Hey, Look! Nonna and Her Pasta Are on YouTube

Vicky Bennison, a 60-year-old British woman with a background in international development, never intended Pasta Grannies to become a minor YouTube hit or to make stars of a handful of Italian nonnas who couldn’t care less about their influencer status.

She simply wanted to create a culinary Noah’s ark to capture a way of life before it disappears.

“I keep thinking, ‘Don’t die before I get to you,’” she said.

Since Ms. Bennison began her project nearly five years ago, she has recorded more than 250 women (and a few men) doing what they do every day: rolling pizzoccheri from buckwheat flour to toss with Alpine cheese made only in Valtellina; twisting semolina dough into sagne ritorte to hold the horse-meat ragù popular in Puglia; marrying hand-torn strapponi with porcini mushrooms from a Tuscan forest.

More than 70 are featured in the cookbook “Pasta Grannies: The Secrets of Italy’s Best Home Cooks,” which the British publisher Hardie Grant will release in the United States on Oct. 29.

With nearly 418,000 subscribers, the Pasta Grannies YouTube channel is nothing compared with heavy hitters like Kabita’s Kitchen, an Indian cooking channel that has 5.6 million subscribers. The Pasta Grannies Instagram page is relatively modest, too, with 180,000 followers.

Still, for Ms. Bennison, who considers monitoring page views and mastering metrics a necessary evil, the numbers are a testament to the modern appeal of a fading kitchen art as practiced by the last generation that had no choice but to make pasta by hand.

“There wasn’t a shop you could just pop around to when these women were younger,” she said. “And when there were, dry pasta was a middle-class thing. You had to have an income to buy it. They made pasta for survival.”

The videos, which feature styles of pasta and sauce that often don’t extend past village borders, are a soothing eddy of Old World expertise and heartfelt respect in the wild waters of digital food media.

There are no Tasty-esque quick cuts, no takes of tomatoes rolling in slow motion across a farm table, or performative tosses of sautéing food. If the camera lingers as the grannies knead dough or cut bits of onion into a pot with their plastic-handled nonna knives, it’s not for aesthetic reasons, but because there is something to learn from the hands of someone who has done it for 70 years.

Videos are shot in home kitchens and side yards, with minimal styling and natural light. The subtitles are utilitarian, and the music as noncommittal as a hotel TV channel’s. No one measures anything, but Ms. Bennison does her best to fill in the blanks with instructive narration.

Ms. Bennison is a latecomer to food media, although she always sought out local specialties during her years traveling for business to places like Siberia and Kenya. She would find herself eating stir-fried goat and drinking vodka and whey in Turkmenistan, or hunting mushrooms with members of the Russian mafia, experiences that led her to write a series of food-based travel guides, and then a cookbook.

Ms. Bennison and her husband, Billy Macqueen, the children’s television producer behind the Teletubbies, bought a house in Le Marche in central Italy 15 years ago and began traveling from their home in London to restore it, which is how she met her first nonna.

Some makers of a local wild-cherry wine invited her home for dinner. A grandmother named Maria made stuffed ravioli with ricotta and braised a rabbit. When the meal was over, she had to be cajoled to come out of the kitchen and say hello. Ms. Bennison was intrigued.

After another local nonna gave her a pasta-making lesson, Ms. Bennison became obsessed with the outsize role that pasta plays in Italian family life, and the cultural changes that have kept the practice from being carried on by new generations.

Initially, she thought she would simply write about the women, but making pasta is a skilled, very physical process. “It was very obvious that you needed a video of it if you were going to save it,” she said.

Ms. Bennison’s crew is small. She and a videographer, Andrea Savorani Neri, shoot the images. Mr. Neri’s neighbor in Faenza, Livia De Giovanni, is her granny finder, and the ambassador to the women and their families. “She is essential for closing the deal,” Ms. Bennison said.

She first made about one video a month, posting them on YouTube as a way to organize the work and show publishers that the idea was worth investing in. “It was more of a hobby, really,” she said. Three years into it, she had about 5,000 subscribers. “I remember thinking how well I was doing.”

Then it all changed. Her videos started to show up on Facebook and food sites. In August 2018, Business Insider posted an particle highlighting some of the rarer pastas, like stretchy Sardinian filindeu and intricate lorighittas, prepared by Cesaria, a 95-year-old woman from the Sardinian village of Morgongiori who showed how to twist strands of pasta into something that looks like a hoop earring.

The traffic came so fast that Ms. Bennison thought at first that her site had been hacked. Cesaria was getting millions of page views. “Everything went ballistic,” Ms. Bennison said.

(She went back later to show Cesaria her video, and tell her how popular it had become. “She had no idea she was world-famous. She just laughed her head off.”)

The videos caught the eye of YouTube executives, who greenlighted a short documentary on Pasta Grannies for a series on the platform’s Spotlight channel, which highlights feel-good tales about people who use YouTube to further their passions.

Hunter Johnson, 35, is a producer with Xpedition Media who pitched Pasta Grannies for the series. He recently returned from three days on Ischia, in the Gulf of Naples, shooting Ms. Bennison and some grannies with a team of 17 people.

“I’ve produced hundreds of hours of TV, and we can smell a con a mile away,” Mr. Johnson said. “She didn’t go about this thinking this has entertainment value. There’s no, like, polish to this. She takes it truly from a scientific approach.”

Although Ms. Bennison appreciates the attention, she said she increasingly finds herself “a slave to the YouTube algorithms.” But she needs the platform: YouTube ads pay about a third of the $800 or so it costs to make each video, which includes a cash appearance fee for each granny. So far, she isn’t paying herself.

“With my book advance and my pension, I kind of just about break even,” she said. “As a business model, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”

To make more money, she could do what other YouTubers do. “They license their name or sell makeup or whatever,” she said. “But rolling pins and pasta sauces are really not the things you can post and sell very easily.” Besides, she added, “that is the last thing I want.”

She’d prefer to tell stories, like that of Rosa Turri, a pasta granny who lives in Faenza, a small city in Emilia-Romagna. Ms. Turri’s specialty is straw-and-hay tagliatelle with peas, in which half the dough is colored with spinach. Her son comes to pick up her pasta for lunch almost every day.

The ability to make pasta was once so important that, as a test of her skill, she had to make some for her father-in-law the day after her wedding. Her tagliolini in brodo — fine egg noodles simmered in chicken stock — was perfect.

In a telephone interview from her home, Ms. Turri said through an interpreter that she was delighted by both the videos and the new book, which is filled with photographs of women like her — including close-ups of their flour-covered hands.

“I never thought it was something that would have been important,” she said, “because they are just the hands of an old woman.”

Recipes: How to Make Pasta

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Kim Severson is a Southern-based correspondent who covers the nation’s food culture and contributes to NYT Cooking. She has written four books and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @kimseverson Facebook

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