Susan Sontag: Pizza Margherita

Susan Sontag: Pizza Margherita

There’s something about summer that brings out our inner procrastinator: Temperature goes up; productivity goes down. Everyone bemoans the challenge of cooking in the heat, which is why with every July comes a parade of shortcut recipes for no-bake desserts, miscellaneous salad variations, and anything you can conceivably “toss on a grill.” But my general lethargy is not limited to the kitchen. Writing, reading, remaining conscious—it’s all just too hard to find the energy.

To urge myself into usefulness, I’ve been taking a tip from Susan Sontag: making lists. Sontag was a prodigious list-maker—though not necessarily with productivity in mind. Many of her lists are less things to do, and more how to be. They range from the mundane to the profound to the overwhelmingly meta; a list titled “things I like” includes “architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts” and, lastly, “making lists.”

In all these lists, patterns start to emerge: the comings and goings, friends and lovers, haunts and restaurants that make up a life. And for Sontag, one of the most regular of these habits was pizza-eating. In her notebooks, pizza becomes a familiar rhythm, a culinary mantra. “A + David and I go to Frank’s Pizza,” she writes in 1960. One week later: “Dinner at Frank’s (Pizza).” Every so often, she misses a beat: In Cambridge, Sontag notes: “Walked to Central Sq. and gorged myself on passable pizza at Simeone’s ($1.58).” Before long, she’s back to Frank’s.

For Sontag, who rarely cooked (her guests recall meals of canned mushroom soup, slightly warmed), going out for pizza was a preferred form of procrastination, a break from the list-making and essay-writing. Sigrid Nunez, who shared an apartment with Sontag for a year, recalls the writer emerging from her study with a fatigued air: “I can’t do this today. I’m just not in the mood. Why don’t we go out for pizza?” For me, food-as-distraction takes the form of “procrasti-baking.” Case in point: the brownies I made while writing this post.

But, just as often, food serves as the antidote to our idleness, providing the inspiration that impels us to act. It took a slice of pizza for Sontag to realize that her yearlong relationship (with playwright Maria Irene Fornes) was at an end. “It came to me last night (dinner, pizza, Frank’s) that I have lost her. Like a bulletin coming into view in Times Square.” A good meal has a funny way of making even those most difficult decisions a little clearer—and breaking up over pizza has an added benefit: When you’re mourning your loss the next morning, you can console yourself with glorious leftovers, straight from the fridge.

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Pizza Margherita recipePizza Margherita recipe

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James Joyce: Rigatoni Con Stracotto

James Joyce - Rigatoni con Stracatto

I read Ulysses in my first year of college, armed with a “European Literary Tradition” class syllabus and a book of annotations that was nearly as long as the novel itself. The details of Proteus and Stephen Dedalus didn’t stay with me in the least, but what remained was the overwhelming sense of loneliness I felt: People were always sadly eating kidneys in a pub, a kind of dual gastronomic punishment (first the solitude, then the kidneys). For a generation that’s been told we should never eat alone, Leopold Bloom’s day seems like a cautionary tale (an extremely elaborate one).

Restaurants can be a taunt to the solitary diner: You can’t even be alone with your loneliness when there’s a table of strangers at your elbow. And your pity party of one would have felt particularly grim if you were seated next to James Joyce’s party of ten. When the Joyces went out, they went as a pack—a boisterous one. Hemingway shared the gossip from Paris in his letters: “[Joyce] and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s, where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week.” I picture a modern-day Joyce dining out, making it rain euros while ordering bottle service.

Joyce’s enjoyment of food, unlike that of his withdrawn characters, was wrapped up in his enjoyment of others, and vice versa. Writing to his brother, Stanislaus, he requested both food and company: “a slice of corned beef and cabbage, a sizeable beefsteak prepared on a gridiron, and (excuse the hierarchy) an intelligent supra-burgher like yourself to share the meal.”

But Joyce’s favorite dining companion was his wife, Nora—who conveniently also did all the cooking. A day with the Joyces meant a day of eating, starting with hot chocolate at 9 a.m. “At midday we have lunch which we (or rather she) buys, cooks (soup, meat, potatoes and something else)…. At four o’clock we have chocolate and at eight o’clock dinner which Nora cooks.” If anyone tells you having multiple hot chocolates a day is wrong, direct them here. 

Eating wasn’t all that went on in the Joyce’s kitchen; if you read their infamously naughty correspondence, you might not want to eat off their dining table when you learn where it’s been. But their exploits prove what Joyce clearly already knew: The kitchen isn’t just a place for the stomach, but for the heart. As he writes to Nora, after a short absence, “I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking, and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there!”

