Ezra Pound: Spaghetti with Pancetta, Sage and Fried Egg

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Exra Pound: Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg

Has it really been over a year since I’ve posted a pasta recipe? It seems impossible to believe since, for the first three-quarters of my life, dinner was always a delicious mess of noodles, covered with enough sauce and parmesan to make any Italian blush. Besides satisfying all my cravings (carbs, cheese, twirling things on a fork), spaghetti was also economical, making it my go-to dinner party dish in college. Dress it up with some fancy cured meats and call me the poor man’s Lidia Bastianich (emphasis on poor).

But that was only a blip in pasta’s long history of feeding starving scholars—including, at the turn of the 20th century, London’s literary elite. When Ezra Pound arrived in 1908, he fell in with a group of writers whose weekly meetings in Soho Square involved as much spaghetti as books. Organized by the poet T.E. Hulme at a local restaurant, the salon was so known for its pasta-and-wine menu that the poet Louis Zukofsky, working on an analysis of the Cantos for the literary crowd, told Pound, “This should make matters simpler for the spaghetti eaters.”

Pasta became art, and art became pasta. In his 1918 collection Pavannes and DivisionsPound criticized a sculpture called Figure Representing Aspiration with a reference to his diet. “I never saw aspiration looking like that,” he wrote. “But I have seen spaghetti piled on a plate and the form was decidedly similar. A great deal of ‘representational’ sculpture is, in form, not unlike plates of spaghetti.” He would know.

When Pound moved to Italy, the Soho habits stuck—both the spaghetti and the wine. He commiserated with his writer-friends back the States, who were suffering under the yolk of Prohibition.”I go for days, at times even weeks (not probably very plural) without likker,” he wrote to H.L. Mencken in 1928, “but shd. hate to feel I had to square the cop or the local J.P. every time I wanted to … have a little rosso with my spaghetti.”

Of course, Pound’s Italian fascism is more well-known than his Italian diet. But even after he was arrested for treason and shipped back to the U.S., his meals weren’t much different from his London salon days. “We always have pasta & some Green pea army soup in the house,” he wrote to his wife. Cheap, or literary? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie

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Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie

When we moved to San Francisco this spring, I had a few specific apartment-hunting criteria: good location, outdoor access, gas stove. My boyfriend had only one: a dishwasher. We never had one before, partly because finding a dishwasher is the holy grail of Manhattan apartments, but also because I also insisted they were unnecessary. Doing dishes by hand had a lot of benefits: We never ran out of wine glasses, for one (What? They get used up fast!). More importantly, it meant I never had to face the dreaded chore of my childhood: emptying the dishwasher.

Everyone has that one chore they can’t abide; for Edna St. Vincent Millay, it was berry-picking. Divorced and in debt, Cora Millay shuttled her three daughters between homes of friends and family. To earn their keep, she assigned each of the girls jobs around the house, and posted a weekly schedule of everyone’s tasks on the wall. Though there was no dishwasher to empty, Edna’s list was also kitchen-centric: “cook daily, bake several times weekly, wash clothing for herself and her sisters.”

“Cooking” often involved berry-picking, especially while the girls were staying on their Uncle Fred’s farm in Maine. The acres of blueberry fields were both an ideal place to play and a place to forage. Edna was tasked with picking buckets of them for dinner, often just berries and milk. “The blueberries came in the most perfect condition, not one crushed,” Millay recalled much later, when she had achieved literary success—and bought a 635-acre blueberry farm of her own.

Millay’s farm, Steepletop, must have reminded her of Uncle Fred’s, but now that she was in charge, those chore schedules were history. Her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, took care of nearly all the domestic duties—Edna “neither cooked nor shopped nor did housework … When Millay became tired after entertaining a houseful of guests at Steepletop, Boissevain simply picked her up and carried her to bed as if she were a child.” Sounds way more appealing than cleaning up after guests, even with a dishwasher.

But every now and then, Millay would head out to her vegetable garden, or pick a bucket of berries in the fields of the estate. She included some of the Maine specialties she once cooked among her favorite foods: “broiled or boiled Maine lobsters with melted fresh country butter, haddock chowder … and deep dish blueberry pie.” Looking back, childhood, even with the chores, didn’t seem that bad. Writing to a lover, Millay said, “I want to show you the tiny pool we built … & the hut in the blueberry pasture where I wrote The King’s Henchman, I want to sit on the edge of the bed while you have your breakfast—I want to laugh with you, dress up in curtains, by incredibly silly, be incredibly happy, be like children.”

