Recipes for Disaster
French Pig Slaughtering Party
When I was twenty-six, in 1979, I spent a year living in Europe. In the winter and spring I lived in a rustic little house in southeastern France. The miniscule hamlet of Rhontonod, known well to sheep and cows alike, lies halfway between Lyons and Geneva in an uncelebrated corner of the low Juras known to its as inhabitants alternately as the Vale de Belley or the Vale de Bugey My buddy Burt’s mother-in-law had grown up in Rhontonod but now, not uncommonly in rural France, used the house only as a summer home. Everyone was happy to see it occupied and secure during the cold months and so I was installed as a sort of caretaker and local curiosity. Several weeks after I arrived in January, Burt and his wife, Helene, came down from Gex, where they lived, to attend a pig slaughtering party given by some French hippies, back-to-the-land drop-outs that Helene knew from University. The hippies (not my term) had landed on a nearby estate owned by an old nobleman with no progeny nor living relatives. How the hippies hooked up with him, I do not know. I do know that they were two couples, living beneath the walls of the old chateau in a one room stone cottage, with the longest fireplace I have ever seen, and that they were running the farm and vineyard for the old man.
Luckily we arrived after the pig had been slaughtered, I don’t think I could have countenanced that. The carcass had been sold to a butcher who was just pulling out of the courtyard in his beat-up panel truck as we were pulling in with a wicker basket full of baguettes from the bakery in Belley and a battery powered cassette player. Our hosts were standing around a sort of portable abattoir. They were quite busy sending various pieces of the pig they had retained through a hand cranked meat grinder. Steam and smoke mingled in the January air as one of the hippie girls bent over a wood fire washing out intestines in a pot of simmering water. Bouquets of sage and rosemary sat on a rickety wooden table, along with minced garlic, sea salt, same kind of cooked grain, barley or kasha I imagine, and various herbs I did not recognize.
The hippies began filling casings with a mixture of ground meat and herbs, creating sausages of various lengths and thicknesses. Some were filled by means of an appliance that looked like a giant metal caulking gun or syringe and some, the way my grandmother used to do it, by stuffing the mixture with a wooden pestle through a sort of abbreviated funnel into the casing.
Perhaps a dozen guests were assembled in the yard that afternoon, mostly smoking cigarettes, chatting, and ineffectually trying to assist the hippies from time to time. The work was finished just as the sun was setting so we headed inside. A healthy fire burned in the fireplace. There was no other illumination other than a Coleman lamp in the center of a huge roughhewn wooden table flanked by two long benches. Sausages were being boiled in a big copper pot in the hearth and then transferred to frying pans. Each person had a tin camping plate, but there were no utensils so we ate with our hands. Our hosts plopped hunks of sausage onto our plates, the skin crisp from the frying pan, but when we bit into them the insides were succulent and juice from the meat ran down our chins. How can I describe the taste? Sweet, yet tangy, one piece alive with garlic, the next heavy with sage like a summer garden. The air in the cottage was a haze filled with the scent of the sausage frying and everyone’s clothes and hair were permeated by the odor of pork fat and wood smoke. We passed the baguettes back and forth, tearing off hunks and sopping up the juice in our plates. The crusts were still crispy, still fresh from the bakery, and made a sandy crunching sound when a loaf was broken. We drank red wine from camping cups, Gamey Bugey, bottled on the estate, strong, heady, with a green, earthy, but velvety finish. And endless amounts of it poured as we toasted the hosts, the guests, and the old man. Music played on the boom box and we danced wild, our shadows flickering on the walls, like the images at Lascaux come alive.
It was late when we left. The sky was clear and the moon was down, the stars a phosphorescent smear across heaven. Our heads thrown back, we looked up in wonder into the absolute darkness and laughed. I held a paper bag filled with blood sausage in my arms, and in my head a firm admonition from my hosts to quickly eat it all tomorrow for breakfast, with fried eggs, or don’t eat it at all.
The story I heard first was that Puttanesca Sauce contains the basic ingredients most common to the Italian kitchen. Prostitutes, after their long evening rounds were finished, were forced to build a meal from whatever was on hand in the larder or wait and be hungry until the markets were open. Thus the sauce was named after the women who invented it out of necessity. Of course baloney is named after an Italian city so make of it what you will. Alternately, I have heard the name is a sort of metaphor; the sauce is quick and easy to make like a woman lacking virtue. I’m no Etymologist, but it is an evocative moniker irrespective of who dreamt it up.
