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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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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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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