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Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

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Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Every day begins with breakfast, and every breakfast begins with a profound dilemma: Sweet or savory? For the reliably indecisive (myself included), reading a brunch menu is like watching two heavyweights sweat it out in the ring. Pancakes vs. omelets. French toast vs. hash browns. Doughnuts vs. bacon. Our brains weren’t equipped to handle decisions of this magnitude before noon.

Leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to figure out the two optimal solutions to this problem. One: Never get up before noon. Two: Order everything on the menu.

“Breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess,” Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt . He goes on to list his preferred meal: “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

Thompson’s penchant for excess was legendary—but how much of the legend was of his own making? Few question his extravagance where alcohol was concerned; those who partied with him recall downing round after round of his signature Biffs (a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Irish whisky). But according to Thompson’s friends and family, his wild breakfast adventure was largely exaggerated. Instead, he usually ate like the rest of us: one dish at a time.

“He had some very specific ideas about what breakfast should be, and there were maybe four different ones that he liked,” Thompson’s wife Sandy said. “One was a Spanish omelet with bacon. One was mayonnaise and peanut butter on top of toast with bacon on the top. There was some sort of a spinach thing. There was huevos rancheros.” Thompson himself reported a more moderate approach to breakfast elsewhere in The Great Shark Hunt, saying, “I was on the verge of ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but … I settled for grapefruit and coffee.” Other friends also remember his grapefruit addiction, but more often it was paired with “six Heinekens and a bottle of gin” instead of the coffee.

Thompson may have misreported his breakfast menu, but he was accurate about his favorite time to eat it: as late as possible. Juan, his son, remembered, “He’d be eating bacon and eggs and reading the paper, and I’d be finishing my dinner or doing my homework before bed. My friends at school thought that was funny.” They might not have thought so if they had run into Thompson enjoying his meal the way he preferred: “in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”

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The Cocktail Hour: Raymond Carver

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Raymond Carver: Bloody Mary

It’s been well established that writing and drinking go together, but not all pairings are as elegant as Oscar Wilde and champagne or as cosmopolitan as E.B. White and his martinis. Some concoctions are born less out of delectability than out of necessity: specifically, a need to get epically sloshed, then somehow wake up the next day ready (or at least able) to work. Raymond Carver was an expert in both.

“I know you like to drink, and I like to drink, but I never met a guy who likes to drink like Ray likes to drink,” Carver’s peers would gossip among themselves. Getting drunk didn’t require any glamorous cocktails for Carver; a fifth of vodka in the morning and a fifth in the afternoon was what he preferred to do the job.

He was known for out-boozing even his fellow writers—no strangers to the bottle—including John Cheever, a colleague at the University of Iowa. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver wrote. “I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” Their students became the responsible ones, cooking dinner for the duo to ensure they got down a few bites of solid food.

But although they shared a fondness for late-night partying, the two friends differed on their approach to another writerly affliction: the hangover. Cheever preferred to nurse his with a deliciously greasy sandwich, but Carver took a “hair of the dog” approach. “Most mornings, Ray woke everyone by calling out ‘Hot doughnuts! Steaming hot cups of coffee!'” his biographer claims. “But when they got to the kitchen, ‘heart starter’ Bloody Marys were the main offering.” In other words, Bloody Marys aren’t just a typical Carver drink; they are a full Carver meal—with just enough nutritional value to qualify as breakfast.

Bloody Marys also played a role in one of the biggest moments in Carver’s career. When the publisher of McGraw-Hill called to invite him to lunch, Carver wasn’t in the most … professional of mindsets: “I was drunk and hungover both,” he wrote. But he made it on time and downed two Bloodys before learning the news: McGraw was offering him his first advance, for a novel he hadn’t even written yet. He immediately celebrated with an ideal Carver lunch: a double vodka on the rocks, a couple of cocktail shrimp on the side.

Raymond Carver bloody mary recipe

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Kurt Vonnegut: Spiked Three Musketeers Bars

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Kurt Vonnegut: Spiked Three Musketeers Bars

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a candy bar is just a candy bar. But a good one often takes on greater meaning: as a motivator, a mood-changer and, in my kindergarten class, a valuable form of currency. Trading candy at lunch seemed to determine the whole school’s social hierarchy—and nothing commanded a higher price than a Three Musketeers. Something about that weirdly aerated filling and the sweet-on-sweet combination of chocolate and nougat made our sugar-driven hearts race and sent the bids soaring.

