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.