The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop

Don Juan Alba's Daughter

by Raquel Streppel


The air in the kitchen smelled of fried onions, fresh garlic, and oregano. My Dad was slowly stirring his unique tomato sauce with his mom’s old walnut concave spoon. My grandma used the same spoon to make jam in the past, strawberry jam, the staple fruit of my town, Coronda.

My Dad’s sauce was simply unmatchable. Was it the way he patiently stirred it? He had his cooking secrets. I wondered whether that spoon, his mother’s spoon, was his “wand” to turn those simple ingredients into something magical with the power to transmit his love for his family and his passion for life.

All together, my family was making gnocchi. My Mom, Dad, three siblings, and me—I was about ten years old. Daniela, the kindest sister you could ever have was almost two years older than me. Carlitos, the eldest of the siblings, handsome, athletic was somewhat of a rebel. I remember my parents arguing about Carlito’s ways. Inesita, who was five years younger than me, was also there, but completely unaware of the metamorphosis that was going on in the kitchen. I was concerned not only with making the gnocchi but also making sure that the table was perfectly set. Everything had to be neat, clean, and in the right place, paying close attention to all the details. Now, I understand that was a characteristic of my zodiac sign…a Virgo.

Gnocchi were mandatory in my family home every 29th of the month, no matter the season. This was an Italian tradition my parents grew up with and passed on to us all.

Why gnocchi on the 29th? Well, gnocchi was a go-to recipe for the Italians who had immigrated to Argentina. Italians had to make their meager salary last till the end of the month, and making gnocchi was an affordable yet nutritious meal.

The coming of Italians to Argentina was due to two main reasons. First, the Argentine government fostered European immigration during the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Argentina was a land of promise away from the hunger and war.

Even though Italians were poor, their minds and souls were full of recipes, music, and dance. My Dad’s grandfather came from Angera, a town in the Italian Lombardia, next to Maggiore Lake at the end of the 19th century.

I remember helping my mom make this potato, egg, and flour recipe as if it was yesterday. My hands and fingers were sticky, and my clothes were covered with white flour. My mom would carefully roll the dough into logs with her palms, then she would cut pieces about three centimetres long, each as fast as she could. After that, my mom and I placed ridges on them using a fork. Two small rolls for each gnocchi. I tried hard to make them look like my mom’s, but my gnocchi were nothing compared to her perfectly sculptured pieces.

I enjoyed counting them all up and making a guessing game out of it.

“Guess how many gnocchi we’ve made?” I asked my family. My dad always was the best guesser. “198”, he said. Exactly what I had counted! How did he know?

We all had to place a bill under our plates; each bill came from our dad’s brown leather wallet, of course. He made sure that all of us had something under our plates. The idea
was to save the money till the end of each month, or we could just spend it right after our lunch on ice-cream. There was always an ice-cream truck or scooter going by our
neighbourhood, riding the old sandy streets, breaking into the “summer siesta” with its loud piercing horn, shouting “helado”—”ice-cream” in English. As soon as we heard the ice-cream man nearby, we grabbed the money under the plates and rushed outside barefooted, running after the truck, waving our bills in the air. We would get ice-cream bars for the whole family—no ice-cream cones at that time—and only three flavours to choose from: “Dulce de Leche”, a sort of caramel sauce; “Granizado”, something like crème with chocolate chips and “Frutilla”, strawberry, the best one.

But lunch was not over till our dad performed. Yes! My dad had the voice of a tenor. We would wait for him to start tapping on the table or on the fridge before his “12 Cascabeles Lleva mi Caballo” song, “My Horse carries 12 bells”. My dad went from tapping on the table with his knuckles to demonstrate the way the horse trotted to clapping his palms to pretend he was a Spanish flamenco singer. This last movement was a prelude to “La Hija de Don Juan Alba’s song” or “Don Juan Alba’s Daughter.” My favourite one. Apparently, Don Juan Alba’s daughter wanted to become a nun instead of marrying her fiancée, despite having bought a long white dress.

But I was especially drawn to this song because I could see how happy and confident my dad was when he sang it. He was born to be a singer, but we were his only audience.

And when I think of “La Hija de Don Juan Alba” now, I cannot help admiring “Her” determination and courage in following her own dreams and convictions…despite the challenges. A message carried from past to present, from father to daughter.

I miss him very much.