But for Kurt Vonnegut, a world away from the playground, candy bars became something even more valuable: a reminder of home, when it never seemed further away. Part of the Allied invasion of France during WWII, Vonnegut’s regiment was captured by German forces. For six months, he and his fellow soldiers dreamed about their lives before the war—and the food they would eat if they ever returned.

Thanksgiving turkey was the most popular topic of culinary conversation among the other men, but Vonnegut had a different focus. “[He] obsessed about candy bars,” his biographer Carl Shields wrote in And So It Goes. “He swore he was going to eat every kind ever made when he got home—Almond Joy, Milky Way, PayDay, Hershey’s, Clark Bar—and loved to talk about what it would be like with his mouth stuffed.”

Three Musketeers, however, would take a special place in Vonnegut’s memories, and his fiction. In Slaughterhouse Five, the novel most directly inspired by his time as a prisoner of war, the candy bar pops up by name several times. And the name he gives his trio of central characters? The Three Musketeers.

Even years later, Vonnegut’s childlike devotion to sweets persisted; instead of offering visitors coffee, the default drink of writers everywhere, he’d suggest hot chocolate. And although he paired his nightly meals with two more adult pursuits—a glass of Scotch and water, jazz—his preferred recipes were equally simple, favorites of the kindergarten set that would have been a hot commodity on my childhood playground. His daughter, Edie, remembers the day he asked her for a recipe he particularly liked, “the one where the cheese melts.” It was grilled cheese.

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Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

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Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

Whenever I’m asked what famous writer I would invite to a dinner party, the easy answer is Mark Twain. I always imagined someone who could toss out one-liners like “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” could be counted on to liven things up when conversation wound down. The thing is, there’s no evidence Twain said that famous line. What he actually wrote about his adopted city was far more generic—suggesting he may have been as prone to small talk as the rest of us after all.

“I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union,” Twain remarked blandly after heading west and settling in San Francisco in 1864. A year later, he became nationally famous—one of the many fortune-seekers to find their future in California. 

I thought of Twain last week, as I prepared to make the same cross-country move, packing up my New York life to return to the coast where I grew up. Over the last five years, Manhattan became my own adopted city, and  with barely a week to say my goodbyes, I sought out the things it does best: tingling dan dan noodles at Lan Sheng, bagels loaded with whitefish at Russ and Daughters, the perfect pizza slice at Di Fara.

Which coast has the best oysters, though, is still up for debate, 100 years after Twain posed the question. A seafood connoisseur, he was a regular at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, taking his typical breakfast of salmon and fried oysters. He’d return for dinner at 7:30 p.m., when, he wrote, “if you refuse to move upon the supper works and destroy oysters done up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock, the landlord will certainly be offended.” Twain’s relationship with the landlord, it should be noted, was excellent.

But Twain didn’t discriminate against Eastern oysters; he was an equal-opportunity eater. After spending two years in Europe, Twain drafted a menu of all the U.S. dishes he missed—over 75 of them. A whole section was devoted to shellfish, in preparations from around the country: “Fried oysters; stewed oysters. … Blue points, on the half shell. Cherry-stone clams. San Francisco mussels, steamed. Oyster soup. Clam Soup. Philadelphia Terapin soup. Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.”

Twain returned to his home country through the food he ate there, and after a week away, I’m finding myself doing the same: jotting down smoked fish recipes and eyeing pizza stones, wondering if cooking up a taste of the past will be cheaper and easier than buying a plane ticket. Over the last five years, I fell in love with a most cordial and sociable city. Now I’m inviting Mark Twain to dinner, hoping he’ll help me do it again.

Oysters Rockefeller Recipe twain3

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E. L. Konigsburg: Cranberry Cinnamon Noodle Kugel

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E.L. Konigsburg: Noodle Kugel

When you’re 12, no one understands you like a book. When I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for the first time, in the summer before middle school, I was amazed to find a character who not only got me, she was me: oldest child, only girl, and routinely “subject to a lot of injustice.” Reading about Claudia Kinkaid was a brush with the familiar in an entirely unexpected place—a 30-year-old paperback, written by a woman old enough to be my grandmother (speaking of people who definitely didn’t get me).