And it is easy enough to make. And quick I suppose. But my advice to you is take your time when making it. There are only a few ingredients so perhaps you should go slow, consider the nature of each ingredient as you progress, and let your imagination range as you work. The combination of just a few ingredients unfolds into an almost impossible number of potential outcomes. I’ve made this dish thirty, forty, maybe fifty times in my life. And it never turns out exactly the same twice. I vary quantities depending on mood, change the heat and the speed at which I cook them. Of course, sometimes I may add a new ingredient to the mix like sugar or wine to support some aspect of one of the dominant performers. I’m always hunting for the gold standard like those Italian painters and architects of the early renaissance trying to define the properties of perspective. Not that I’m in their class, but effort does count for something in my worldview. It’s odd that given something so seemingly simple and easy perfection remains so elusive. I am constantly tweaking this little darling, trying to get her to co-operate and be mine. But prostitutes don’t behave that way. They may seem to give you what you want, but they always hold something back.
Growing up I thought that the tomato was the emblem and quintessential vegetable of the Italian diet. Ubiquitous, seemingly around forever, yet, later, in my twenties, I discovered it to be a fruit (yes a fruit) of the new world. So how long could it have been present, much less common in Europe? For 500 years perhaps? That’s not long. And as I age it seems less long all the time. So by virtue of its many and obvious qualities it was quickly incorporated into an the alien topography and culture of Europe. And it’s no wonder really; have you ever tasted one?
It is almost human in it’s disposition. Sanguine – like blood, the thing that courses below our exterior self, but unseen drives us. And like a person it can be contradictory or combine conflicting attributes in one vessel. It is sweet and it is sour. How many people have you known, if not loved, who could easily fit that description? And it can be so by differing degrees displaying infinite variations of an already complex personality. It is dualism personified (perfruitified?) Perhaps it is the perfect Buddhist metaphor born out in the vegetable world.
I always associate tomatoes with my father. He just loved them. Once, long before he was retired and I was about eight or nine, we were out walking near the forest preserve through a farmer’s field. There were still a few hold out truck farms in the near suburbs of Chicago then, waiting to be taxed into oblivion and out of the collective memory of us all. At any rate we were walking along at a decent clip beside rows of sweet corn. green peppers, and tomatoes. My father kept his pace even as he swooped down and plucked the heavy red globes from the vine. He ate the tomatoes as if they were apples, biting into them vigorously and unselfconsciously. The tomatoes exploded in his mouth, the red juice rolling off his chin and down his throat, staining his white tee-shirt. He didn’t care. I had never seen him eat a tomato like that at home, so indecorously, My mother would slice them up and serve them to us in a dish at the Sunday dinner table or make soup of them, a long and labor intensive undertaking since you had to make the chicken broth first. And it seems to me she always eats an apple with a paring knife as well, making a little work of art out of a snack. She can be a methodical person. But Pop, freed from the confines of the middle-class hearth, reverted to some throwback arch-type – Crotomato man. Seriously, though, I still see him there, so alive in my memory, rapidly consuming a half a dozen tomatoes within moments. Or later, when he retired and became more serious about his gardening, I’d often see him in the summer in his old canvas navy shoes and ragged shorts, shirt off and glistening, pausing from his weeding to scarf down a tomato or two, all the more delicious and satisfying because they were his own
The pomodoro. The apple of love. And what a brassy, lusty thing this commingler of temperaments is. How it attracts. It does not speak its name, but fairly screams it. The brightest of reds. Like blood. Like a warning. Like the marks that the sun leaves behind on her skin. Heat, flames, warning and seduction. And so logic and nature both must dictate that this would be the dominant ingredient in the greatest (my opinion) of Italian pasta sauces. My darling girl I offer you these delightful noodles, but beware they mask my, until now, unstated and unrevealed intention, I offer you the essence of the apple of love. Let us go. Take my hand. I’ll lead you to the garden. We will be together, naked,as nature commands
Whew. Enough of that. Where were we?
