Ezra Pound: Spaghetti with Pancetta, Sage and Fried Egg

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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Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

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.

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Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

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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Ray Bradbury: Pappa al Pomodoro

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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