“Just stay out the way.”
That was my father’s decidedly unhelpful advice, which seemed a little silly since the whole point of this expedition was for me to get very much in the way.
For years I have heard about — and devoured — the work of the “Noodles and Strudels Ladies,” a group of women ably assisted by a contingent of willing men who spend most Tuesdays in a church basement cranking out pounds of noodles, sheets of strudels and dozens of nut rolls. On this noodle-making day, I was joining them.
Their efforts have resulted in thousands of dollars to support the church, dwindling in a faded mill town along the Ohio River. The 100-year-old church — St. George Serbian Orthodox Church — is where my parents were married, where I was baptized, and where my Baba had the distinction of being the oldest living member at the time of her death. Gilded, ornate, heady with incense and the warm, honey smell of burning candles, it’s a place that is familiar yet foreign to me.
But on this day I very much belonged.
Or so I thought.
“Did you bring a hairnet?” my dad asked, as we pulled into the parking lot.
Uh, no. But I had remembered to pack an apron.
“What’s it say?”
Say? It has cherries on it.
My dad looked disappointed. I think he had hoped I had something that said “eat” in Serbian embroidered on it or had “Serbs make the best cooks” stamped across the front. He needn’t have worried.
Within minutes of my arrival, I had a powder blue puff of a hairnet billowing over my head, and I was weighing flour on a scale that helpfully had a no-nonsense black slash on the dial marking the exact amount needed. The ingredients were simple and wholesome, yet rich — flour, eggs and salt. I dumped the flour into a commercial mixer and flipped a switch, thankful that I was taking part in a tradition that spans centuries and cultures with the help of modern conveniences.
Just outside of the kitchen, several women, also with blue gauze clouds hovering over their heads, were wiping down tabletops and stretching white sheets and tablecloths over the social hall tables. The men clutched coffee cups and sat around a table talking. A big pot went on top of the stove, onions and garden zucchini were chopped and sautéed, and, soon, soup for lunch was simmering.
I dubbed Yelena the drill sergeant of this operation. She was simultaneously stirring the soup, surveying the preparations of the others and giving me instructions.
When she announced that the dough was ready, the crew sprang into action. A machine was wheeled over, and discs of dough were fed by hand through the rollers. If you weren’t cutting the dough into discs, holding a tray of dough or sliding the dough between the rollers, you lined up to catch flattened sheets of dough, draping them over your hands and then placing them on the cloth-covered tables to dry. To me, the strips of dough — odd, irregular shapes — resembled states (think Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and Montana). The tables soon looked like they were covered with jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Box fans were plugged in to circulate air and try to keep the humidity down. About 45 minutes later, the sheets were gathered up and run through the roller a second time. Now longer and very thin, the sheets were returned to the tables to dry.
It wasn’t even noon yet.
By the time we stopped for lunch, it was the first time I had sat down since arriving that morning. I wasn’t the only one. Except for those first few minutes of coffee and talk, no one had been sitting around. These people were working. They seemed to be having a good time doing it — talking, laughing, catching up — but it was work all the same.
After lunch, the cutting machines were set up. There were machines from Germany and Italy — you say spaetzle, I say spaghetti, perhaps? The Germany cutters were quaint and reminded me of antique toy sewing machines — cast iron painted the color of fresh cream, a wheel with a wooden handle mounted on the side; instead of a needle and a presser foot, sharp whirring blades powered by the wheel crank. A few of the machines had been mechanized with belts and electric motors. The Italian models were sleek stainless, cranked by hand but quiet and efficient.
A bit like spinning gold, I thought, as I gathered trays of the noodles and sprinkled them over the tablecloths to dry one final time. Very fine noodles for soup. Fine and wide noodles for soup or sauce. It was like scattering sunshine.
This crew had started before 9 a.m. It was now a little after 4 in the afternoon.
I was bushed. These men and women — retired, widowed, most with decades of life experience beyond me — had me beat.
But we weren’t done yet.
First, there was some singing. I didn’t know the song or the words. Then some drinking — homemade red wine, a bottle of white from the store or shots of slivovitz, a fiery plum brandy that tends to make my toes curl. More talking. Jokes. Laughter.
It was a great day. I learned how to do something that I think is still worth knowing how to do.
There are so many things no longer passed on — languages, customs, traditions, pastimes.
We are so much poorer for that. Think fly-fishing — a young man at a flea market the other weekend was selling a worn wooden box filled with feathers and skeins of cord. It was a fly-tying kit that had belonged to his “Pap” because he said, simply, “I just don’t have the interest.” Think music — dulcimers, accordions, banjos. Think quilting, bridge, canning, bread baking.
They all take time. All of the tools we now have to make us all the more efficient seem to rob us still of the time we covet.
I spent a day making noodles.
Time well spent.