Who knows what long forgotten troglodyte tribes scrambling around the rocky Mediterranean shores first bit into those toothsome little berries, dusted their scruffy selves off, and built a culture around their discovery. The grape or the olive, you may ask, what is he talking about, the olive or the grape? I feel full of praise and warm feelings towards the grape, but I am here right now to talk about the olive and its prominent role in the marvelous potion.
Yes, olives. Now that is Italian. Roman, Etruscan, and whatever else was before the foot of Italy began trodding the essence out of fruit. All I can say is there must have been quite a lot of it about, even before cultivation, for people to think up such an extravagant, profligate notion as stepping on the surplus. Dad told me that, as a child, he stomped the brine out of sauerkraut back in the foothills of the Tatry, but that’s another story
Not being Italian, or Mediterranean, my first experience of olives, or notice of them, was during the martini craze of the fifties. Olives were green with little red centers and came in oddly shaped, impractical glass jars. Nothing else that I knew of came in those jars. “Remarkable”, I thought, my eyes barely above the level of the counter while on tiptoes. I associated olives then with dressed up adults, men with sports coats and holiday ties, the women alive with cologne and wearing lipstick the exact same color as the pimentos stuffed into the olives. Thanksgiving, Christmas. Banished is the shot glass and highball. All hail vermouth and gin.
Olives sure didn’t taste to this child like the red and green of Christmas. They were unbearably salty and, because of their gay, celebratory color, unbearably disappointing. I feel there is a moral lurking in there somewhere, but I’m sure I don’t know what it is. Some time around sixteen I noticed that olives came in black as well as green while waiting in line at Diana’s grocery, a marvelous Greek restaurant that took no reservations and had none either. Waiters from the backroom restaurant came out to the grocery bearing trays of snacks for those waiting in queue – moist chunks of feta, glasses of Roditys (“Don’t they care that were not twenty-one. NO! Out-of-sight!”) And the grocery and restaurant featured an infinite variety of olives: the slender Kalamata, firm, sharp. like the bud of a purple flower, the sexual organ of some opium-imagined mystical plant.
Hard green olives too, earthy also almost sweet, little desiccated black pips, salty and strong (if black could have a flavor, it would taste exactly like those little dried olives) and, imperials (I think they’re called), plump, green and brown and purple, bearing a flavor from the bottom of the well that is all things earth and all things sea. Skins a little like leather, flesh a little like Christine’s on a summer night.
And then later, working as a cook (not a chef) in a family owned Sicilian restaurant, I became aware that olives were pressed and their oil collected into large tin cans (somewhere in Italy) This olive oil, unlike corn oil, had an exquisite taste and an infinite variety of uses. And more whole olives among those gracious Sicilians so inured that their very faces revealed the ghost of the olive and so too their dark, dark eyes. Green olives in the chicken stew stood out among the vegetables like beautiful women in a downtown summer crowd.. Little black olives in the salad – a precarious, but successful balance with the sweet dressing. And my own discovery – chopped Kalamata olives and pepperoni on pizza – pedestrian perhaps, but so, so tasty. (No wonder I take diuretics now.)
Such an unlikely thing the olive. Half seed really. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like there’s really much to work with there, not like a lemon with its seeds or a watermelon with its – very high flesh to seed ratio. The olive by comparison, well, not too impressive. But the quality of the yield is worth the effort, despite the lack of volume. There’s probably a moral of some kind in there, but I’m sure I don’t know what it is.
I wonder how they remove those seeds to squeeze out the oil? Maybe they don’t? But the sauce does not include seeds. When I first started making the sauce I had no idea how the olives should be pitted or if there is a specific tool to do the job, but I have invented a method that seems to work tolerably well. Get a broad knife or small cleaver and a wooden cutting board. Smack that olive hard with the broad side of the blade. Hopefully the board is thick enough so that you haven’t whacked your fingers against the countertop. You should then be able to squeeze the pit out of the flesh. If the pit is recalcitrant, like the soul of an old dying man fighting to remain in his body, take the sharp side of the knife and run it the long way across the olive. You can then squeeze the seed out. If it still won’t budge. pop the whole olive into your mouth, eat it (spitting the seed out), and move on to another olive. (No wonder I take diuretics).