When I learned of E.L. Konigsburg’s death, a year ago this month, I returned to my bookshelf to visit Claudia, re-reading the scenes I loved 15 years ago: ducking in the bathroom stalls, bathing in the fountain, ordering the mac and cheese at the automat. When Claudia meets the mysterious and well-off Mrs. Frankweiler, she’s dismayed that the menu is so familiar, so pedestrian. “Why it’s nothing but macaroni and cheese.” “You see,” Mrs. Frankweiler responds, “under the fancy trappings I’m just a plain lady.”

While my 12-year-old self might have sided with Claudia’s culinary snobbery, Konigsburg in the kitchen was more of a Frankweiler, relishing in the comfort of the familiar despite her fame. A regular patron of New York’s automats, she also would invite friends to grab a late-night meal at Denny’s; her editor Ginee Seo remembered her getting all dolled up just to slide into one of their faux leather booths. When cooking at home, she took a cue from her title character, with her favorite recipe for special occasions: lokchen kugel, a sweet version of Claudia’s savory mac and cheese.

Everyone’s family recipe for kugel is the best one; it’s the type of dish that always has a secret, and a story to tell. Some swear by topping the noodles with cherry pie filling before baking, or sneaking chocolate chips into the batter. Konigsburg’s version (as published in the fascinating collection Write Out of the Oven) calls for a can of pineapple—the kind of throwback recipe that recalls the days when automats flourished in Manhattan, and the ten pennies you pulled from a fountain could buy you your next meal.

Noodle Kugel Recipe

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Unlike my first encounter with Claudia, Konigsburg’s recipe didn’t elicit any nods of recognition from me; I had barely heard of kugel, much less tasted it, and immediately had so many questions. Is it a dessert? Is it a side? Why is it sweet? The combination of noodles, sugar, pineapple and cheese didn’t ring any bells (except maybe alarm bells)? But for the many families who grew up with a variation of the dish, kugel is a staple: a regular feature of holiday dinners, Shabbat meals, and (when made with with potatoes or matzah) a Passover must-have.

Having no family recipe to draw from, I decided to start my own tradition, using Konigsburg’s recipe as the foundation but substituting mascarpone for the sour cream and cranberries for the pineapple. As I mixed the cheeses together, I recalled a dish my mother used to make: a mass of noodles, tomato sauce and cheese thrown together, in a lazy approximation of lasagna’s neat layers. It was a mess—the kind of dish that might get some sideways glances at a potluck—but at our table, no one blinked. Instead, we had seconds. Books might help us discover ourselves in unusual places but when it comes to food, nobody gets you like your family.

(Adapted from Write Out of the Oven)

8 ounces flat egg noodles
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup mascarpone
1 pound cottage cheese
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup dried cranberries
2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. add noodles, reduce heat to a simmer, and let cook 5 to 7 minutes, until just al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, stir together butter, mascarpone, cottage cheese, eggs, sugar, and cranberries. Add noodles and toss to coat. Pour mixture into 9×13 baking dish.

3. In a small bowl, mix oats, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Sprinkle over the noodle mixture and bake 1 hour, or until kugel has set and edges are golden. Let stand 10 minutes, then serve.

Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

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Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

Whenever I’m trying to remember something important—a due date, a birthday, the name of a friend’s new baby (oops!)—I’m always amazed by the random information my brain has quietly absorbed instead, without my knowledge. Most, to my chagrin, is completely useless: ’90s song lyrics, all the presidents in order, the name of the cat from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. But also, without knowing how or when it happened, I unexpectedly learned to cook.

Between all the poetry, philosophy, and cultural theories, Friedrich Nietzsche’s brain wouldn’t seem to have much space for cooking skills either. Food in general often gave him more trouble than pleasure. Suffering from digestion problems, he hopped around Europe, from the French Riviera to the Italian coast, hoping the climate would restore his health. He avoided restaurants, where, he complained, “one is made accustomed to ‘overfeeding'; that is why I no longer like to eat in them.”

Yet, over the years, Nietzsche absorbed a love of cooking by learning the same way I did: through those around him. In Genoa, his landlady taught him to fry artichokes and whisk eggs for torta di carciofi, the local specialty. In Sorrento, in a villa surrounded by lemon trees, his housemaid showed him her secret to a perfect risotto, lovingly ladling out the stock as she stirred. Studying the techniques of his Italian housekeepers, Nietzsche was eager to become a teacher himself. He wrote to his mother: “I shall teach you later how to cook risotto—I know now.”

