In Isolation with Stephanie Madewell

Location: Cleveland, Ohio

The potatoes are ugly. Shrivelled, with powdery, puckered skins. Knobbed with ghostly growing fingerlike sprouts. In other times, I’d probably throw them away. But peeled and chunked, they look all right. I steam them until a poke with fork breaks them into fluffy clumps.

I am making rats—my great-grandmother’s name for a type of gnocchi, rolled by thumb into a distinctive shape, like squashed little pillows. As a child, I loved to horrify friends by nonchalantly telling them rats were my favourite things to eat. No one in our family has any real idea where the name came from. My mom and I, swapping Instagram videos of women in Italy making pasta, saw someone using the same motion to make raschiatelli—a different sort of rat?—but Googling revealed they are a type of cavatelli, and the recipe is completely different.

I haven’t made them in nearly five years; not since my son was born. Too time-consuming, too fussy. Now, of course, those negatives are bonuses—anything to fill the hours. And I was hungry for something. I didn’t quite know what. In the early days of the stay-at-home time, jittering with nervous energy and disbelief, I kept clicking on links to recipes promising comfort. How absurd, really, to think that some specific combination of ingredients could offer any sort of comfort during catastrophic collapse, but I couldn’t help it. And just as absurdly, the recipes made me irrationally mad. There was the obvious aggravation: food writers, trendily besotted with heritage beans and imported tinned fish, sheltering with optimised pantries stockpiled with magical semi-esoteric ingredients, were clearly living in an intensified version of their usual alternate food reality. I had plenty, myself, but I did not have what they had, and that gap—in other times something I find both aspirational and exasperating—had a newly bitter edge.

A bowl of beans; a poundcake; endless loaves of sourdough bread. I felt like a small child, shaking my head no, no, no, irrationally wanting someone to offer me the just-right thing.

But more upsetting was the fact that none of their recipes said comfort to me—me personally, me selfishly, me sitting in my house, reading articles about the average timespan between the appearance of a cough and intubation, the numbers of ventilators and ICU beds. A bowl of beans; a poundcake; endless loaves of sourdough bread. I felt like a small child, shaking my head no, no, no, irrationally wanting someone to offer me the just-right thing.

Rats were a treat. Gram made them for us in her shabby little kitchen. Always one potato per person (it was a cheap meal), but there were a lot of us, and it was an enormous amount of work. She peeled potato after potato with a plastic knife and boiled them in a big cheap pot, then pushed them through the ricer into a heaping, steaming pile. She’d dump in flour while the potatoes were still screaming hot, and put her hands in to mix it all into dough, impervious to the heat. Then she’d roll it out into long snakes, slicing it fast into inch oblongs we’d push with our thumbs on the floury boards she laid on top of the Formica counter. There would be tray after tray of rats, nested on floured cotton dishcloths, ready to drop into boiling water. As soon as they floated to the top, she’d scoop them out into the heavy ceramic bowl with its puddle of tomato sauce. I probably ate thousands of rats as a kid.

I rice the potatoes and let them cool a bit (I don’t have Gram’s asbestos hands). I start adding flour; I cheat and add an egg to help things come together. The flour is always a guess, depending on the potatoes. There has to be just enough flour for the dough to hold together when the rats are cooked. Too much makes them leaden. Too little, and they dissolve into a cloudy broth of potato particles. And you only get them right by making them again and again and learning what the dough should feel like—firm but soft, not sticky, but not dry.

My rats are not perfect. A few dissolve; the water clouds. Some are gummy. But a few are just right—tender and pillowy. I eat them with my mom’s tomato sauce, another beloved food I can’t quite replicate, because she uses different ingredients every time and adjusts it by taste according to whatever best suits our moods and noodles, and add a small heap of grated parmesan.

As I eat, I think about recipes. The recipes I click on, even now, are written by people who have everything they need, and most of what they want. They can let five bananas brown for banana bread, use a pound of premium chocolate for cookies, spend whatever to get the wild salmon or the tin of imported tuna to eat on seeded crackers. Even the beans are a luxury item. But I don’t want those things right now. The food that comforts me was made by people—women, mostly—who lived within hard limits. Within those limits, they mastered the sort of cooking a recipe can’t help you with, and that was the comfort: knowing that you could take sprouted potatoes and flour and a few tomatoes and time, and turn it into something that fed the whole family, that held them until the next meal.

By Stephanie Madewell