Regarding the recalcitrant pit and the soul of the dying man metaphor, at this stage in my life I have seen a few people take leave of the world and even more bodies after the soul has fled. They fall into two categories: those that look as if they are asleep, and those who look as if some giant drill has bored into them and physically removed their animus. The olive, were it human, would fall into the later category – sometimes a pretty messy affair. I say this, not to be morbid, but to lend an air of pathos and moral authority to my recipe and to illustrate that my metaphor wasn’t just me talking through my hat again. And if you are really going to make this sauce I think it behooves you to meditate not only on the joyous and lusty tomato that shines like the orb of a red sun, but also on the earthy, dark, and trodden upon olive who surrenders his pit, his essence for your gustatory pleasure, only after a messy struggle. In life there is death and vice versa. Remember, a lively sauce incorporates all colors of life’s gastronomic palette. Only children crave sugar alone. So grow up, will you!
God, where to begin: squeezed, pickled, powdered, dried, baked, and stir-fried, an antiseptic, poultice, salve, comforter of the afflicted and servant to man since the building of the Great Pyramid and undoubtedly before, enemy to the forces of darkness, especially those that settle like glue in your favorite arteries – everything but a breath mint. In Puttanesca garlic performs like the bass in a jazz band, the instrument which carries the rhythm, the underpinning giving structure to the whole shooting match and the beat that all the other cats riff off of. It is remarkably versatile. It can solo in such favorites as skordalia or garlic bread or, as I mentioned, provide the subtle, coherent theme for an entire symphony.
As I sever the stump and crack the skin I laugh to see those cloves already on the cutting board looking like a bunch of hacked off toes or the fossil teeth of some giant sloth creature that thumped around here during the last ice age. The garlic clove has the funniest shape since the Brazil nut. I think they’d look nice strung on a silk thread and worn as a necklace by any number of woman I have loved or admired. I’d have them dress in furs like Betty or Wilma and squire them off to the opera to show off their jewelry like trophy wives do. But I know that will never happen even as I fantasize about passionate kisses in the back of a livery redolent with garlic.
If the tomato is about seduction, the garlic is about love consummated. The lovers are not oblivious to the world around them. Indeed their love for each other grows to such a tremendous expanse that the vessel that the two construct can not contain their feeling for each other and spills to over-flowing, embracing all the world around them. The universe is transformed in their eyes into a realm of deep benevolence. But, alas, their world tonight, is the world of two who have eaten garlic while the rest of humanity has abstained. Love becomes pretty poison.
Sitting solitary and brooding on an early Friday night, feeding my dyspeptic spirit with the foul concoction of Tequila, club soda, and lime juice (not recommended to anyone at any time for any reason) Cunneen’s at its apogee – March 1982 or such, perhaps the feast of St Joseph, and the swallows are coming hard and heavy as I’m already on my third and thinking 19 would be the appropriate number for the date – so I’m working at it and starting to growl to myself like a bear shaking off hibernation only to find a foot and a half of snow still on the ground when in skip Maria and Miley the lesser at the apogee of their own glorious love affair, bedazzled, besotted, and in missionary zeal to share their discovery of the wonder of each other with everyone else. They plop down flanking me at the bar.. Maria uncharacteristically gives me a peck on the cheek and drapes an arm over me shoulder conspiratorially as does Mike. They are slightly tipsy, but not sloppy at all and they are on me, sensing my despair. They launch into a tale about dinner at Grandma’s and Maria’s unsavory relatives or some such, but in reality they must have just got off a direct flight from Gilroy because their breath is enough to drop a horse (hyperbole) or at least wither and kill every one of those god-awful giant plants Cunneen has shoved into the front window (opposite of hyperbole).
I must admit they are charming, so full of love and good cheer as they regale me with the story of their feed at Nonna’s. And yet, their breath pierces me like Hector’s javelin, for this is truly East Rogers Park epic, And so I am slowly squeezed in their vice of love, simultaneously repulsed and attracted. But the odd thing is that there is a rhythm to the whole experience. First Mike launches into some long Miley harangue and I slowly bend away from him until seriously in danger of falling off my barstool (which I have only done once in thirty-seven years for your information). Then Maria reposts with a shaggy dog of her own and I slowly bend the other way towards Mike. And so it goes. And as we drink more, and they become even more animated and the conversation more frenetic, I am bouncing back and forth between them like a magnet repulsed by two polar opposites. This endless rocking reminds me of a bad channel crossing and the combination of alcohol, oscillation, and garlic breath finally drives me out into the cold March streets with some regret. Now, if when at dinner hours before at the Gag-Pool (as Michele used to call it when she waitressed there) I had chosen the poolgogi instead of the noodle soup I would have been sufficiently inundated with garlic myself so as not to be bothered by their breath. But thinking that I might get lucky at the tavern that evening I consciously avoided the garlic and thus missed out on a thoroughly charming conversation and ended up out in the cold with neither romance nor convivial companionship. There’s probably a moral of some kind to be gained there, but I’m sure I don’t know what it is.