Nietzsche would later revise his opinion of restaurants, becoming a regular at several neighborhood trattorias, but he always reserved special praise for those dishes he learned himself; game recognize game. In a letter from Turin, he detailed his regular order: “minestra or risotto, a good portion of meat, vegetable and bread—all good … I eat here with the serenest disposition of soul and stomach.”

For most of us, cooking doesn’t happen intentionally; we don’t crack open a book to “Chapter 1: Let’s Talk About Knife Skills.” Instead, the path to the kitchen unwinds slowly, over a lifetime: “helping” sift the flour for a batch of cookie dough, learning to cut an onion without catching your fingers, trying to perfect the swirl on top of a meringue pie. It’s hard to remember each step we took. Instead it’s the guides we remember—be it a mother, grandmother, father or kindly landlady—for leading us along the way.

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Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint recipe

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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifles

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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Pudding Cake with Roasted Pears

Although it’s conspicuously absent from biology classes and science textbooks, I’m convinced that certain humans (myself included) have developed a rare but necessary extension of the digestive system: the “dessert stomach.” How else to explain our ability to be simultaneously completely full of dinner, but so ready for the final course? Friends with actual medical training tell me it’s all psychological, but I’m going with the two-stomach theory.

After all, the evidence goes back hundreds of years, to the New England table of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When you look at the dinner party guest lists now, they read like a survey of American literature—Emerson, Thoreau and a young Louisa May Alcott might be spotted, digging in—but the food was just as important as the company. “Should we be the more ethereal, if we did not eat?” he wondered in a letter. “I have a most human and earthly appetite.”

Even after those elaborate meals, though, Hawthorne could always find a little extra room when the main courses were cleared. Writing to his son after a particularly overwhelming feast, he admitted, “I had hardly any appetite left.” Nevertheless, “I did manage to eat some currant pudding, and a Banbury cake, and a Victoria cake, and a slice of beautiful Spanish musk-melon, and some plums.” If Hawthorne came to your Thanksgiving, he’d be the guy “testing” every kind of pie on offer (and don’t forget the ice cream).

Fruit was a frequent after-dinner treat, and Hawthorne doted on the orchards on his land (“What is a garden without its currant-bushes and fruit-trees?” he wrote). But, as anyone with a dessert stomach can attest, fruit alone isn’t nearly enough. After his daily walk through the grounds, Hawthorne would eat “a pint bowl of thick chocolate (not cocoa, but the old-fashioned chocolate) crumbed full of bread.” When fruit was in season, he’d add it to the mix—a stealth move to combine two desserts in one.

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Ray Bradbury: Pappa al Pomodoro

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Ray Bradbury: Pappa al Pomodoro

In 1946, two 20-somethings met in a bookstore: he, an aspiring writer; she, the bookseller who sold him a copy of Best American Short Stories. “He carried a briefcase and wore a trenchcoat on a clear day, so I was immediately suspicious,” she recalled. Instead of stealing paperbacks, he invited her to lunch. But when Ray Bradbury married Maggie McClure a year later, he had only $8 in the bank. Suddenly, stealing books didn’t seem so implausible—and any future lunches would have to be done on the cheap.

Luckily, Bradbury’s tastes had always tended toward the economical. As a kid, he followed a strict (if not exactly spartan) diet of hamburgers, egg sandwiches and tomato soup. Eventually he expanded his dietary repertoire (“How many years I wasted not trying different foods, when they were so good,” he later told his family). But his love of tomato soup endured … not least because it fit his meager budget.

In their $30-a-month apartment in Venice, California, Bradbury cooked for Maggie in classic newlywed style—cracking open a can. “I did my writing at home, cleaned the house, and usually prepared dinner for us. It was usually Campbell’s soup,” he wrote. On special occasions, he would head to Clifton’s Cafeteria, a local haunt that attracted the starving-artist crowd by insisting that no one would be turned away hungry. Bradbury quickly became a fixture at the restaurant, holding regular meetings of the Science Fiction Society or just arriving alone, slurping his soup in the corner booth while drinking bottomless glasses of complimentary limeade.

Yet, even as Bradbury’s fame and bank account grew, he remained loyal to his favorite dish, ordering cans of soup by the case. “At one time, I had planned to have my ashes put into a Campbell’s tomato soup can and then have it planted on Mars,” he told Playboy in 1996, half a century after that first fateful date with Maggie. Through years of Campbell’s and cafeterias, she was the only woman he ever dated. In love, and in lunch, Bradbury’s taste never changed.

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