Knuckle macaroni

Yesterday’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, at the grocery store:

(#1) Wayno’s title: Joint Replacement (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5 in this strip — see this Page.)

So: let’s start with elbow macaroni and go on from there.

Elbow macaroni. The general pasta type macaroni, from NOAD: ‘a variety of pasta formed in narrow tubes’. Other hollow-tube pasta is thicker and can be packed with some filling, but macaroni is too thin for that; the tubes just supply more surface area for soaking up a sauce. Then elbow macaroni is macaroni in short bent lengths, resembling the curve of the bodypart the elbow:

(#2) This is the macaroni of the casserole dish macaroni and cheese, or mac and cheese (in AmE; macaroni cheese in BrE), an American comfort food that could fairly be described as one of our national dishes

Home-made mac and cheese these days is usually made as a stovetop dish, rather than a traditional baked casserole:

(#3) Stovetop mac and cheese (here made with the somewhat larger and thicker cavatappi pasta), recipe from The Baker Mama site

No, no — smaller. But what if you want a pasta that’s smaller, shorter than elbows, but similar in shape? Little elbows — elbowettes or cubitelli (Lat. cubitum ‘elbow’) — or a pasta shape named after a human joint similar in shape to the elbow but smaller than it: like a knuckle, so knuckle macaroni, on analogy with elbow macaroni; or more generally, knuckle pasta (covering the bent shape for little solid cylinders or flat strips or whatever). If such a thing existed, it could be named after the Italian noun ‘knuckle’, nocca, pl. nocche, so knuckle-shaped pasta might be nocche (or nocchini or nocchelli), but I don’t see any such named pasta available from suppliers. Perhaps there’s no call for them.

Which brings us back to the cartoon in #1. Which is absurd because there’s no such thing as knuckle macaroni (or, indeed, knuckle pasta of any kind). But it’s also extremely unlikely that an American grocery would be out of elbow macaroni — if such a store has any pasta at all, it has elbow macaroni and some type of spaghetti, maybe only these (this was the case for the tiny grocery nearest to the house I lived in as a child: there were only two things in its tiny pasta world). If, somehow, the store was unable to get elbow macaroni — recently we’ve had periods in some places where stores were out of staples like toilet paper, after all — then you’d buy spaghetti and break it into smaller, unbent lengths and improvise with them. Or try to use rice instead, surely the store has some kind of rice. But you certainly wouldn’t hope for a shipment of knuckle macaroni.

The red herring of pork knuckle spaghetti. In my searches for pasta called knuckle X, for some pasta-type X, I discovered a number of recipes for German pork knuckle spaghetti / noodles, but of course they turned out to involve cooked pork knuckles (on spaghetti or noodles) rather than knuckle pasta (meaning knuckle-shaped pasta). So: pork knuckle pasta, not pork knuckle pasta. A cute example of an ambiguity that turns on two different parsings, two different divisions of a multi-word expression (here, pork knuckle spaghettiinto constituents. Alas, the parsing intended in all my examples was not the one I was looking for. Well, the pork knuckle noodles do look pretty tasty, so the search wasn’t a total loss.

Further adventures in Pasta World. Meanwhile, on Facebook, the Bizarro cartoon sparked a variety of pasta-related comments. From the playfully named Borr Llasraep:

— BL: I always carry spare wagon-wheel pasta in case my car gets a flat tire.

— AZ > BL: rotelle [lit.’little wheels, often called wagon wheels in English; as it happens, the mini versions are just called ruote ‘wheels’]! (but fusilli and radiatore [both corkscrew-shaped, with fusilli having a steeper pitch to the screw than radiatore (lit.’radiators’)] are better at soaking up sauce, because their corkscrew shapes have a lot of surface area)

— BL > AZ: Perfect for sauces, terrible for automotive repairs.

The pasta shapes mentioned here (there are still more in this domain of pasta shapes):

(#4) rotelle: round and round the wheel goes…

(#5) fusilli, steeply slanted

(#6) radiatore, less so

And then there are gnocchi, back among the knuckly things to eat. Gnocchi are technically dumplings (balls of dough, or ovals or little loaves) rather than pasta (dough in shapes), but they’re pretty knuckly in appearance. (It. gnocco, pl. gnocchi, is apparently a variant of nocchio ‘knot in wood’ — definitely knuckly in shape.) Also, pasta is most often initially cooked by boiling it in water or broth; dumplings can be initially cooked this way as well, but they can also be fried or baked. Nevertheless, dumplings and pasta clearly belong to a larger folk-taxonomic category; think of them as conceptual siblings.

From Wikipedia:

(#7) [Wikipedia caption:] Gnocchi di ricotta dressed in butter and sage

Gnocchi … are a varied family of dumpling in Italian cuisine. They are made of small lumps of dough most traditionally composed of a simple combination of wheat flour, egg, salt, and potato.

Variations of the dish exist, where individuals often supplement the simple recipe with flavour additives, such as semolina flour, cheese, breadcrumbs, cornmeal or similar ingredients,  and possibly including herbs, vegetables, and other ingredients.

Yes, it’s a whole other world of monstrous complexity — as to the nature of the foodstuffs and the labels applied to them. But the fact remains that it would not be at all misleading to think of a lot of gnocchi as knuckle dumplings, therefore quite close to knuckle pasta (though they are not, of course, knuckle macaroni).

As a goofy bonus here, I point you to my long, wandering, very eccentric, and personal posting of 2/1/12, “Waffles and gnocchi”, with a section on two gnocchi recipes passed on to me by my most recent mother-in-law, Monique Serpette Transue (my man Jacques’s French-immigrant mother): a semolina (or if you wish, polenta / white corn meal) recipe from the book Clementine in the Kitchen, a semolina version from Monique herself, and somehow no potato at all, despite the fact that Italian food purists insist that gnocchi are potato dumplings. For complex reasons, I never cooked either of these recipes, or indeed any gnocchi recipe, though after posting the waffles and gnocchi piece I got to consume a large variety of gnocchis in a wide assortment of restaurants. Eventually deciding that for me gnocchi are like gumbo: there are a zillion variants, hugely different in their ingredients and preparations, some of them transcendent, some of them delightfully weird, some of them pedestrian, but all of them good, each in its own way.

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