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 Divisions, Pound 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.
In Italy, Pound kept his pasta preparation simple, praising a “perfectly delicious spaghetti al burro – & mark you, a great lump of butter, & cheese.” Back in the United States, he was a regular at New York’s Minetta Tavern, along with a new literary crowd that included Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas. With all the authors around, is it any wonder the restaurant also specialized in pasta?
Minetta Tavern opened in Greenwich Village in 1937, and was revived again in 2009. Although the new incarnation is a world away from the restaurant Pound would have known (complete with an infamous $26 burger), one of its signature dishes is still spaghetti: pasta za za, a take on a carbonara, with sage and a fried egg. Make it Pound’s way, with great lumps of butter and cheese, and serve it at your next literary gathering. You’ll be part of a storied tradition.
6 ounces spaghetti
2 ounces pancetta, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 garlic clove, smashed
2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves
1/4 cup parmesan
1. Prepare spaghetti according to package instructions in a pot of well-salted water. Reserve a 1/2 cup of cooking liquid, then drain pasta and return to the pot.
2. While pasta cooks, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook until crispy. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.
3. Add butter and crushed garlic clove to the skillet, scraping up any brown bits leftover from the pancetta. Cook until butter begins to turn golden, then immediately remove from heat and stir in sage leaves.
4. Remove the garlic clove, then pour butter sauce over cooked spaghetti and add enough cooking liquid to coat the pasta. Stir in parmesan and add pepper to taste.
5. In a nonstick pan, heat a drizzle of olive oil over medium heat. Crack eggs and cover the pan, leaving a crack for steam to emerge. Cook until done to your preference (for me, it’s 2 minutes for a runny yolk).
6. Top each bowl of pasta with an egg and enjoy alla Pound with a glass of red wine.