I will say this, however, the garlic holds up its end of things and in the most agreeable manner. It is subtle and supportive when interacting with others, but it does not play coy when leadership is called for or when a breach must be filled as in the case of the dill pickle. Not just for the sake of flexing its muscles does it perform, but instead shows an unselfish sensibility of what is appropriate to the moment.
The anchovy has been a popular part of the Mediterranean diet for a long time. I read in Wiki that the anchovy likes shallows and estuaries. It must then be one of the more accessible fish to catch if you’re venturing out to sea in boat that you made yourself out of reeds or logs or some such. Perhaps that’s a factor in the anchovy’s popularity, it’s accessibility. Home made boats are a good reason to restrict yourself to the shallow end of the pool even if you have your chops down. Don’t kid yourself, many a bold Viking has drown.. There’s a moral to be learned in there somewhere, but etc.
Anchovy was once used in “garum”, a sort of an all-purpose condiment common to both the ancient Romans and Greeks before them. High in protein and folic acid, it’s really quite healthy for you if you discount all the salt they add to it by way of a preservative nowadays. In the old days they just let the fish rot and there’s your garum. Apparently that, in some unfathomable way, lead to its appeal. Go figure. Today, anchovies commonly come as tiny fillets or rolled around a caper (later) and then packed in oil inside of a little tin can. It is pungent, salty, and, well, quite fishy tasting. Given that, it’s appropriateness as an ingredient in the “whores sauce” couldn’t possibly be lost on you could it? If it is, you might want to skip the sauce altogether; I think you lack sufficient life experience to appreciate it.
These little fellows hold a significant place in the food chain. Like the herring, everyone else feeds on them. It sounds sort of sad being everyone’s dinner, but their numbers are many and, to their credit, they are a big step in converting energy from sunlight to use by the carnivore world because of their insatiable hunger for plankton..
My world was completely devoid of anchovies when growing up. They were a much rarer commodity than olives. Once again in this recipe I find I keep returning to my memories of Diana’s grocery. Oh teenagers of today, what transports you, what forays into the exotic do you keep secret from your hovering parents? Surely there is some adventure there for you when you remove the ear piece and the blue glow of the cell phone dims to black. I had never eaten an anchovy in my life before I ate dinner at Diana’s. There amid the blaring bouzouki music, the drunken clientele, the kissing and groping of lovers and strangers alike, the flaming cheese, the smashing of crockery, and the dancing waiters, some disembodied, white shirted arm swooped down unseen like a paraclete and dropped a salad under my callow nose. My idea of a salad, up to that point, was iceberg lettuce and Kraft French dressing. In the summer tomatoes were added from father’s garden (see Tomato section), but those tomatoes were as exotic as things got.
Now what do I see here? More olives, lettuce, of course, some kind of little pickle (pepperoncini) two coins of that melon so intimately familiar to a Polish kid, the cucumber, pieces of feta cheese, dried oregano, wine vinegar and olive oil dressing, and two little strips of something brown, like scars or leeches, making smiley face on top of my salad. I brought them to the waiters attention, but his English (and my Greek) were insufficient to the challenge. He ran off with my plate. And when the salad re-appeared, crowning the greenery, were now five little filets instead of two so I assumed that they were not a mistake, but had been placed on my salad intentionally. Too ugly for a garnish, so what possibility could be left?. Some supercilious college girl sitting at the next table put me wise to what they were. I had heard of anchovies before, but I wasn’t sure in what context – a slightly amusing, slightly outlandish topping for a pizza that I, nor anyone that I knew of, had ever tried before. I don’t exaggerate. My immediate reaction upon putting one in my mouth was that there were little tiny bones in it. I was wondering if one should remove the bones before eating, but it became almost immediately obvious that such an endeavor was futile. The bones must be eaten I decided and so did.. And, not surprisingly, I liked them, since I am so fond of salty things, which is a reason I take diuretics now.
