John Keats: Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Dressing

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John Keats - Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Cream

Although many of John Keats’ most famous poems—Hyperion, Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes—include descriptions of lavish meals and crave-worthy feasts, the man who penned them is better known for eating nothing at all. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at 24, Keats was prescribed a meager diet of bread, milk and anchovies; “the chief part of his disease,” his doctor wrote, “seems seated in his stomach.”

It was an especially grim sentence for a man who, only two years before, had an appetite that might kindly described as healthy, verging on hedonistic. “I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me,” Keats wrote in a letter from 1818, before he had taken ill. “I take a whole string of Pork sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s gingers.” Roast beef was a particular favorite; he once praised a dinner host for “carv[ing] some beef exactly to suit my appetite, as if I had been measured for it.”

Keats’ letters preserve his contributions to literary history, but they also contain a surprising moment in culinary history: one of the first mentions of a roast beef sandwich in print. On a walking tour of the U.K. in 1818, Keats worked up such a hunger that he fantasized about food. “[I] long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfry … and give me—a dozen or two capital roast-beef Sandwiches,” he wrote—perhaps the only Romantic poet to privilege lunch over lust.

While the first appearance of sandwiches in print dates back to 1762, they were often made with ham; it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that roast beef sandwiches were popular enough to be referenced by cookbooks. By the turn of the century, the dish had firmly established its place in the lunchtime pantheon; Keats’ fantasy meal was well ahead of its time.

By the end of his life, however, roast beef was be exactly that: a fantasy. “The distended stomach keeps him in perpetual hunger or craving,” observed Keats’ Joseph Severn, who was tasked with monitoring the poet’s food intake. Severn himself was not so deprived. Imagine Keats’ agony if he could hear what his friend was eating just steps away: “I have 1st dish macarona [macaroni] … made of Flour with butter &c—very good—my 2nd dish is fish—and then comes Roast Beef or Mutton … every good thing—and very well cooked.”

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Pearl S. Buck: Brown Bean Shrimp with Garlic Green Beans

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Pearl S. Buck: Stir-Fried Shrimp and Garlic Green Beans

There’s an old familiar standard by which so many of our meals are measured: Is it as good as mom used to make? We tend to praise dishes that conjure up where we’ve come from—but what about the ones that take us where we’ve never been? If we don’t have any immediate plans to go floating down the Mekong or tooling around in Tuscany, food can be our quickest ticket: a sensory trip through another culture without the jet lag (or constantly needing to disturb the person in the aisle seat when you need to pee).

All this might help explain why my nervousness when I heard about Pearl S. Buck’s Oriental Cookbook: A Rich and Variety Collection of the Best Dishes from All of Asia. As a friend said when I showed her the cover: “I am going to guess this book is a masterpiece of political incorrectness.” Not really a trip she wanted to take.

Awkward “O word” aside (it was less outré in 1974 than it is now), a book summarizing an entire continent’s cuisine in 300 pages seemed destined to be a cursory summary at best, uncomfortable generalization at worst. On the first page, though, Buck addressed my fears head-on. “It would take many books to describe Asian cookery,” she begins. “Nothing could be more different … than China and Japan, geographically and demographically, or in their cuisines.”

The daughter of American missionaries, Buck was five months old when she arrived in Huai’an, in Eastern China. She grew up preferring local food to the stuff her parents made; she’d secretly eat with the servants before joining her family for dinner, too full to dig into her second meal. Through her travels—first with her family, later with her husband—she came to discover the regional specialties that would become some of her all-time favorite dishes, including deep-fried Szechuan duck and Shanghai-style fried noodles.

When The Good Earth was published in 1931, Buck’s novel became America’s default portrait of Chinese culture; the best-selling book in the U.S. two years in a row, it won the Nobel Prize for “rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life.” But her cookbook transports readers in an even more immersive way: through their kitchens.

