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Gospel of Pasta

Written by Annie Beckmann
November 22, 2015

One aspect of being an artist is being observant, Josef Venker, S.J., will tell you.

A foodie in his spare time, Father Venker likes to prowl thrift stores for bargain kitchen tools and utensils. He started to notice a surprising number of pasta machines at some of the local second-hand shops.

Trouble is, not many folks are familiar with these gadgets or they think making pasta involves too much effort. "Pastaphobia," Fr. Venker calls it.

So these gleaming orphans of the culinary world sit at Goodwill, Value Village, St. Vinnie's and garage sales. To his thinking, some of these machines might be missing a part, yet all deserve more appreciative homes. He knows he can find the needed cogs for next to nothing so he started to scoop up the machines.

"I was once an expert bicycle mechanic so moving on to pasta machines was no big deal," says Fr. Venker, who concedes he has been a hopeless packrat his entire life.

This former Seattle University Fine Arts department chair who teaches calligraphy, printmaking and ceramics now takes time to preach what he calls "the gospel of pasta." So far, Fr. Venker has spread the word to about a dozen friends and family enthused about developing this gastronomic talent.

He lends his artistic skills as a ceramicist to the craft of pasta making.  

"Making pasta-or working in clay-can be a very focused and contemplative activity," he says. "The Buddhists call this mindfulness. It's about being visually observant, reading the subtle clues, attention to detail, nothing magic but not something everyone is able to do."

Other artists have found noodle making to be an intriguing creative medium. Nearly 30 years ago, a Seattle glass blower named Dave Brown channeled his art into what today is the very successful Northwest pasta company Carso's. Fr. Venker isn't destined for commercial pasta making, though. His Jesuit approach is to inspire others with the art and share his pasta machines with those who show a glimmer of enthusiasm.

"This is most fun to do with other people, especially kids," he says.

Fr. Venker describes how table fellowship-a meal shared among friends-is the paradigm of the liturgy (Catholic Mass).

"So preparing food, and doing this with friends can be a sacred practice," he says. "How do you think the Last Supper got on the table? Angels didn't deliver it out of the sky.  Someone had to plan it, procure the ingredients, cook it, serve it and clean up. It is the most human of activities that can also be the most sacred."

On a recent afternoon, Fr. Venker unpacked a bunch of his pasta machines and the few ingredients he uses for fresh pasta in the Capitol Hill kitchen of Mary Linden Sepulveda, associate librarian and coordinator of collections for the Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons. Sepulveda was an enthusiastic participant, although she noted it has been many years since she attempted to make her own pasta because it struck her as lot of work.

In no time, the two of them cranked dough through one of the machines and turned out what looked like lasagna.

"See how I'm holding it over my hand?" Fr. Venker says. "Don't pull, just support."  

While he says he's against food that's pretentious or faddish, he knows that pasta, like clay, can be finicky and fragile. The ceramicist recognizes the surprising similarities between working with clay and dough.

"A lot of folks are not attuned to the detail. Because I have a degree in ceramics, I know when the dough is too wet or dry," Fr. Venker says. "I use a special drafting brush that architects use to dust the dough with flour. And the texture? That's what traditional Italian women call 'the cat's tongue.'" 

Soon Sepulveda was making spaghetti and fettuccine and talking about buying a pasta-making attachment for her KitchenAid mixer.

"I definitely would do this again, especially with an attachment," she says. "It just tastes so much better when it's homemade."

Fr. Venker carefully dusted their creations with flour. He warned not to smash the pasta before refrigerating or freezing. He sent some home with student photographer Gordon Inouye, adding maybe one more follower to his pasta congregation. Inouye gently cradled his pasta like a newborn all the way back to Murphy Apartments on campus.

When he's not teaching classes at Seattle U, showing folks how to make pasta or gardening, Fr. Venker's visual awareness and creativity has other dimensions, many of them global.

He is a scholar in the world tradition of vessels in all shapes and sizes. "One of the biggest art forms in Asia is ceramics. Tea bowls there are amazing," says Fr. Venker, who spent four months of his sabbatical last year in Asia.  

His expertise in calligraphy led him to the spiritual tradition of looking at the shape of each letter to bring forth its spiritual and meditative meaning. This interest in letter arts moved him to create encaustic or hot wax paintings of individual Hebrew letters on panels, much like icons. Three of them now hang in Casey Commons, the Chapel of St. Ignatius and Campus Ministry. He hopes to complete all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and have an art show at a local synagogue. 

Meditative pursuits will take another shape for Fr. Venker in late June 2016, when he and Sally Freed, '13 MAPS, teach a class in the art and spirit of prayer beads at the Grϋnewald Guild, a sanctuary for the exploration of art, faith and the mystery of creation, located along the Wenatchee River northwest of Leavenworth. Students will create a variety of handmade beads and explore the pathways to meditation and spirituality found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity through this form of prayer and sacred expression.

(A similar version of this story will appear in an upcoming issue of Seattle University Magazine.)