Should I give a lecture on the small death of parochialism, not the death of my own parochialism alone, but the death of the parochialism in the striving class when all the Europeans ventured out of their little shtetls and villages (neighborhoods) and they an d their off-spring intermixed and intermarried in the suburbs? It was world war two that did it. And all the kid soldiers and the wives of kid soldiers waved goodbye to their parents and headed for Park Ridge where everyone spoke and read English exclusively. They were free to pick at the bits of old culture that they all brought with them, tasting and sampling and comparing each others experience like a herd of baboons lovingly grooming each other and cracking the nits between their teeth. I’m not really being sarcastic. I love grooming rituals and it takes a fair amount of bravery to shuck off the old and join a new tribe.
One last thing. You equate the anchovy with salt, correct? But note, that the olive already carries a load of salt in the Puttanesca (not even looking ahead to the parmesan). Why more salt? Ignore your notion of salt here. It is the flavor of the fish not the salt that adds pungency and tang to the sauce. If you still can’t get over the notion of all that salt then use canned olives, they’re less salty. But realize there are distinctions in salt as well – one’s the salt of the earth, one’s the salt of the sea.. So, shiver me timbers, matey. We’ll talk at some length later about fine tuning the recipe.
The caper is another food I was unaware of until the age of twenty–seven and I tasted a piece of tuna in a lovely lemon caper sauce in France while spending a weekend of swinish gluttony in Lyons with Helene & Burt. We visited all her relatives and school chums. reeling from one dinner table to the next like one of those inflatable plastic punching bag clowns so popular with my set when I was about five. You know, you could die from overeating, not in the obvious way as a long haul over a lifetime sort of thing, but quickly, dramatically after a series of outrageous meals like that. I thought I might just explode, a big multi-colored splotch grotesquely littering the snow around that cheesy little mini of Burt’s after the three of us tried squeezing into it once again after the third gut-busting meal of the day. I think it’s the wine that saves you; it aids in your digestion was her father’s theory. And her father was a math teacher and that, in my book, made him an unimpeachable source. Due to my own deficiencies I figured anyone who knew their way around a quadratic equation must know their way around all sorts of things and I was starting my second week in France thus totally credulous. I was wrong in that notion, not in his case particularly, but as a rule in general about being impressed by the mastery of a skill I have no talent for and making false assumptions or being gulled or intimidated accordingly. But I digress.
I had always assumed a caper was something out of Dickens as in Scrooge was always capering about after his miraculous metamorphosis. But the caper turns out to be the little pickled bud of a flowering bush common throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, growing right up into the foothills of the Alps (thank you Wikipedia).
People say Scotch has a medicinal taste, which I have never understood. To me Scotch tastes like a combination of smoke, grass (turf), and alcohol, and I like it very much especially if the vegetative just slightly dominates the smoky. But the caper does have a slightly medicinal flavor. Or more accurately it is reminiscent of the lingering residual taste in your mouth after you’ve had Novocain at the dentists – blood and chemicals. Or remember the great cocaine delirium of the 1980’s? I guess for some folks that delirium never died down (“at your age you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack if you don’t cut that out!”) But it has a bit of that cocaine flavor though modified by vinegar, salt, and is slightly more floral. Not unpleasant in modest amounts, you have to watch this stuff in the sauce though. Better not enough than too much. You don’t want something like cocaine dictating the taste of your dinner party. Look what Karl Rove, “reputed” cocaine aficionado, did to the Republican party! There’s a moral in there somewhere and a rather scary one to boot I’m afraid.
Let’s return briefly to the earlier paragraph and “the little pickled bud of a flowering bush” That little bud has a particular texture and heft on the tongue which is reminiscent of a part of the anatomy that features prominently in a non-reproductive sexual act. If you don’t know what I’m alluding to, well, that’s okay. But for the cognoscenti who recognize the heft and feel of the caper on the tongue, remember also the powerful reaction the manipulation of that bud often has. In an unpleasantly opposite sense, it can have an equally powerful effect on the sauce. However, what’s good for Christine on a summer night does not translate to the kitchen. Use the caper sparingly. It is in a supporting role here, more like a culinary teaser or foreplay, if you will, than the main event. Overuse makes Karl Rove of your sauce. If you feel you haven’t added enough, you can always drop a few more into the sauce later. But you can’t subtract a strong unpleasant residual flavor from it later. I don’t think you want a sauce that reminds you of a trip to the dentist. Even the other, which Christine described as sublime, is not really anyone’s idea of a delicious gustatory experience.