Before you can explore a new place, of course, you have to get to know the layout; Buck continues her role of culinary ambassador through her instructions to American cooks, which range from chopstick etiquette (“They are not at all difficult to use after one has had a little practice.”) to the “seven items essential to housekeeping” (oil, fuel, soy sauce, vinegar, rice, salt and tea … although MSG also makes her shortlist). Can’t find MSG at your local grocer? There’s a handy mail-order guide in the back of the book.

But beyond these small adjustments, Buck comforts her readers that “the Western kitchen is more than adequately adapted to the preparation of Chinese meals.” Although her novels present a culture half a world away, her cookbook suggests that it’s closer than we might think. There will be different tastes, and new techniques, but soon those surprising dishes will become familiar, and even comforting—just like those ones mom used to make.

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J.R.R. Tolkien: Marinated Mushroom Salad with Spiced Yogurt

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JRR Tolkein: Marinated mushrooms salad with spiced yogurt

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to accept the incomplete. I’m usually soothed by the neatness of finality, of closure; I like dotted i’s, rounded edges, the calm you get from Inbox Zero. That tidiness inevitably extends to my reading life: I’ve only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts. One of those deserted books was The Hobbit. 

My resistance to Tolkien, I always believed, came from a general disdain for fantasy. Tolkien spent years creating his fictional universe: the phonology of Elvish, the cosmology of Middle Earth, foods that can fill you up with just one bite (a recipe that others have now spend their own years trying to recreate). Why take ages creating new worlds, I thought, when we have a perfectly good one to explore right here?

But while much of the food and drink in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has magical properties, the hobbits themselves subsist on a more down-to-earth diet—literally. Frodo is particularly fond of mushrooms, stealing them from his neighbors’ yards (a practice I wouldn’t advise unless you, like Bilbo, have 111 years of mushroom-picking experience to fall back on). “There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, beside much other solid farmhouse fare,” Tolkien writes; you’d probably see a similar menu at your local gastropub.

You might think that someone who dreamed up a “vitality drink” that cures all pain might want to experiment with it himself, or at least go for some fancy tasting menus. Yet, Tolkien’s eating habits were much closer to Frodo’s stolen produce than the magical cuisine of the Elves. “I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size,” he wrote in a letter. “I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).” Years later, the Brooklyn Tolkien Society would plan their menus around fresh mushrooms, in solidarity with both hobbits and their creator.

Mushrooms are seemingly the most modest of foods, growing nestled close to the earth, humble hobbit fare. But they’re also inherently magical: shape-shifters that absorb the flavors of whatever is cooked with them—or give you a nightmare or two, depending which ones you grab. Fantasy is similarly ambiguous, intentionally making it difficult for us to tell what is and what is not. So perhaps this is the year to finally sit down, reopen The Hobbit, and embrace its magic, in all its messiness.

Marinated mushroom salad with spiced yogurt recipe

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Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding

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Edith Wharton Christmas Pudding Recipe

Holiday parties usually follow a traditional recipe:

  1. Take several people who know each other either a little too well (friend parties with potential romantic prospects) or not well enough (anything work related).
  2. Add copious alcohol, perhaps with a brief food afterthought—a few Christmas cookies or maybe a random ham if you’re being fancy about it.
  3. Mix well.

The result is frequently uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. The solution, as Edith Wharton deduced, is simply putting food first.

Wharton “liked rich and choice food and a good deal of it”; her favorite dishes included mock turtle soup, roast chicken, strawberries and cream, and lobster any which way. Dinner parties at the Mount, her estate from 1902 til her move to Europe in 1911, were lavish affairs, requiring a staff of 10 to prepare the elaborate menus.

The same servants were also charged with keeping Wharton’s guests fed throughout the day, including picnics on the grounds and snacks around the clock. “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” Henry James wrote to a friend about his stay at the house, adding that as a hostess Wharton was “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”

At holiday time, though, Wharton took it to the next level, food-wise. A few recipes of her household recipes are preserved in Yale’s Beinecke library, including one for “Mrs. Wharton’s Christmas Pudding,” a dish that George Orwell later called “extremely rich, elaborate and expensive.” Maybe the most vocal author advocate of puddings in general, Orwell published his own pudding recipe; Wharton’s version, from across the pond, is very similar—in fact, nearly identical—except for her addition of glace cherries, a special touch for her high society friends.

