at 9 pm at night, I anticipated late night stomach aches and a world where I would no longer automatically expect people to be ugly about me being gay and in a gay relationship. It all felt as difficult and complicated as, well, carefully making gnocchi. It was delicate and tender, but in the end, it tasted rich and delicious.

Big man in Little Armenia

little-armenia-sign

I know nothing of Armenia.

While I consider myself a relatively well-educated person, constantly seeking to learn more, I have very little knowledge of the overall world outside my small spheres of influence.

So, when I took an impromptu four day vacation to Los Angeles, I booked a small Airbnb in an unfamiliar neighborhood, crashing on a stranger’s couch so I could have some adventures in a new city. And I wound up in a small section of LA proper, just off of Hollywood Boulevard, near a confluence of other sections of the city. Little Armenia.

Cities have a strange way of breaking up into little sections. Safe and unsafe spaces. Spots to congregate. Businesses pile up here, artists there, tourist traps in another spot. There are hidden gems in any area of any little city. And Little Armenia didn’t disappoint.

One city block was vibrant with new businesses, in a strip mall format. Asian noodles on the corner, a barbershop and nail salon next door, a “Thai massage” spot one over from there, and a cute Asian bistro next to that. I stumbled on this block my first day in the city, exploring the area, and I thought, well, why not.

I entered the haircut salon first. A middle-aged woman named Nona greeted me with a wink and a smile. With few words, she sat me in a barber’s chair and got out her scissors, prepared to give me one of the most inefficient haircuts I’ve ever received. Nona had her hair bobbed up, short and sort of curled outward, like something from America’s past. She made a few cuts, surveyed me in the mirror, and nodded. “You are a very handsome American white boy,” she said in a thick Middle Eastern accent.

As Nona cut my hair, she told scattered stories, not related to each other. I barely spoke, happy to just listen and enjoy the experience. She kvetched about her adult daughter, always wanting to use the car, and beamed about her daughter in high school, successful and going places with her future. She talked to another woman in the parlor, wondering if some of their favorite clients would be coming in today. She wondered if she had made enough dinner.

I looked up at the wall, seeing a map of Armenia, a small country whose shape reminded me of a bird, wedged tightly between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. I intuited that there were likely wars there, women’s rights issues, as exist in so many countries in that region. I looked up at Nona and wondered what she had experienced to get here. I wondered if she missed home. I wondered about her family and her life in America. She looked happy. I could have asked a hundred questions, but instead I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a five dollar tip (she called me handsome, after all).

I walked next door with my new bad haircut and found a seat at a hardwood table. A single fresh flower stood in a small glass filled with water, its petals a light purple, and I started at it, contemplating its origins, as the waiter put in my order of crispy pork over glass noodles. The meal was simple and spicy and delicious, and during it, I remained within myself. I didn’t listen to other conversations or even look around the place. I just wanted to be there, me and my food, in Little Armenia.

I planned to keep walking after that, and to think and contemplate my space in life, but as I walked by the massage parlor, a gorgeous Armenian woman stepped outside. She was small, petite, with long shiny black hair down her back. “You want a massage? I offer discount.” She was grinning. I looked inside the place and assessed it wasn’t some seedy back parlor joint with threats of police raids and extra services offered for tips. It was actually quite beautiful. “I’m Mari. You want massage? $40 for one hour.”

I nodded, smiling, and entered the parlor. That’s a great price, and who am I to turn down fate on vacation? Soon I was in a back room with a massage table. I slipped on a pair of shorts made from a material that felt like gauze, and tied a cord around my waist to fasten it since three of me would fit in the shorts. I laid down on the table and soon Mari entered.

The massage was fantastic. Relaxing and soothing at times, deep and abiding at others, with sharp shocking slaps on large muscles to release tension. When Mari climbed on my back (no really, she climbed on my back) and used her knees and elbows to work different spots, it was heaven. Toward the end, I flipped over on my back and she worked on my feet. I felt my head drop back and I fell into an immediate sleep, awakened only by my own sharp, dehydrated snores a few minutes later.

Just minutes later, I stood on a street corner, under a large palm tree. The sun was perfect, warm but through a light breeze of ocean air mixed with city air, 70 degrees out. I closed my eyes. I could smell the massage oil on my skin, the sweet spice of the nearby noodle shop, and they mixed poorly with the concrete and urine smells of the city streets. There were almost too many sounds to individually distinguish them. Buzzing of electricity, motors and horns from the nearby freeway, busses and voices, loud loud loud.

And then I looked inward. Shoulders relaxed, stomach nurtured, feet sore with blisters, breeze on my skin and in my ears, lungs full, heart steady, head clear. I felt a patch of sun on my back, and I turned toward it.

This moment right here, this moment and any moment after, this was what I needed here.