Rigatoni con Stracatto Recipe

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D.H. Lawrence: Polenta with Sausage Ragù

D.H. Lawrence - Polenta with Sausage Ragu

One hundred years ago, D.H. Lawrence was awaiting the publication of what would become his most famous (and most controversial) novel. Sons and Lovers celebrates its centennial this May—but in the weeks leading up to its release, Lawrence’s thoughts were elsewhere, in a little house across the Alps: “I want to go back to Italy,” he wrote.

Lawrence made his first trip to Italy while working on Sons and Lovers, and he felt an immediate connection. “I think I shall be happy there, and do some good work,” he said in 1912, just before settling near Lago di Garda, a few miles from Verona. Several months later, his writing was already moving along. “I do my novel well, I’m sure. It’s half done.”

But when taking a break from his desk, Lawrence was at work in the kitchen, which he praised in letters home. “There’s a great open fireplace, then two little things called fornelli – charcoal braziers – and we’ve got lots of lovely copper pans, so bright. Then I light the fornello and we cook. It’s an unending joy.” He found beauty in the smallest act of cooking—he loved his pots so much, he made sketches of them. Everything is just red earthenware, roughly glazed, and one can cook in them beautifully.”

For Lawrence, Italian cuisine meant a chance to experiment with ingredients of all kinds, from the quotidian to the obscure. “We eat spaghetti and risotto and so on all of our own making,” he wrote. “We eat quantities of soup … midday polenta made of maize flour boiled to a stiff porridge that one cuts in slices with a string … queer vegetables – cardi – like thistle stalks, very good – and heaps of fresh sardines.” He frowned upon the tendency of the locals to use too much oil, but had certain indulgences of his own: “Maggi and I grate pounds of cheese,” he admitted. 

If we’re lucky, we discover for ourselves what Lawrence found in Italy: that place that inspires all our creative pursuits, whether it’s at the desk or at the stove. The freedom and adventure he felt there, through, dissipated when he left Italy to go north. “I have suffered from the tightness, the domesticity of Germany. It is our domesticity which leads to our conformity, which chokes us.” Little did he know how non-conformist his new novel would be seen—a little reminder of Italy that lingered there. 

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Polenta with sausage and mushroom ragu recipe

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J.D. Salinger: Roast Beef with Dijon Herb Rub

I have never been someone who is good at eating alone. I’m sure there are people who pull it off beautifully: pulling up a stool at a bar, trading witty banter with the wait staff, exuding total contentedness with their own internal world while sipping a martini. But not me. I can only imagine eating alone in the saddest possible way: hunched over in a booth, its plastic coating sticking to the back of my legs, while I shovel a plate of pasta into my mouth and my tears mingle with the condensation on a plastic cup of Mr. Pibb.

It’s not that I don’t like being alone. Some things—museums, books—benefit from a little solitude. But food, to me, is meant to be shared. It’s why I love Thanksgiving, and why J.D. Salinger has always fascinated me. There are days when being a recluse sounds pretty appealing (I’m looking at you, mandatory “networking” events). But how often can you make yourself a lonely salad for dinner?

It wasn’t like that, really; not like Salinger shut himself up in the attic, getting food delivered via dumbwaiter. His family ate meals together, and you could catch him stopping by Howard Johnson’s or Burger King (his fast food of choice). Every Saturday, he even joined the queue for the legendary suppers served by the First Congregational Church in Hartland, Vermont. But you could always pick him out in a crowd. That guy sitting by the pies, writing in a spiral notebook, alone in a sea of people? That was Salinger.

Where he did like some company was at the movies; his daughter, Margaret, called watching Hitchcock films together “our shared world.” But once things got sappy, he was done. “Christ, all you and your mother want to see are sentimental pictures about Thanksgiving and puppy dogs,” he told Margaret. Maybe that’s why he preferred dining alone – because eating together brings out all these emotions in us. I’m sure I’ll be having some serious feelings this Thanksgiving. I wish the same for you – you know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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Allen Ginsberg: Aloo Gobi

When I was a kid, I hated lamb. Well, let me clarify: My mother hated lamb, so I hated lamb. I had never actually tasted it, since it was barred from our home, but that was entirely irrelevant to my 10-year-old self. My mom seemed to be right about everything else, so why would she be wrong about lamb?

It wasn’t until I moved away—with an apartment of my own and a boyfriend who tore into lamb like a rabid chupacabra—that I actually took a bite. It was at an Indian restaurant, another territory where my family had always been cautious. We’d consider the menu at length: lots of thoughtful nodding with a smattering of “hmm”s. Then we’d order the same chicken tikka masala and garlic naan we always did.

Allen Ginsberg had our number. Traveling around India in the 1960s, practicing Buddhism and Krishnaism, Ginsberg was eager to bring his new lifestyle to the States. He had just one concern, he told Hare Krishna founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Could Americans handle the food?

