Cooking

The Erotica Eight and the Great Puttanesca Initiation

I hope my friend Indigo Bunting will weigh in with her recollections and corrections to this story. I am old and my memory is failing, while her memory is remarkably pristine.

The first thing I don’t remember is the year. I rarely remember what year anything happened. But back when we all lived in Maryland, some friends offered to host a spirituality/mythology discussion group. We’d all watch an episode of the Bill Moyers series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, and discuss it afterwards. This evolved into a general spiritual exploration group, which didn’t go so well since some of us wanted more theory, others wanted more practical stuff, and some seemed dedicated to fluffy bunnies and unicorns. (It seems now that this pattern has been repeating in my life for quite some time now.)

This group evolved, or devolved, into discussion of another book, Ladies’ Own Erotica by the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society. We’d read a few chapters in preparation, then come together over an amazing meal that one of us would prepare, and discuss the book. It was a heady mixture of the lubricious (one of my favorite words in the whole wide world) and the respectable, the intellectual and the wanton, the sensual and the spiritual.

By this time the group had weeded itself down to a core group of eight people: two married couples; one couple who didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, which merely showed how silly the whole argument was, since no one could be more married in body, soul, or mind than they; and two single guys. That first night, sitting around over Bill Rau’s pasta puttanesca and much excellent wine discussing women’s approach to erotica and how it differed from men’s, and what made something exciting or arousing in one context and either boring or rather distasteful in another, we christened ourselves the Erotica Eight.

The Erotica Eight met quite a few times after that, sometimes discussing erotica, sometimes not; we even went on a group trip to Chincoteague, Maryland, and Assateague Island at the height of a winter snowstorm, and rented a house for a long weekend. That is a longer and much stranger story for another time.

The Great Puttanesca Initiation happened this way. When we arrived, we found Bill at his stove in the middle of making this sauce that smelled oh-my-god-is-it-possible-for-anything-to-have-a-more-intoxicating-aroma. A surprising amount of excellent extra-virgin olive oil, a few teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes, a couple of tins of anchovies (which was my first honest encounter with those wondrous fishies), and a dozen or so cloves of garlic, minced. To this was added a goodly amount of lovely oil-cured black olives, capers, and several cans of roma tomatoes, and a little tomato paste. A little red wine, a few leaves of basil, and a handful of chopped Italian parsley. That’s it.

When I wrote of puttanesca some time ago, I said that the celebrated Neapolitan dish was so named because it was “pasta the way a whore would make it.” Many think the the name refers to the decadent sauce’s hot, spicy flavor and rapturous aroma. Others say that because the ingredients were so inexpensive, it was offered for free to prospective customers to entice them into houses of ill repute — or that the dish was so quickly made that prostitutes could prepare it between customers.

Author and chef Diane Seed relates this story:

To understand how this sauce came to get its name, one must consider the 1950s when brothels in Italy were state-owned. They were known as case chiuse or “closed houses” because the shutters had to be kept permanently closed to avoid offending the sensibilities of neighbors or innocent passers-by. Conscientious Italian housewives usually shop at the local market every day to buy fresh food, but the “civil servants” were only allowed one day per week for shopping, and their time was valuable. Their specialty became a sauce made quickly from odds and ends in the larder.

Tonight I made puttanesca sauce myself for the first time. I was not disappointed. It was not quite as spicy as Bill’s version was, but there was definitely a heat that crept up on me as I ate it. It was sensuous, and heady, and altogether wonderful. But as you can see, it was my counterpart to Proust’s madeleine: one mouthful, and I was transported back to the even headier days of the Erotica Eight, of our sitting around a table filled with wine and laughter, eating the food of whores, and tracing the strange road from Joseph Campbell to the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society.

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Categories: Cooking, Relationships, Sex and Sexuality, Spirituality | 12 Comments

Ghost in the Machine

I blame Adam. First he told me about Woot! and then he told me about the Wootalyzer. So it’s all his fault. And if it’s not his fault, then it’s Mom’s. Or Alton Brown’s. It’s definitely not mine.

Those of us who are not into Internet jargon may not be aware that “w00t!” (with zeros instead of Os) is an expression of joy, an Internet hurrah. A few days ago Adam told me about a website, Woot.com, that sells overstocked items at amazingly low prices, usually one new item per day, posted at midnight Central time. When it sells out, that’s it, nothing more until the next midnight rolls around. But once every month or so they have something called a Woot-Off, in which they have smaller numbers of each item in stock, so they run them back to back. Some items, either because they have very few of them or because they’re very hot items or both, sell out in seconds. Others hang around for several minutes or, for big-ticket items, for an hour or more until they sell out.

The Wootalizer is a small program that connects to the Woot! website and sounds an alarm each time a new item is posted. This is particularly helpful during Woot-Offs when you might have something precious disappear in the time it takes the web page to reload.

The Woot-Off that started yesterday is still running today. My Wootalizer has been sounding its alarm at distressingly frequent intervals, and I’m about to silence it when up pops this set of knives by the masters of Japanese knife-making, Shun (marketed in the U.S. by Kershaw). Six knives and a bamboo knife block for $249 plus $5 shipping.

Now, I’ve been lusting after these particular knives ever since I saw Alton Brown (of Good Eats fame) extol their virtues; they were for years the only knives he would use, and he met with Shun and asked them to make a series with the blades angled for easier cutting. They made them, and he put his name (and face) on them. Together these knives regularly sell for $527 (not counting the knife block or shipping), so Woot’s price was way less than half.

Now for the weird part. Continue reading

Categories: Cooking, Death, Family | 10 Comments

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