Last week as I wound through the vendors of one of our local farmers' markets, I noticed a bag of shoe string pasta sitting atop a corner table. With an egg-y, cream colored hue, it looked fresh enough to eat right there. Eager to round out my week's shop, I picked up a bag and stashed it into my shoulder bag in exchange for a few wadded bills.
Too late, I began asking questions. I learned that the pasta was handmade by the seller himself, and as a semi-dried, curvy variety could be stored in the fridge for a few months without spoiling but ought not be left to the cupboard. It would be best eaten fresh, he added, cooked for only a few minutes as it didn't require the boiling time that the more brittle, stick straight store bought variety does.
"Where does the flour come from?" I asked, hopeful that the answer to this question would be less elusive at the farmers' market than on your average grocery package. It wasn't.
"I don't know, from the grocery store?" he replied, off-handedly.
My disappointment was manifest. It's not that the flour had to be local; I appreciate foods from across the globe (with chocolate and coffee at the top of the list), so long as someone along the line has been asking questions about taste, sustainability, and quality. The farmers' market, I had assumed, would be one place where these requirements were a given.
While I appreciate the sweat that the pasta peddler kneaded into the strands (the noodles, compliments to the chef, were delicious), I hope that time and the questions of local consumers will change his answer over time. The re-making of the way we think about food starts with what we buy and how we shop. Asking questions is simultaneously the most effective and eye-opening way to get involved.
At Phoenix Fruit, every time a customer asks about a certain product or local availability, the cashier jots the request down on a hanging clipboard. If there's enough demand, the Nada's Noodles or Eastham asparagus they were looking for might be tucked between the boxes of glistening lettuce and fresh pulled carrots on their next trip through the aisles.
For many pasta purchases to come, I'll likely still be asking the same question and receiving the same answer. Until it's easier to find out where the flour's from, I've decided to take up pasta making in my own kitchen. To that end, I found an old fashioned hand crank pasta maker at CreativeCookware.com, and am planning to roll out my first batch when it arrives next week. The ingredient list won't be long—I have in mind a recipe that calls for only Maine flour, Wellfleet eggs, and salt from the Maine Sea Salt Company—but at least I'll know where every item on it came from.
For now, that's something worth cranking for.
HAND CRANKED PASTA
Makes one pound
Arrange 2 cups flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt into a volcano on the counter. Crack two eggs into the well; mix gently with a fork, incorporating the flour as you go until the mixture begins to form a large ball. Knead on a well floured surface until dough becomes stretchy; about 7-10 minutes. Separate into three balls, cover with a bowl, and let rest 15 minutes. Flatten a ball with the palm of your hand until it is about 1/2 inch thick, and feed it through a hand crank pasta machine on the largest setting to begin rolling it out. Continue tightening crank until the dough is about 1/16th of an inch thick. Using machine blade of desired width, cut dough and hang to dry. Repeat with remaining two balls.