Allen Ginsberg: So my question is this: … Is this something that a large mass of people can enter into?
Srila Prabhupada: In time, yes. Why not? …
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, but what it requires is an adaptation to Indian dress and
Srila Prabhupada: That is not very important.
Allen Ginsberg: And an adaptation to Indian food. …
Srila Prabhupada: Then that is Indian food? Do you mean to say it is Indian food?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, the curried vegetable dishes.

Although Ginsberg seems skeptical that potential converts could handle the Hare Krishna diet, he was a culinary adventurer himself. In his letters, Ginsberg lists dozens of local delicacies he sampled over the course of his wanderings, like a beat-poet Anthony Bourdain. In Hong Kong, he recommends the 100-year eggs; in Korea, try the snail and cuttlefish dish; in Denver, check out the all-organic Mercury Cafe (where you could catch him singing the occasional set with his rock band).

But even Ginsberg had his own culinary prejudices to overcome. In a letter to the poet Gary Snyder, he expressed surprise at how well he ate in India. “Food quite good … Bombay has great food all over. I’ve even drunk water practically all over and not been bugged. And everybody tells me it was instant death.”

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John Cheever: Turkey Monte Cristo Sandwich

Whenever I need to make idle chatter, talking about meals is generally a safe, friendly topic – unless that meal is brunch. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that lunch and dinner are pretty universally well liked. And while the merits of breakfast have certainly been debated (despite being repeatedly chastised for not eating it, I somehow am still alive), brunch just gets people unusually riled up.  For the anti-brunch lobbyist, the idea of forking over $20 for a couple of eggs leaves a bad taste in the mouth that no bottomless-mimosa deal can wash away.

But even the most dedicated day drinkers can’t hold a candle to John Cheever, whose brunches consisted of “a secret slug of whiskey at eleven … two martinis at noon.” In his journals, Cheever’s infamous struggle with alcoholism plays out in the endless litany of gin and tonics, martinis, and nightcaps that make up his daily menu, starting well before noon. Food is an afterthought, usually appearing sandwich form. “I work until one, when I eat my sandwiches and take a rest,” Cheever wrote of his daily routine, a schedule that looks very virtuous when the drinks are edited out.

It wasn’t until Cheever moved to Los Angeles in 1960, to adapt D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl for the screen, that he began taking an interest in food – both as a way to stave off depression, and because it was all conveniently paid for by the studio. “I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of,” he told The Paris Review, “and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself.”

For Cheever, a native New Englander, Hollywood didn’t have much going for it, except where sandwiches were concerned. He recounts in his letters the discovery of a new sandwich, like a rare and exotic bird: “For lunch Carl had something called a Monte Christo sandwich. This is made of three slices of French toast, turkery [sic] meat between the toast, the top sprinkled with powdered sugar and the whole cut into three sections, each looking like a Napoleon. This is eaten with a knife and fork. And this is my only life in Hollywood note for today.” For a sandwich aficionado at the time, this was a moment of revelation. It is also, I hesitate to add, an ideal morning meal after a long night of drink.

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Raymond Chandler: Swordfish Siciliana

What to cook for Raymond Chandler on his birthday? If he’s known for anything vaguely digestible today, it’s Terry Lennox’s gin gimlet recipe from The Big Sleep: “half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” Sometimes that can be the basis of a whole birthday dinner menu, but it’s usually unintentional (and ill-advised, if my “popcorn and whiskey” birthday was any indication).

But it turns out Chandler had more than a few recipes up his sleeve – maybe even a cookbook’s worth. While working on The Long Goodbye in La Jolla, California, he wrote to editor Dale Warren with another surprising proposal. “Somebody really ought to write a cookbook and put in all the things that the regular cookbooks leave out, the things which, if you’re a beginner, the cookbooks don’t tell you,” he said. “Also, any decent cookbook should have a few special recipes, a touch of the unique. And this I could easily supply.”

Seen through his letters, Chandler becomes the Mark Bittman of La Jolla. He’s minimalist in his approach to food (his recipe for pork chops: “Cook them in their own fat, they bring everything with them that is necessary except salt and pepper.”). But he’s also deeply critical of Americans’ slide into non-cooking, 50 years ahead of the curve. He scorns his neighbor’s dependence on “a deep freeze unit in his garage where he keeps enough food for six months … Most of the other food he eats comes ready-prepared and half-chewed.” If you think that’s harsh, Chandler goes on: “I sometimes wonder what we are here for. Certainly not to use our minds.” It’s a relief he wasn’t around to see the rise of the Hot Pocket.

Chandler would have turned 124 today; I’ll celebrate my own birthday later this week. No popcorn and whiskey for me this time around. We’re older now, and wiser. We use our minds. We plan our menus. And there won’t be anything frozen or ready-made, although there may well be a gimlet or two.