Picking that perfect group of friends, of course, is the other necessary ingredient for a successful holiday party, another thing Wharton knew well. Her frequent guest Vivienne de Watteville noted that food at the Mount was only rivaled by the stimulating company: “Dinner was a poem to which brains and palate equally combined to bring a fitting appreciation.” Wharton was more blunt about how she settled on a guest list; when asked why her table only sat eight, she retorted, “Because there aren’t more than eight people in New York I care to dine with.”

Edith Wharton's Christmas Pudding Recipe

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The Cocktail Hour: Evelyn Waugh

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Evelyn Waugh Stinger Cocktail recipe

Note: Read on for the winner of the Laurie Colwin Home Cooking giveaway.

A strong cocktail is a popular cure for a variety of troubles, both physical and more … situational. Have a cold? Try a hot toddy. Feeling anxious or restless? A nip of bourbon will fix that right up. Spending the holiday season with your significant other’s extended family? I suggest a giant eggnog, double the brandy.

Of course, these treatments aren’t officially doctor-sanctioned (Disclaimer: Please don’t use this post as your personal WedMD). In the early 1900s, if you suffered from nerves or insomnia, they’d instead prescribe you a mixture of bromide and chloral, sedatives that also helped relieve pesky aches and pains. But what if you were really nervous or particularly achy? In Evelyn Waugh’s case, you’d just combine the two methods and see what sticks: the drinks or the drugs.

Waugh was a devotee of the cocktail cure for a number of life’s ills. “You must not think I am leading a dissolute life quite the reverse except for being drunk a lot” he wrote to his friend, the London socialite Diana Cooper. He soon became associated with several drinks that appeared frequently in his fiction as well as on his bar tabs, among them the Noonday Reviver (Guinness, ginger beer, gin), the Brandy Alexander (brandy, crème de cacao, cream). But the one drink he designated his “signature” was the Stinger: one part brandy, one part crème de menthe.

Although the cocktail combination was a favorite of many writers, including Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming, Waugh took it a step further, using crème de menthe as a mixer whenever the opportunity presented itself—and sometimes when it shouldn’t. When doctors suggested he try the bromide cure, Waugh prepared the drugs just like a Stinger, shaken up with a liberal helping of crème de menthe.

The result? A night of hallucinations that haunted Waugh for years, and inspired a similar episode in the novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Cooper, in one of her letters back to Waugh, recalled with horror “whatever that dread concoction was you did not know you were Wrong til madness claimed you.” She warned him against the “the drink-drug-escape addiction” that would continue for the rest of his career. Only someone with a Stinger on the brain could describe an unpleasant train ride as “exactly like being inside a cocktail shaker”?

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Laurie Colwin: Cornbread and Prosciutto Stuffing (and Giveaway)

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Laurie Colwin: Prosciutto and Cornbread Stuffing

Let’s play a drinking game: Find a restaurant or cookbook review and take a shot every time these words come up: delicious, exquisite, velvety (for soups), pillowy (for gnocchi), complex, simple, seasonal. Drunk yet? Certain food words and phrases get more than their fair share of column space—so much so that, despite being guilty many times over, I still cringe when another squash soup is described as “autumn in a bowl.”

That’s why, although I’m usually focused on food in fiction (and the authors who ate it), I have a special respect for those writers who make food their lifelong subject. It’s easy to polish the perfect dinner party scene in a novel when there’s only one to write. But describing dish after dish, new “modern American small plates restaurant” after restaurant, and turning each into its own reason for being? That’s what separates the laymen from the legends. For many, that legend is M.F.K Fischer. For me, it’s Laurie Colwin.

