Now more than ever, Americans love to dine out. When people venture into their kitchen these days, it is usually in order to put down the pizza box or take-out containers while they look for paper plates.
Lucy Van Horn, a life-long proponent of lovingly using the kitchen for actual purposes related directly to cooking, is the sort to turn up her nose at such a thing.
In fact, Van Horn, of Glen Head, holds regular cooking courses throughout Long Island. Her reputation is as such that she quite literally had local residents packing the room at a recent class she held at the Jericho Library on crafting hand-made pasta.
Van Horn is a seasoned cook specializing in traditional Italian cuisine, but this wasn’t always the case. Married 50 years ago, her husband’s family is very old-world Italian, and Van Horn—at the time a virtual stranger to the kitchen—experienced a slight case of culture shock upon getting to know her new extended family.
“So, it’s Sunday, and my mother-in-law pulls out a pasta machine and starts cooking,” said Van Horn. “She’s making meatballs the size of baseballs and homemade pasta. Now, at the time, I never knew what pasta was. I’m Puerto Rican, so we had rice and beans.”
Upon learning of her daughter-in-law’s inexperience with preparing the quintessential Italian dish, Van Horn was put through the paces on crafting the dish from scratch, completely by hand.
“She took me to Little Italy in the city, and she bought me my very first pasta machine, a hand-operated one made by a company called Atlas,” she said. “I said to myself, what the heck am I going to do with that? But being a good daughter-in-law, I just said “That’s wonderful!’ and left it at that.”
However, the lessons in the kitchen Van Horn’s Mother-In-Law imparted to her quite simply stuck; in fact, she’s still using that very same hand crank-operated, stainless steel machine to this very day – 50 years later – to flatten out pasta dough before it is cut into its familiar noodle-like form.
“I learned a lot from her, and over the years I learned a great deal more,” she said. “Then I got the bright idea one day of buying an electric pasta machine to make it faster…but no. The best thing is this good old Atlas pasta machine. Now, I teach my own children how to make pasta, and we use the Atlas. In fact, if you go to buy this machine today, it’s almost identical. That’s how right they got it the first time around.”
When it comes to crafting pasta, Van Horn is a devout believer in doing so with love. She starts out with a base of simple, fresh ingredients for her pasta, including unbleached flour, eggs, authentic Italian olive oil, salt and water. Specific individual measurements are governed, she said, by taking into account factors such as humidity egg size, and other surprisingly scientific variables.
Once all the ingredients are mixed, Van Horn eschews modern mechanical conveniences in favor of getting down and dirty, kneading her concoction slowly and painfully until a thick dough has been formed; one onlooker in the audience is routinely scolded whenever he mentions such heresy as using a microwave or food processor. Clearly, Van Horn subscribes to the opinion that the old ways are clearly the best.
Jericho residents packed the meeting—and most made reservations well in advance, as is necessary due to the consistent high turnouts of Van Horn’s events.
“Even if you’re not specifically interested in making pasta, you’ll always walk away with something…a technique, an ingredient, a procedure for cutting or slicing,” said Norma Bradbury. “I always come, and I’m always a better cook for doing so. She is so efficient and marvelous… you always get hungry watching one of her cooking demonstrations.”
Cheryl Lincoln was especially impressed by a handy gadget that Van Horn said she had picked up for cheap at a Chinese Market for only $20; a portable, propane-powered stove, perfect for cooking pots of simmering pasta while on the move.
“I never knew there was anything like that out there…I really have to pick one up for myself,” Lincoln said. “That’s what is so great about these classes. Not only do you learn great cooking techniques, but you learn so much more. She teaches a lot of decorative things as well, like how to carve flowers out of fruit like melons, apples, oranges skins and lemons, or a shooting fountain out of a watermelon. They really dress up the presentation of the meal.”
At the conclusion of the two-hour class, Van Horn hosted a tasting of her wares, with her delightful pasta accompanied with an equally-sumptuous homemade tomato sauce. Needless to say, the attendees couldn’t get enough.
But for Van Horn, food—as it is with life—is something that you only get back what you put into it. Work hard and pour love and passion into what you’re doing, and you will only reap the rewards, she said.
“In Italy, they keep their everyday cooking really simple for the most part…but what they do, they give it their all,” she said. “And that’s a philosophy you should apply to all aspects of your life…both your food and your life will be better off, believe me.”