A few years ago, Seattle food writer Linda Miller Nicholson had nearly every mother's eventual dilemma: Her 5-year-old son was a picky eater.
"As someone who writes about food, makes it on TV, studies food and honed her craft during a 2-year stint in Italy, this was a hard thing to stomach," Nicholson tells MNN. "It's pretty embarrassing when you've assembled friends for a dinner party and your own kid demands yogurt and boxed mac 'n' cheese instead of the veg-heavy spread you've laid out for your guests."
She tried mixing vegetables in smoothies and covering them in peanut butter, but her kid was always wise to her attempts at nutrition deception. Finally, she mixed pureed kale into pasta dough and made it into her son's favorite noodle. He ate the dish without hesitation and Nicholson found a new calling: colorful, artistic, nutritious pasta creations.
Nicholson makes pasta art — temporary, albeit incredibly edible — using vegetables, superfoods and no artificial ingredients. She showcases her work as "saltyseattle" on Instagram and Facebook where people admire it and often request special orders. She's currently working on a book to be published by Harper Collins.
Nicholson says her inspiration comes from all sorts of places.
"I like to convey messages and challenge people to think outside the box with my work, so I've dipped my toe in politically motivated pasta, tackled racial and social justice issues, and generally hope to convey unity, hope, tolerance and joy through pasta. I realize that sounds like a tall order, but we all have tiny ways we can make a difference, and this is mine," she says.
"On the lighter side, I can often be found approaching random strangers to ask if I can take a picture of a pattern on their shirt, for example, and when they find out I plan to turn it into pasta, befuddlement ensues."
Nicholson lives on five acres with chickens, ducks, dogs and her family, just 20 minutes from downtown Seattle.
"It's the best of both worlds, because I can ingredients shop in the
heart of Seattle at Pike Place Market, but also grow a lot of the vegetables I
use in pasta in our peaceful forest garden," she says. "Naturally, my chickens and ducks
provide all the eggs I need. If only I could grow wheat, too!"
Nicholson often has dozens of colored pasta at the ready in her refrigerator. She only uses vegetables, herbs and superfoods for coloring.
"For one, it’s a way to make things a bit healthier, but also, I can achieve just about any color under the sun the natural way, so why would I need to use dye?"
Nicholson says she isn't frustrated that all the effort she puts into her work results in such a short-lived creation.
"Since I was a teenager, I’ve been obsessed with Tibetan sand mandalas. Monks work for hours or days to make elaborate sand designs, often with spiritual implications, and then once the designs are made, they wash them away in a river or ocean," she says.
"While I'm nowhere near as skilled as those talented monks, I kind of view pasta art similarly. Why make it to possess forever, when half the fun comes in eating it? Plus, so far I have no shortage of ideas about what to make, so I can take comfort in knowing there will be something new tomorrow."
Some of Nicholson's works is just artistically beautiful, while others is funny, challenging, timely or makes a statement.
"I love the fashion series caramelle I've done, depicting a variety of runway-ready looks on women of various body types and skin tones all created on little purses of filled pasta," she says.
"I made musical notes on a sheet of pasta and asked people to guess the song. Almost everyone got it right away, so I’ll have to make it harder next time. I love to create pasta that makes people think, and I try to be mindful of world events, making things that challenge the status quo."
Nicholson's son has since left his picky eater stage, but colored pasta, she says, is still his favorite meal.
"He sometimes makes pasta alongside me with my remnants, cutting it into designs that inspire him," she says. "At the moment that involves a lot of Pokemon and Minecraft, and I encourage him to post pictures of his creations on his own Instagram account. I guess you could say, a family who makes pasta together…"
Whenever she travels, Nicholson says she brings a pasta cutter wheel and a bench scraper with her. Recently on a trip to Turks and Caicos she found deep purple dragonfruit at a store.
"I mashed it together with some potatoes and ricotta using just my hands, and turned it into vibrant gnocchi, which made for a cool hotel room meal," she says. "Inspiration is everywhere and I’ve learned about myself that I need to be ready whenever it strikes."
Nicholson said she always loved art and wanted to go to design school after graduation, but instead listened to her parents and chose to major in English, with the goal of teaching. She taught for a while in Italy, but she never felt fulfilled until now.
"Since I never got to formally study art, I've always informally played around with traditional media like drawing and painting, but frankly I was never very good at anything until I found my current medium: pasta. It just clicked into place and for the first time in my life I can admit to having a bit of artistic ability without feeling like a charlatan," she says.
"Even though some of my early dreams didn't work out exactly how I expected them to, I kept those passions alive and continued to practice at them. Now that I've finally found a way to bring them all together and I'm doing exactly what I love most in life, I can say I'm who I want to be when I grow up. It's a feeling like no other, knowing that your work is also your passion, and I hope as many people as possible get to experience it if even for a short time in their lives."