A fiction writer herself (of both short stories and novels), Colwin’s essays on food for Gourmet are what gained her celeb status—and a passionately devoted readership. After her early death at 48, the magazine received hundreds of letters expressing their grief. When she took over as editor, Ruth Reichl remembered, “Every writer that came in said that he or she wanted to be the next Laurie Colwin.”

Colwin’s one-liners made her the Dorothy Parker of food (“Grilling is like sunbathing. Everyone knows it is bad for you but no one ever stops doing it.”) She would never call a soup velvety; instead, she’d describe the desultory chive sitting in it. But more than her wit, readers loved Laurie for ‘fessing up to all our guiltiest kitchen thoughts, without fear or shame. After throwing dozens of dinner parties in her tiny Manhattan apartment, she’d been there: from cooking five courses on a hot pot to secretly wishing your dinner guests shut up and just ate meat already. Every unglamorous food frustration you’ve had? Laurie understood.

Home Cooking, a collection of Colwin’s essays, was released in digital form for the first time this month and I’ve been revisiting them as preparation for the kind of big dinner that always comes this time of year. (Spoiler: I have a copy to give away!) As with any contemporary book of food essays, there are recipes, and they’re simple, seasonal and (yes, I’m saying it) delicious.

But it’s the moral support, the tableside pep talk, that makes it a kitchen essential. “No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present.” Colwin is one of those kitchen guardian angels, peering over your shoulder when your sauce splits or your soufflé falls flat, telling you not to worry—and gently reminding you that, in a pinch, there’s always takeout.Laurie Colwin: Cornbread Prosciutto Stuffing Recipecolwin5 colwin3

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

Pity the forgotten siblings of famous writers. Doris Salinger? Forgotten. Ursula Hemingway? Blank stares. Imagine constantly being introduced as “the writer’s brother” and tell me you don’t feel for the Ursulas and Dorises of the world, the little-known brothers and sisters that history forgot.

But in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s family, that sibling situation was reversed: It was Harriet who was known, for the first half of her life, as “the cook’s sister.” Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the advent of the Civil War, Catharine Beecher was the big name in the family—thanks, in part, to her expertise in the kitchen. At 16, after her mother died of tuberculosis, Catharine became the lady of the house and took on the task of preparing meals for her siblings, including Harriet, more than 10 years her junior.

It was Catharine, not Harriet, who became the family’s first famous female writer. A decade before the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in print, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Booka collection of Catharine’s recipes and kitchen advice, was one of the best-selling cookbooks of the century. A vocal advocate for universal education, Catharine cofounded her own school for women (Harriet included), which taught subjects both academic (math, Latin) and domestic (cooking, baking).

Catharine’s concoctions were among Harriet’s favorite dishes: After watching her sister make her signature peanut brittle, Harriet would include the process in her books. “Mother would put on a couple of quarts of molasses to boil in the afternoon … the whole dark, smooth, ropy liquid was poured out from the kettle into a well-greased platter, and set out in a snow-bank to cool.”

But Catharine’s writing was also influenced by Harriet and her abolitionist views. Although her popular brittle recipe was officially titled “molasses candy,” Catharine advised against using the traditional cane sugar, a product of plantations’ slave labor. Instead she claims that, for true candy aficionados, Northern-made “maple is best.”

It looked as though Catharine was destined to be the sibling that history would remember—until her little sister wrote the book that would push the country to war. Now her contribution to writing—and cooking—has largely been forgotten. After all, the only conflict it provoked was at the dinner table, arguing over that last piece of candy.

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Maple popcorn peanut brittle recipe

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Victor Hugo: Venison with Balsamic Blackberry Glaze

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Victor Hugo: Venison with Blackberry Balsamic Tarragon Glaze

Whether you’re reading a Russian classic or a Great American Novel, Big Books tend to make big demands: on your time, your concentration, your upper arm strength. Just cracking one open can seem daunting … until you imagine writing one. Reading Les Misérables might take me a few months. It took Victor Hugo 17 years to write the Big Book that became his most enduring work, one that was fueled by a seriously Big Appetite.

