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Appetites and Afterthoughts

The spaghetti symposium

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

— Sophia Loren

Isn’t that a great quote? I suppose one could say the same about me. My fondest teenage memories include times when I came home late from a date, opened a can of Franco-American spaghetti, and ate it cold, right out of the tin. I became the Franco-American spaghetti savant of my neighborhood.

And today, what is my number-one comfort food? Spaghetti, of course, but not Franco-American. That’s long gone — a dim memory. The Campbell Soup Company took over Franco-American and gradually phased out my wonderful canned spaghetti.

But even with that terrible loss, I make do in the spaghetti department, cooking my own sauces to slurp up. Here are a few of my favorites:

And today, what is my number-one comfort food? Spaghetti, of course, but not Franco-American. That’s long gone — a dim memory. The Campbell Soup Company took over Franco-American and gradually phased out my wonderful canned spaghetti.Isn’t that a great quote? i suppose one could say the same about me. My fondest teenage memories include times when I came home late from a date, opened a can of Franco-American spaghetti, and ate it cold, right out of the tin. I became the Franco-American spaghetti savant of my neighborhood.

But even with that terrible loss, I make do in the spaghetti department, cooking my own sauces to slurp up. Here are a few of my favorites:

AGLIO E OLIO: SIMPLE AND BASIC

This is the simplest and most basic of spaghetti sauces. Just garlic and olive oil with some chili pepper flakes, and perhaps a bit of chopped parsley on top for color. Brown some minced garlic in olive oil. Add cooked spaghetti. Mix and enjoy.

ALFREDO: HOLLYWOOD SAUCE

This sauce of Parmigiano-Reggiano (that glorious Italian cheese) and butter is usually served with a flat, wide fettuccini pasta. It was named for an Italian entrepreneur who opened Alfredo’s, his eponymous restaurant in Rome, in 1914. American movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford dropped in on their honeymoon in 1927. They loved it and went back several times for Fettuccini Alfredo. The Hollywood pair had a gold-plated spoon and fork made and engraved “To Alfredo King of the Noodles” for their new best friend to create his magic Fettuccini Alfredo. During World War II, Alfredo King of the Noodles sold his restaurant to two waiters and then opened another place. There is some dispute about who created the original Alfredo’s. But never mind. Both restaurants serve Fettuccini Alfredo.

BOLOGNESE: KING OF SAUCES

Bolognese is the king of spaghetti sauces. This meat-based sauce (sugo) originated in 18th century Bologna. Today, what you get when you order spaghetti and meatballs is basically Spaghetti alla Bolognese. When I make a Bolognese sauce, I like to add a cup or two of brown sauce left over from a previous short ribs dinner. I also add one or two whole cloves, which add to the depth of flavor.

CARBONARA: FUEL FOR THE SOUL

This is a pasta sauce — eggs with pancetta or bacon bits — with an obscure origin. I’ll give you a couple of possibilities:

Woodcutters making charcoal (carbon) for fuel developed it in the Apennine Mountains of Abruzzo. These charcoal workers laced it liberally with black pepper, making it look like coal dust on the pasta.

After the Allies liberated Rome in 1944, the troops gave some of their military rations — in this case, powdered eggs and bacon — to the locals, who created Spaghetti Carbonara.

CACIO E PEPE: CHEESE AND PEPPER

This is a Roman dish. Ingredients for the sauce are Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper — a lot of it. My recipe calls for the addition of a little of the hot pasta water. It helps to melt the cheese.

PESTO: ANCIENT ROOTS

Pesto originated in 16th century Genoa. Some say it actually goes back to the early Romans, who made a similar sauce and smeared it on everything. Traditionally, pesto is made in a mortar with a pestle, pounding and grinding garlic, basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and olive oil. Some philistines add cream. This is not a misdemeanor, it’s a felony.

PUTTANESCA: WHORE’S SPAGHETTI

Puttanesca — commonly known as the whore’s spaghetti — is another thing altogether. No sissy butter and cream in this one. “Puttanesca” is Italian for whore. One story is it originated with ladies of the evening who could make this nourishing meal between assignations. A second story is Italians use the word “puttana” as an all-purpose cuss word. So it is logical, if you want to buy into this, the cook might say, “I just threw in a bunch of s—, and it tastes pretty good.” That bunch of puttana that makes up the sauce includes anchovies, onions, garlic, capers, and olives — in a lusty tomato sauce.

TOMATO SAUCE: KEEP IT SIMPLE

Marcella Hazan, Italian cook and cookbook writer, gave us this one. It’s a three-ingredient tomato sauce — canned San Marzano tomatoes, butter, and onion. Sauté a couple of hunks of onion in the butter. Dump in a large can of tomatoes. Cook until the sauce thickens. Remove the onion (which I never do) and pour over spaghetti.

VONGOLE: CLAMS SAUCE IT UP

Spaghetti con Vongole is one of my favorites. Fresh clams are cooked briefly (until they open) in olive oil, minced garlic, and white wine. Place the result over spaghetti in a warm bowl and top with some chopped parsley. There are those who try to add cream to this. Don’t allow it. Report them to the National Vongole Association for fraud.

A TONNO ERNESTO: LEFTOVERS

I confess I made up this one. One day I made some tuna salad sandwiches — good Italian olive oil-packed tuna, minced red onion, and mayonnaise. I enjoyed the sandwiches, but didn’t finish all the tuna salad. The next day, I boiled some linguine, dumped it over the leftover tuna salad, and mixed it up. It was terrific, and has now entered the Ernesto canon of strange, but wonderful, recipes.

POSTSCRIPT: PASTA HISTORY

Like a forkful of spaghetti, it’s difficult to unravel pasta’s tangled history. In Marco Polo’s famous journey from Venice to China, it is said he discovered pasta there, but about 50 years before, both the Indians in the subcontinent and the Arabs in the Middle East were already dining on pasta. Let’s adopt a theory that it is possible for discoveries to be made simultaneously in various parts of the world. There’s no reason not to believe this — take barbecue, for example. There is fierce dispute about where the first pit master evolved — Raleigh, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo.; or somewhere deep in the heart of Texas.

A final spaghetti thought: There’s an ancient mathematical computation called the algorithm of spaghetti, proving that no matter how much you boil for your meal, it always seems like too much. But then, there’s no such thing as too much spaghetti.

 

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