Okay, this is where I diverge from the Italians and the traditionalists. They like to add dried pepper flakes a la Arabiata to their sauce and I like fresh jalapenos. There’s something elegant about the look of the jalapeno pepper – so sleek and streamlined as if someone designed it rather than grew it – a little Deco souvenir of the 1933 Worlds Fair. Once again the jalapeno was something that I did not encounter at home. Mother cooked with fresh green peppers, but never hot peppers. Her stuffed green peppers were notable – a ladle of tomato sauce and a big dollop of sour cream applied to each one as it was split open steaming on your plate. But the only thing that might shock the palate in our home was horseradish at Easter.
The jalapeno is such a staple of Mexican cooking. I suppose there must be some equivalent grown in the vegetable gardens of Italy (those pepper flakes are coming from somewhere!). But I am a creature of the new world where we like to mix things up a bit and recombine our cultural DNA despite what Fox news tries to tell you. I lived briefly in Tucson Arizona in 1976. There I encountered, cilantro, cornmeal, and jalapenos (and oddly shrimp, but that’s for another time). I often hung with a crowd of softball players – half were Mexicans and half Anglos. It was my roommate’s team and I wanted to play with them badly (old, old joke), but I worked in a hospital in the afternoon and early evening doing ROM exercises with little old ladies from Grand Rapids, Michigan and I couldn’t get to the games on time. So I was really more a spectator, still I was made to feel part of the team and drank with them in the bleachers after the floodlights were switched off. Danny was a pitcher. He played professionally in Mexico. He was pretty good, but not good enough I guess. Still he loved to play and being the best in the park league was ample consolation for him.
I was invited to his daughter’s christening party at his home in South Tucson. I was twenty-two at the time, foot loose, etc. I was spending the year batting around the west and was packing up my car the following morning and heading for Las Vegas & then on to California. But home is where the peppers are and I had mixed feelings about leaving the Sonora behind. Gates Pass at dusk is unfathomable and humbling – to discover the absolutely empty is not empty at all is…. M—–l is such a trite word I won’t even use it.
I sat with Danny and his great uncle at a rough plank table in the front yard of the house, sheltered from the sun by a little arbor. All the women were in the kitchen. The sound of their voices drifted through the open windows along with the aroma of their cooking for the evening breeze, blowing down from the Santa Ritas, to steal off with and hide in the shadows now lengthening in foothills beyond the town.. Other sounds of teasing and name calling between the teenage girls echoed in the garden, their laughing voices like a chiming of bells as they skittered back and forth between the kitchen and the veranda where they laid out the buffet. Great bunches of jalapeno peppers hung from the eaves in a profusion of red and green. The colors made me think of my Chicago home at Christmas. Here, at Danny’s home, the garlands framed against the bone white adobe walls made me think of the colors of the banner of Mexico and its eagle and its serpent
Danny and his uncle faced out to the quiet street, while I, facing the veranda, watched the lovely girls disappearing into the house only to re-emerge moments later carrying yet another tray or bowl to place upon the table. I remember, even then, thinking about the significance of these young women in procession, laying their food offerings beneath the abundant garlands of unmistakably phallic peppers. Perhaps its only an unhealthily obsessed person like me who would see this as a ritual act of veneration of the generative force, but right here I’ll make bold to promote my apprehension of subliminal sexuality and project it into the real world of teenage girls,. food, and especially peppers with you gentle friend. Well, maybe you had to be there.
And so people began to meander over to the table to eat. I rose to go to the table too because the aroma of that cooking was almost irresistible, but Danny told me to take it easy so we opened another beer and sat back. First mothers went to the table to get food for the littlest kids. Then old people followed. Then it was just a constant stream of people of all ages. But every time I made a move to get up Danny told me to sit down. I was starting to feel a little paranoid, a bit conspicuous, like maybe I didn’t really belong here.
