I still have dreams about the pasta bar at my college cafeteria. It was wide basins of sauces, vegetables of varying quality (some fresh, some freezer-burned), and vast piles of penne available in regular, whole wheat, or tri-colore. “What kind of pasta?” a kind woman would ask the students who lined up, night after night. In these dreams, I whisper my reply to her: “All of them.” But back when I actually had access to the penne utopia, I was a carb-conscious, calorie-counting college student who did everything possible to avoid giant plates of pasta.
It’s just like the old adage goes: I didn’t know how good I had it until I was forced to live my life without easy access to all-you-can-eat penne. It was like I had a Never Ending Pasta Pass before Olive Garden even came up with the idea, and I took it for granted. I can think of no greater romantic regret.
Since then, I’ve slowly repaired my damaged relationship with carbs, but I’ve also tried every pasta substitute in the books: black-bean rotini (weirdly creamy), chickpea-based elbow macaroni (stubbornly firm), red-lentil penne (fine as long as you don’t ever try to reheat), and even homemade zoodles (there is much to enjoy about making them — strapping a phallic zucchini against a spiralizer blade and shaving it down to ribbons is deeply satisfying — but there is not much to miss about eating them).
I thought pasta substitutes were dead to me. In a way, they are. For all their presumed healthiness, they are (a) gaslighting and (b) relics of my unhealthy mind-set. All of the pasta that I eat now is the traditional, flour-based goodness. But the gnocchi that I eat on a semi-nightly basis is a mixture of mostly cauliflower and cassava flour, and comes from the freezer aisle of Trader Joe’s.
If you have been anywhere near the internet since April, 2018 — when this product was unleashed on an unsuspecting country — you have seen a story about Trader Joe’s frozen cauliflower gnocchi. It is an “instant cult classic.” It is “yums.” It is a hashtag. “Half a package is a dank side dish.” It has its own Instagram account, run not by the Trader Joe’s media team, but by a devoted superfan. These faux gnocchi exist in the liminal space between Goop-endorsed wellness solutions and (necessary) pushes for body positivity. They’re cheap, convenient, and they are ostensibly healthy. At $3 per bag, cauliflower gnocchi is the embodiment of the Influencer approach to eating, and there are bags upon bags of it in my freezer right now.
If beige were a flavor, it would be these gnocchi, which is why they are endlessly versatile. The only ingredients that anyone needs to make a meal out of cauliflower gnocchi are some sauce (or even just butter), preferably something green (spinach is good, teeny-tiny avocados are better), and snappy caption for the inevitable Instagram post. Here’s @hungry.blonde: “Ask me if I care that this is even more basic than avocado toast” — hand-waving emoji — “because Avocado Cream Cauliflower GNOCCHI is making me wave my millennial chick flag high.” They can be turned pink with cashew-and-beet-sauce. The company Betches sells a Death By Cauliflower Gnocchi apron for $28.
I’ve never tagged a post with #cauliflowergnocchi, but in my first year of grad school I subsisted off of it. I cooked nothing else. In the freezer I shared with my last two roommates, I hoarded bags of the gluey little cauliflower balls. Every Sunday, I bulk-cooked two or three packages, enough to get me through a week of eating. The gnocchi never crisped or browned like the package promised — instead, they tended to leave a slightly sticky film on my skillet — but I guess that’s the trade-off for this kind of convenience. The implied promise of Trader Joe’s cauliflower gnocchi is that eating it will help you feel in control of your body and your budget, and when I’m eating it, this feels more or less true, even if it isn’t.
When I eat it, out of a giant Tupperware, I’m also back at the pasta bar, only I become my own kind woman, smiling behind a sheet of glass, asking myself what I want to eat, even if there’s only one, not-exactly-great option on the menu. But these little brassica balls aren’t here to be great. They’re here to be easy, abundant, and there for me on all those nights I need them.