“The world and his waistcoat are not wide enough to contain the glory of Victor Hugo—or his corpulence,” Théophile Gautier joked, after his friend had become a national literary star. It’s hard to tell what about the author attracted more attention: his body of work or his bodily girth. Visitors to the Hugo family table remarked on the multiple cups of hot cocoa in the morning, the “enormous pieces of roast meat” in the evening. Most everything in the Hugo household was large, including Hugo himself.

Not only was Hugo’s hunger unstoppable, it was also indiscriminate. Anything that could be eaten whole, would be—even lobsters in the shell. (Why waste a perfectly good shell?). Even orange peels went down the hatch. A fellow author remembered, “At the end of the meal he dipped orange quarters into his wine and ate them with marked satisfaction. Everything about Victor Hugo was extraordinary, even his digestion.”

The problem with a ravenous appetite, though, is what happens when there’s nothing left to feed it. Hugo was famously forced to slim down during the 1870 Siege of Paris, when the Prussian army blockaded the capital and waited for the city’s residents to slowly starve. But Parisians never say die, especially where cuisine is concerned. Throughout the siege, restaurant menus still touted delicacies like begonias au jus and rat salami with sauce Robert.

With his taste for excess, Hugo took the restrictions particularly poorly. “Decidedly horse is not good for me,” he wrote, not that it stopped him (“I ate some”). Yet, while he sampled rat and other reject proteins most Parisians called dinner, his fame gave him special access to choicer meats. When the city zoo began to sacrifice its animals to the cause, Hugo’s kitchen got first dibs. “Yesterday we ate some stag; the day before we partook of bear; and the two days previous we fared on antelopes,” he wrote. Hemingway may have hunted elephant, but Hugo ate it first.

Venison with blackberry balsamic glaze

Recipe: Venison with blackberry tarragon glaze

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Lewis Carroll: Rosemary Olive Oil Crackers with Sea Salt

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Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

When you spend a lot of time talking about food, your friends begin to think you know something they don’t. That’s when the recommendation requests start coming in: for restaurants; recipes; the best thing to bring to a picnic, housewarming, boss’ birthday. This should be fun—flattering, even. But I must have read too much Lewis Carroll as a kid, because instead I feel myself becoming the Red Queen, my culinary commands spoiling someone else’s good time:

‘I know what you’d like!’ the Queen said good-naturedly, taking a little box out of her pocket. ‘Have a biscuit?’
Alice thought it would not be civil to say ‘No,’ though it wasn’t at all what she wanted. So she took it, and ate it as well as she could: and it was very dry; and she thought she had never been so nearly choked in all her life.

Reading Through the Looking Glass for the first time, I saw the Red Queen as everything I disliked about adults: brash, pushy, imposing her will on people less powerful than herself (Every teenage invocation to “Stop telling me what to do, Mom!” was directed partially at her.) As her creator, you’d think Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, if we’re calling him by his real name) would have seen her as a warning. But instead, he was more like her than he’d probably care to admit.

For one, he was also really into biscuits. They formed the core of his diet; after a 9 a.m. breakfast, Dodgson would subsist almost entirely on them for the rest of the day, occasionally pairing them with a nip of sherry. Even when visitors asked him over for a meal, “he assured [them] that he never took anything in the middle of the day but a glass of wine and a biscuit.” He’d often bring his own wine too.

But, taste for biscuits aside, Dodgson also shared the Queen’s worst habit. He believed he knew best, especially where food was concerned. (Besides his Spartan diet, he was also a convert of “Whiteley exercisers,” a 19th-century training regimen bizarrely akin to today’s TRX.) In a classic Red Queen move, he imposed his habits on the children he cared for. According to his nephew, “When he took a certain one of them out with him to a friend’s house to dinner, he used to give the host or hostess a gentle warning, to the mixed amazement and indignation of the child, ‘Please be careful, because she eats a good deal too much.'”

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crackers Recipe

Rosemary Sea Salt Cracker Recipe

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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.

Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipeSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg Recipe

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