The Last Book Store writers group decided a Sunday ago (or so) that instead of bringing three pages of our books or poetry to read, we would all write on one subject. I run the group because I wear a bow tie, but have no total command. So LaVerta suggested the subject: Each of us would write three pages starting: The Spaghetti.
The spaghetti I love best is not spaghetti.
I remembered this as I made some Friday night. During the hour I spent waiting for the sauce to work through its story, I watched a National Geographic show about cougars, cheetahs and lions in Tanzania. They showed some porn scenes of cougars mating. This distracted me from the subject of spaghetti.
But I had never heard that cougars make love 50 times a day when the female is fertile; the males battle for her, they get very high; they know the season's coming like we know when a holiday's coming up and we run around shopping like mad.
I went and checked the sauce. It will be fine.
The first spaghetti I ever saw wormed its way through a large bowl of Pyrex glass. This was in my friend Marcia's kitchen. Her mom made the spaghetti. She was a big mom, with a short-sleeved blouse, a lot of thick curly hair and a striped apron wound around her belly. She was Jewish, warm and had what I guessed was something called an open heart.
I'd never seen anyone's actual mother in a kitchen. My grandmother had her own kitchen in her little apartment. She made chicken soup for actors in the Army. I knew moms did cook. I heard moms cooking on radio shows. And some kids said their moms made their sandwiches.
We never had spaghetti at home. "Jews do not eat Italian," my Aunt Lil explained. This was not precisely true, because my first mother-in-law who was Jewish and on her fourth marriage, taught me how to make lasagne, which next to my son and daughter, was one of the rewards of that marriage.
I'm watching the National Geographic show again. And pulling many oregano leaves off the branches. Cheetahs are wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, guys. They are faster than cougars at everything, and far faster than lions, who are smarter at stalking cheetahs -- their fast food. Lion brothers like to go after one cheetah. Not an appetizing scene, rather like watching two guys at Barney's Beanery after a big game.
Time to check the sauce. Yes.
Gino Santin taught me this sauce. He owns the Santini and L'Incontro restaurants in London. You walk in and you are in Veneto, the Italian plain between the base of the Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Venice is in the center of the plain.
Gino first taught me to make risotto in his kitchen. He stood by, conducting every swirl and swoop of the heavy spoon he'd handed me. Such a gift.
A week or so later, I asked Gino how to make a perfect, real Italian spaghetti sauce.
"There's no one way," he explained; his voice -- oh, this was more like dancing with Pavarotti than cooking -- "ideally, you use the fresh long Italian plum tomatoes, from San Marzano. They are firm, dark red, full of pulp; you'll find them more easily in late summer when you might as well buy a lot, make several helpings of sauce to freeze for later."
"But you can also," he smiled," make a perfectly good salsa using cans of peeled Italian tomatoes."
"No!" I said.
"Oh; yes!" his cheeks gleamed, sunny as tomatoes, "the best sauce is simple. If you're using fresh tomatoes like these, you'll need about eight. I found these tomatoes I am chopping at Bristol Farms this afternoon.
I moved the table so I could see the lions. I didn't know lion families are called prides. This is why they seem English. (Although some L.A. families I know are prides.)
Lions do kill step-cubs their mates have by other guys in the same pride. That shows them who's still in charge.
Now I'm learning that, like me, some cheetah women will go after guys they think will be good mates. This upsets the brothers of the cheetah she's already been with and they fight.
This is how the cheetah I was talking about got nailed by the lions. He was so into the battle with his brother-in-law he didn't see the real danger coming down, which reminds me -- back to the tomato sauce.
The blue ceramic bowl of tomatoes I have here is rather like the one Gino handed to his sous chef. Gino's tomatoes were chopped with leonine finesse and cheetah speed. Then Gino poured the Italian olive oil into his heavy pan. This rich oil redefines what we call olive oil; the fragrance is Venetian sunlight and shadow. A perfume so erotic, Armani might well consider. But then one would eat his suits.
I layer my deep frying pan with the oil. It gleams slow; a satin gown slipping around the ebony body of the pan. "You must heat this very, very, gently," I remember Gino's voice, gentle as the heat. I sprinkle in the large garlic cloves I've chopped fine as baby diamonds. "This Garlic must be fried slowly, only until the color changes." Yes. I remember. When the garlic is pale gold and translucent, I ladle in the chopped tomatoes.
That day in London we ate a light lunch of slender asparagus sliced into sautéed polenta. My husband had a portion of the heated up Osso Buco Gino had saved for him from the night before.
After an hour the tomato sauce was thick and splendid, and Gino clipped many basil leaves from the plants in the herb garden outside the door to the kitchen, and scattered them through fresh linguine, after it was done al dente; barely three minutes in the boiling water. Then he grated a touch of Parmesan cheese on top of our flat white bowls. My definitive spaghetti, as I said, is not precisely spaghetti.
Yes the sauce takes time. As I eat a small bowl of sauce I watch a proud lion stroll across the Masai plain. The red on his paws is not spaghetti sauce. The Masai word, "Szrenght," means land that goes on forever, and the legends and folklore of what we eat and hunt and crave also go on forever.