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Ernest Hemingway: Bacon-Wrapped Trout with Corn Cakes

Were you expecting a stiff cocktail? Fresh marlin? Braised wildebeest? Ernest Hemingway has become such a legendary character, it’s hard to think of a recipe that could match his macho reputation. It’s clear that the man loved food; A Moveable Feast is one of the most sincere odes to eating I’ve ever read. But did Hemingway cook?

Whether on a Cuban beach or the African savanna, Hem was a fan of the good life – and that included making good food. “It is all right to talk about roughing it in the woods. But the real woodsman is the man who can be really comfortable in the bush,” he wrote in an essay on camping for the Toronto Star.  As a kid, Hemingway spent many summers hiking through Michigan, and his ideal meal was a freshly caught fish. But most of his fellow outdoorsmen didn’t know their way around a griddle. “The rock that wrecks most camping trips is cooking,” he griped. “The average tyro’s idea of cooking is to fry everything and fry it good and plenty.”

As a solution, he proposed a simple but satisfying meal for any campfire cook. Trout was a favorite for Michigan fishermen, but it can dry out easily. So Hemingway suggested cooking it in layers of bacon, whose fat bastes the fish as it renders. “If there is anything better than that combination the writer has yet to taste it in a lifetime devoted largely and studiously to eating.”

Of course, sometimes the hardest part of cooking isn’t preparing the meal itself – it’s waiting for it to be done. Hemingway saw that coming, too. He recommended whipping up a batch of pancakes to serve before the main course, to satisfy any unhappy campers.

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Jack London: Bacon and Tomato Baked Risotto

On any cookbook shelf, stashed between the glossy covers and the celebrity chefs, there are always a few oddities. Maybe it’s the book you picked up from the giveaway pile at the library. Maybe it’s the gift your friend got you as a tragic joke. But my favorite finds in any collection are the community cookbooks: those spiral bound, DIY collections that bring together the favorite recipes of a group of friends.

Today it’s all about Kickstarter, but community cookbooks used to be a key fundraising tool: Throw in a few bucks for a cause, and you’d get enough recipes to last you the month (plus a tempting window into your neighbors’ kitchens). And one of the first groups to make use of the idea was the women’s suffrage movement. For the suffragettes, creating a cookbook was not only a savvy business move, it also helped counter women’s fears that voting was too radical, too masculine. Donating to a political cause can seem a little daunting. But buying a cookbook? That’s just good taste.

So where does a man’s man like Jack London fit in? Ever the outdoorsman, London was building a sustainable ranch in California when he met the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a vocal supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The two shared an interest in socialism, and soon London began to appear at Gilman’s suffrage rallies. When the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania was seeking recipes for The Suffrage Cook Book in 1915, London pitched in with a few of his “especial ‘tried’ favorites.”

London died a year after the cookbook’s publication, three years before women’s suffrage became a reality in 1920. Whether he was genuinely interested in the cause is up for debate – pushing for a ban on alcohol, he noted that when “the ladies get the ballot, they are going to vote for prohibition.” But to readers of the cookbook, London wasn’t a prohibition crusader, or even a big-name author. He was just a fellow activist – who happened to make a mean risotto.

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Gabriel García Márquez: Lobster Tail with Spaghetti and Bread Crumbs

In the pantheon of great literary friendships – Kerouac and Ginsberg, Emerson and Thoreau – Gabriel García Márquez and Fidel Castro isn’t a wildly popular pair. What does the master of magical realism have to chat about with the Cuban president? And who said Castro is literary, anyway?

Well … Márquez did. “It may not be widely known that Fidel is a very cultured man,” he told Playboy. “When we’re together, we talk a great deal about literature.” And when they met for the first time in 1977, Castro and Márquez discovered another shared bond: They were both seafood fiends. What began as a diplomatic exchange about Angola turned into a lengthy conversation about lobster recipes. The same thing happens when my family starts talking politics at the table; we end up retreating to a common ground and asking what’s for dessert.

It was the beginning of a culinary kinship. Over the next few years, they rhapsodized over shrimp. Their dinner menus were odes to the sea. When a Cuban chef who frequently cooked for the high-powered pair published a book, he included the recipes he associated with them: turtle soup for Castro, and lobster for Gabo.

Although Castro’s fondness for spaghetti threatened to eclipse his shellfish infatuation (“Fidel is still doing spaghetti,” Márquez sighed in an article in 1985), he knew what he wanted where seafood was concerned. “It’s best not to boil shrimp and lobsters, because the boiling water weakens the substance and flavor and makes the meat a little bit tough. I like to broil them in the oven or grill them. … For condiments, just butter garlic and lemon. Good food is simple food.”

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