Home was a noodle factory

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The woman arrived by streetcar early in the morning, weighed down with equipment as she walked the block to our house. We were expecting her, so I was watching from the window.

She looked ancient to my 7-year-old eyes, though she was really only middle-aged. When my mother answered the doorbell, a short, very wide, friendly, and powerfully built woman walked in wearing a short-sleeved summer dress. Her arms were like a wrestler's. She had been here before, so she greeted us briefly and trudged straight down to our basement, tools gently clinking in the rhythm of her steps.

This was the day of our annual late-summer pasta making. It was the 1940s, and packaged pasta was nearly unknown in Hungary. Though pasta brings Italy to mind for most people, Hungarian cooks also use pasta generously - in economical side dishes, soups, bases for vegetarian dishes and, quite often, in desserts.

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Even when one could find pasta on grocery shelves, a good cook always chose the homemade version. But very few made their own. The common practice was to hire a pastamaker and have a year's supply prepared at home.

My mother had to schedule the pasta lady months in advance for a full day, provide a list of the varieties she wanted, and supply the flour and eggs.

Our basement (we called it a souterrain) was large, dark, cool, dry, and spotlessly clean. Ample overhead light made it a comfortable work space, with a large makeshift table set up on sawhorses and covered with a clean white sheet, a smaller, sturdy table, and four ropes strung from wall to wall on which to dry the pasta.

She covered her dress from neck to knee with a starched white apron, organized her tools, and within minutes was at work. She didn't seem to mind my watching her. I was fascinated. She talked to me a little, but mainly she concentrated on her pastamaking. Her main tools were a shallow wooden bowl large enough to bathe a baby, and an equally huge sieve.

The sieve had a heavy, closely-spaced wire mesh just wide enough to pass peppercorn-size pieces. Bags full of smaller equipment were standing by - a bench scraper, a bowl scraper, a huge rolling pin, towels, pasta cutters, and a meat grinder with a variety of disks.

She started with long pasta, adding handfuls of flour and gradually working in water until the dough became pliable. After a few minutes of vigorous kneading, she dusted the dough with flour and let it relax under a damp towel on the larger table while she prepared the next batch, this time mixing in a few eggs to make egg noodles. Within an hour she had half a dozen balls of dough under towels, each the size of a basketball.

She made the long pasta by using the rolling pin - it was as long as a shovel handle - to roll the fully-relaxed dough into a cardboard-thin sheet. She cut the dough with a multi-wheeled pasta cutter into long, thin ribbons. After hanging clean white sheets over the stretched-out ropes, she hung the pasta ribbons on them, each ribbon hanging halfway down to the floor on either side. This was our fettuccini.

For spaghetti and vermicelli, she used the huge meat grinder-like device with interchangeable dies, through which she pressed the pasta dough. This was the job that gave her the powerful arm muscles. But pasta making was a quiet business, almost noiseless, even when she was turning the handle of the pastamaker.

By now the basement floor looked like that of a bakery - flour everywhere. But it wasn't a mess. The pasta lady swept continually, like the staff in a hair salon. The faint smell of flour and fresh dough scented the air.

When the ropes hung heavy with all the long dough, she switched to making short pastas with the grinder - mainly the popular macaroni. The last pasta she made was a favorite in Hungarian kitchens, mainly for side dishes.

After preparing an unusually dry dough, she placed the sieve on the table - one side anchored against a wall - and rubbed the dough across the heavy steel mesh. Pebbles of pasta dough the size of peppercorns rained through the sieve until there was enough to feed an army. Italians call this grandini; in Hungarian, it is tarhonya. (Being small, tarhonya cooks very quickly. But good Hungarian cooks don't serve it plain. First, they brown it in lard or oil with finely-chopped onion, then add paprika, salt, and water, and cook it until all the water is absorbed.)

When the last bit of dough was gone, the pastamaker cleaned up, folded her apron, and gathered her equipment. My mother paid her, and off she went to wait for the streetcar.

By now my mother had covered every flat surface with clean sheets, including our beds and tables. We helped her spread out all the short pasta to dry for several days. Before we could go to sleep, my mother had to gather in the sheets of pasta that had been on our beds - and spread it out again in the morning. The dried pasta was stored in large bins and buckets in the pantry. It was my job to break the long pasta into manageable sizes.

It always gave me special pleasure to eat pasta dishes at our dining room table. I felt a part of the magic of creating this satisfying dish out of two simple ingredients, flour and water.

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