Monday, June 1, 2015

Spaghetti Westerns

The Spaghetti Harvest
I don’t have the numbers at hand, but I’d hazard a guess that I’m asked, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” seven times out of every ten conversations about careers. In terms of questions unanswerable in polite society, it’s right up there with, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever read?” and “Hey, how’s the novel coming along?”

There isn’t one dish I consider “my specialty,” just as there isn’t one book I’d pick out of all the others. Cooking, eating, reading – these are all activities based on mood, availability, time, and inclination. It’s an altogether reasonable possibility that my favorite book has yet to be read, and I’ll practically die when I finish the last page, but the first 300 pages may be so incredibly boring that the discovery of this favorite is contingent upon being shipwrecked and finding the book in one of the suitcases bobbing in the lagoon of my desert island. And me! With so much time on my hands! Read away, girl, while your soft shell crab skewers brine in equal parts sea and coconut water, flavored with palm fronds and a pinch of crushed scallop shell.

But what if we look at the cooking question from a different angle? Rather than thinking about “a specialty” item, perhaps what the question really points to is a preferred technique. Instead of getting hung up on “what do you like to cook?”, I should instead think about how I like to cook. Much less of an annoying question, much easier to answer! I’m a pretty old-fashioned cook in this area – until I learn more about modernist techniques, I’ll stick to high-temperature cooking, an exercise in profound transformation. Indeed, watching the way heat changes the ingredients’ molecules provides a ready source of keen pleasure, and may be the number one factor keeping me in this profession. Of course, the way heat and stress work on the molecules of my body may be the number one reason to leave this profession. A story for another time.

Occasionally, the What’s Your Favorite Thing To Cook question rides in tandem with, What’s Your Favorite Thing to Eat? Again, does it really have to be just one thing? As with reading, my eating doesn’t really have any one genre to which I cling hard and fast. Well, there may be a correlation between my fondness for tacos and my affection for Los Angeles-based, homicide-detective-driven mysteries. But that’s different.

There is one dish, though, the Watership Down of my culinary cravings, and that is a humble plate of spaghetti.

I took a long break from eating pasta, mostly because I have the self-restraint of a St. Bernard puppy when it comes to semolina and sauce, but also because I had started feeling a bit loogy the morning after a spag bender. Granted, a strand of spaghetti isn’t a nutritional powerhouse, and if you’re eating half a pound at a time, either right before or right after two in the morning, you’re not going to feel so great. But life is better with spaghetti in it, it just is. So, I decided to try having a Lunch Pasta, take it slow, and just see how I felt later in the day. And hey! Despite a mild headache and racing heart brought on by the blood sugar influx, the daytime pasta experiment was a success.

Spaghetti was the meal eaten most often in my home when I was growing up. Shake cheese and butter. Chili flake. A perfect demilitarized zone on my plate between the saucy area and the pasta area – that way, I could enjoy three different dishes: saucy spaghetti, buttery noodles with cheese, and the middle area of slightly saucy, slightly buttery, slightly spicy. In retrospect, I suppose the third area was my first experience with umami. Whenever I ate spaghetti at a friend’s house and his or her parents mixed the sauce and the pasta together before serving, I experienced a sense of disappointment altogether disproportionate to the actual travesty playing out in the dining room. I may have even sulked a little bit, staring down at a landscape of uniform red, a plate of food wherein every bite tastes like the last one. Gross.

Making spaghetti sauce became more complicated as I grew older. That’s not quite true. My involvement in the process became more complicated, especially as spaghetti was a meal we could make with very little parental oversight, and we could usually cajole the youngest into doing the dishes. Thinking back on the process behind making a meat sauce out of a frozen block of ground chuck, an onion, a can of tomato paste, a can of tomato sauce, and some dried oregano, fills me with olfactory nostalgia. The opening notes of butter and onions, the gradual swell of browning meat, the sudden bright notes of tomato paste caramelizing on the bottom of the pan, the earthy, shrub smell of oregano, while on the big burner the metallic smell of heating elements on copper-bottomed pans gave way to the slightly low-tide smell of boiling salted water, which in turn gave way to the starchy wet flour smell of almost cooked pasta…..these were the instruments in a dinner concerto.

Spaghetti at home was delicious, mostly because I could control my saucing (again, no control, whatsoever, when it came to portion size). But there have been other hot spots, as well. While I was living in a dorm, an impossibly long time ago, my roommate always made a point of letting me know when it was “spag night” in the dining hall, and I’d feel a glorious excitement about not having yet another bowl of cereal for dinner. There was Neopolitan’s (I mean, Neo’s, of course), a tiny hole-in-the-wall spot in Nederland, an old mining town up the canyon from Boulder. Their plate of spaghetti in meat sauce had a ratio of sauce to pasta that normally would have put my hackles up, but there was something about having such a generous ladling of sauce that I enjoyed. It was sort of like eating a vat of sloppy joe filling with a few strands of pasta left over from the pot’s previous use, as though they only had one pot in the kitchen and didn’t really clean it after cooking the pasta, the way I picture cooking for overcrowded summer camps.

My love affair with spaghetti may have hit its prime during “spaghetti special” nights at the Gondolier, a Boulder restaurant that has been in my friend Guy’s family for fifty years. Under the Gondo’s roof, I met a type of homemade spaghetti that inspired a lifelong love of wide-wale corduroys. There was also exposure to ravioli, garbanzo beans, olive oil and garlic “sauce”, tortellini, ricotta cheesecake, and so many other flavors, so many culinary collisions, so many glimpses into a world I had no idea I would belong to for this much of my life.

In terms of transformative processes, cooking pasta doesn’t necessarily have the same drama as cooking meat. The relaxation of a stick into a ribbon isn’t nearly as cool as the Maillard Reaction, but it does have its charms. It actually sounds kind of nice, almost like relaxing into a hot tub, or just taking a minute away from the fires and knives. Spaghetti and I are going to become a little closer in the coming weeks, not only because it’s relatively inexpensive, but because I’d really like to be able to answer that last question, the one about the novel.