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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

It took me almost five years to be able to eat gnocchi again; as much as I loved it, it made my heart sad to even see it on a menu. Sometimes, I avoided looking at the whole page that held the word “gnocchi” because I just couldn’t bear it. Other times, I was composed enough to quickly skip past the offending word, nestled as it was between pappardelle and radiatore. It wasn’t a huge loss, really. I rarely ordered gnocchi from a restaurant anyway. I never understood who would want a peasant’s potato pasta when there were duck or seafood options.

Of course, that was part of the appeal for my son, Tristan. As a young chef relying on tips for grocery money, he needed affordable dishes to make when he wanted to impress people. Fresh pasta and fresh-baked bread were his specialties, and his crowning jewel was gnocchi in a beurre blanc sauce with fresh herbs.

Before Tristan started making gnocchi, I’d only had the dense chewy balls that come in a boil-and-serve bag from the grocery store. No wonder I wasn’t a fan. But Tristan’s were substantial yet fluffy; plump little rain clouds that felt satisfying to the mouth, and light in the stomach.

I remember the last time he made gnocchi for me. He was twenty years old, and not particularly well at the time. His face was gaunt, and he looked tired. But his green eyes were bright with his passion for cooking, and for sharing his knowledge with a rapt audience. We were at my mom’s for dinner, and she’d asked Tristan to show her how to make gnocchi. He was patient as he explained to his grandma how to boil potatoes properly (how did she live to be almost eighty years old without knowing that Yukon Golds were better than russets, and that they should never be placed directly in boiling water?). He’d brought his own potato ricer, because a food processor wouldn’t do, and showed his grandma how to knead the dough, just enough, before rolling it into long thin logs, cutting them into bite-sized pieces, and finally rolling them on the back of a fork with a sprinkling of flour so they’d be etched with grooves to capture the savory sweet sauce.

For the most part, Tristan made the gnocchi, my mom listened and learned, and I watched them both, my heart full to bursting. It was a simple moment between grandson and grandma, but with a twist. The youth was teaching the elder. Tristan’s pride was apparent, as was my mom’s pride in her grandson. And love. It seemed to me he was making tiny morsels of love for us.

I took pictures of the two of them, comfortably side-by-side in the kitchen. I never took pictures, so why did I then? Did part of me know that I needed to capture this fleeting moment so I could return to it, again and again and again, to breathe in the love like the fine particles of flour that floated in the air? Was I worried, already, that I may not have decades and decades of Tristan’s cooking ahead of me? I don’t recall being particularly worried. I only remember the happiness of the moment, and my desire to savour it.

It’s been almost five years since Tristan died. Just over six since he made gnocchi with his grandma in her kitchen. And I’ve already forgotten so much.

Last month, I went walking with a new friend. He asked me about Tristan, and I was grateful for new ears to listen to my old stories. “What was his signature dish?” my friend asked, when I told him about Tristan’s culinary skills.

I drew a blank. What was his signature dish? My mind raced. I remembered cheesecakes bursting with fresh spring strawberries; pumpkin pies made with Teddy Bear pumpkins, baked and mashed, and magically transformed into a silky filling. I remembered bone broths, and barbecued steaks, and champagne sorbet, and duck fat. So much duck fat, for what I couldn’t recall. And an absolutely killer caramel sauce.

“Cinnamon buns,” I said, thinking of the many times Tristan woke me with a plate of warm cinnamon buns dripping with gooey cream cheese icing, a cup of Earl Grey tea on the side. Now that was love on a plate.

But it wasn’t Tristan’s signature dish, and I knew it. We kept walking, and talking about Tristan and other things. Later that night that I woke from a sound sleep, my heart pumping, thinking: gnocchi! Tristan’s signature dish was gnocchi.

Tears of guilt and panic filled my soul and spilled over, my cheeks glistening. How could I have forgotten that? What else have I forgotten? What else would I forget?

Recently, my cousin and I went out for dinner to a restaurant known for its quality food and local ingredients. Sharing plates were their specialty, and their crowning jewel, the waiter told us, was buffalo fresca gnocchi in a creamy pesto sauce.

“Oh, that sounds amazing,” my cousin said. “What do you think?”

I paused a moment. How could something as simple as gnocchi feel so complicated? I was pausing not because I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the gnocchi, but because I wasn’t sure I was ready for the memories and thoughts of Tristan that would invariably arrive along with it. Too much Tristan for me to face, perhaps.

And something about it frightened me. Would I be betraying Tristan if I ate someone else’s gnocchi? That was absurd. Was I scared I would lose the memory of Tristan’s unique flavours and texture, if I tasted a different version? Maybe. But my memory was fading anyway, with or without an alternative to usurp it. Then again, maybe I’d be honouring Tristan by trying foods I know he would have ordered, had he still been here. Conflicting thoughts whirled through me, but, in the end… it just felt like the right time and place to get back on the gnocchi train.

“Sure, let’s try them,” I said.

Soon after, the waiter set down a small bowl filled with plump little clouds of goodness, nestled in a zesty pesto sauce, and swimming in memories of Tristan.

I breathed deeply, savoured the taste and texture of the perfectly prepared pasta, and let the memories wash over me. I was grateful for all of it.

Kathy Wagner lives in Port Coquitlam, BC.

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