Finally, a young woman not more than seventeen, dressed like any other teenaged girl in skin tight blue jeans and a form fitting scoop top (a presentation and provocation all in itself), brought me a plate of food featuring home-made tamales and potato salad with olives and peppers and a mayonnaise that tasted like Brussels. And for the rest of the evening young women and girls constantly plied me with blandishments from the table beneath the canopy of peppers. I found out a little later that evening that the rest of the single men on the softball team were treated in the same way. So under Danny’s benevolent gaze I was introduced to every one of his marriageable nieces, cousins, and neighbors.
Now, looking into the review mirror at my life, as I am wont to do these days, careening headlong into the dying light and my own oblivion as I am, I turn that christening over and over in my mind like an old coin, fingered so often the date and image are just about obscured, and I wonder what would have happened had I danced with that little Inez just once more before I thanked Danny for his hospitality and took off. As I headed up towards Lake Powell the following morning I couldn’t stop glancing into the rear view mirror to watch the image of the Catalina’s grow progressively smaller until they finally disappeared. I think there may be a moral in there somewhere, but in lieu of knowing what it is, I have opted to add jalapenos to my favorite sauce making the whole thing even more pleasing and almost complete. Almost…but always open to revision and reinvention according to my whim.
The proof’s in the sauce.
So that’s all you really need to know, those ingredients. Recipes aren’t etched in stone. Do you really want rules, metrics? Okay, here’s some direction if you feel you just have to have it. If not, stop reading and do something else.
For one pound of pasta here’s what you might do. Get two big pots of water. Put one on the back burner real low. The other, bring to a furious boil and dump in a couple of pounds of home grown tomatoes. Scald the tomatoes. When the first two tomatoes split take them all out and remove the skins and seeds. Dice them and put them aside. You can use Red Gold diced if you want to; they’re quite acceptable in the winter.In a decent sized sauce pot fry up five or six not too finely diced garlic cloves in olive oil. Add a finely diced jalapeño pepper or a pepper and a half. Add quartered olives. I like those imperials, but you can use the little desiccated Turkish ones or Kalamata’s if you wish. Even use the canned bland if you want. Only youse nose how much you likes olives, Olive. Stir the frying stuff with a wooden spoon to avoid burning anything. Add the contents of a can of anchovies and a teaspoon of capers and stir until the anchovies disappear. Add the tomatoes. Stir it up, put it on low, and cover with lid ajar a crack.
The other pot should be boiling by now. Put in the pasta. Cook until it’s a little more al dente that you normally like it. Pour off the water. Return the pasta to the pot and add a cup of chicken broth. Cook pasta at medium high, constantly stirring until the broth has been totally absorbed by the pasta. Now taste the sauce. If it is too astringent, add a little sugar. But go slow there; a very little sugar goes a long way. Add the sauce to the pasta and mix. Serve with chopped FRESH parsley on the top and, of course, grated parmesan.
You can experiment with wine. Cook the garlic, olives, and peppers with a little red wine reducing by half volume, then add the tomatoes. Or cook the entire mixture, tomatoes and all, in a larger amount of red wine. This method is for making a sauce more homogenous, more akin to marinara or Bolognese so you’ve got it on a low medium flame for 30-40 minutes. In other words, everything is pretty seamlessly incorporated, except for the olives and capers.
You can add a little carrot to sweeten from the start and forget the sugar.
You can use green olives instead of black and mix the parsley directly into the sauce. If your using wine here, use white instead of red, add a little more garlic and serve the sauce very chunky
You can added a little fresh red pepper with the skin removed.
You can sauté cubes of tuna steak with a little lemon & capers and mix the pieces into the pasta along with the sauce or use the pasta as a bed for whole tuna steaks.
Perhaps I’m stating the obvious and insulting your intelligence, but do all the prep work first.. Have all items cut, diced, poured, measured, and staged before you turn on a burner. Take your time. Don’t rush when you cook; this is not a race! Isn’t that what all of this has really been about? Food is about memory and the past. Just ask Marcel, frigging, Proust. Okay, you can’t, he’s dead. Don’t be so obtuse. The joys and sorrows of your past life are buried very close to the surface. They are fermenting like wine of a rare vintage and beg to be tasted, savored. Your recollections coalesce about you like dawn mist on the glassy surface of an autumn lake before rising up towards heaven. Let the sauce with the provocative title be an offering of the flesh, corporeal and sensual, an offering wrested from the past; the spirit will take flight unbidden.