Last of the Larder

by Soll Sussman • Photography by Whitney Martin

It’s near the end of the month, the next paycheck is still a couple of long days away and the pantry is mostly bare, save for things like a few lonely potatoes and the last handfuls of flour. It’s the perfect time to celebrate abundance and prosperity! Curious but true: In many countries, the 29th day of the month is known as Ñoquis del 29 (Gnocchis of 29) and it’s a time for families and communities to come together to plant seeds of hope and abundance for the coming month by making, eating and celebrating gnocchi.

The origin for the monthly ritual comes from the 8th century, when a young doctor named Nicomedia (later canonized as Saint Pantaleon) roamed the Italian countryside helping the poor and healing the sick. The story goes that on the 29th of one July, he was hungry and asked a Venetian peasant family for bread. They not only gladly agreed, but also offered him a place at their table, where they shared their meager supper with him: Bowls of warm gnocchi (seven dumplings each) with bread.

In return for their kindness, the doctor foretold of plentiful harvests and bountiful fishing for the family in the upcoming year (his predictions would later come true), and after the grateful young doctor left the family’s home, each member discovered a gold coin under their bowl on the table. 

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Of course, the facts of the story are debated, but it’s certain that many are serious about the holiday. Followers consider it a time for appreciation and charity, as well as a time to offer gratitude for abundance and hope for prosperity. Antonio Giner, chef and owner of Round Rock’s Palermo Pasta House, grew up observing the holiday in Buenos Aires, but in his pragmatic opinion, the celebration might simply be a last-of-the-larder reality. “At the end of the month…we’re broke,” he says with a smile. 

Nevertheless, the celebration is a revered one. In Giner’s homeland of Argentina, some observers insist that savoring a generous portion of gnocchi will ensure prosperity for the next 30 days, while others believe in eating only seven gnocchi dumplings, and chewing each one only seven times. Some even place notes or money under each plate as a hopeful nod to future luck and prosperity. But regardless of how the day is observed, how did a traditionally Italian dish, with a very Italian backstory, end up becoming the centerpiece of a holiday in parts of South America?

The mass emigration from Europe at the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century that brought many Italians to the United States also included other destinations such as Argentina, where the Italian population has steadily grown to make it the largest ethnic group there today by far. The impact of the confluence has been enormous on both the Argentine culture and even on the Spanish spoken there. In larger cities such as Buenos Aires, it’s common to hear “chau” (ciao) for “farewell” or “see you later” much more frequently than the Spanish “adios” or “hasta luego.” 

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The Italian influences have morphed the Argentine cuisine, as well—so much so that many classic Italian dishes and customs, according to Giner, are now taken for granted as part of the country’s cuisine. Polenta, for example, is frequently eaten—often as a main course. And even though carne asada, or grilled beef, is Argentina’s national dish, most restaurants feature some sort of pasta dish on their menu. 

History and influences aside, Giner celebrated a recent Ñoquis del 29 with his version of the celebratory dumplings—each ethereally soft with a texture that almost melted in the mouth. “This is my daughter’s favorite dish,” he says proudly. And though some might consider gnocchi to be humble peasant food, Giner insists the dumplings are tricky to make. “Gnocchi is something you have to practice,” he says. “It’s relatively simple; it just takes work.” He says that making a plate for one of his three daughters might be easy, but preparing gnocchi for a table of 10 or more is quite a different story, because everything needs to come together rather quickly for the best results. Good thing Ñoquis del 29 only rolls around once a month. “Gnocchis have the smallest, shortest shelf life,” he says. Ironic for a dish that springs directly from items that may have been on the pantry shelf the longest.