I find that people who like to cook can usually remember the food they cut their culinary teeth on – the first food they cooked by themselves, without adult supervision or even a recipe, the food that sprung from whatever was on hand in the kitchen and their mood at the moment.
My food was pasta.
Not just pasta – this goes way beyond boiling water, adding noodles, and waiting 8-10 minutes. I’m talking about “fancy” pasta. I always wanted to make foods fancy when I was younger. I have fond memories of going to my Granny and Grandad’s house in Orlando. After dinner, my Granny would ask me to fix everyone dessert. In her kitchen, just waiting for me, was a gallon bucket of marbled fudge ice cream, a plastic container of angel food cake, a new bottle of Hershey’s syrup, and a fresh can of whipped cream. I took orders – who wanted just ice cream, or no whipped cream, or just cake – and I went to the kitchen, usually my Granny’s domain, and lined up bowls. I prepared each dish with care, layering cake, then ice cream, then whipped cream, and topping it off with what I believed at the time were ultra-artistic swirls of chocolate syrup. It was one of my favorite parts of visiting my grandparents: they set me loose in the kitchen with no rules. You want to mix four different breakfast cereals in one bowl and eat it? Go right ahead. You want to make brownies? Like right now? Great. You want to pretend you’re a culinary artist on store-bought angel food cake, tons of ice cream, and a bottle of chocolate syrup? Make sure you don’t forget the whippped cream. Years later, when I got my first job at Ruby Tuesday’s, I learned in my first week that we had to assemble our own desserts. We got giant goblets out of the freezer, extricated a frozen brick of chocolate or vanilla cake from a box, then doctored it up with strawberries, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream. My desserts always looked the best, got the most stares from customers – I had early training in my Granny’s kitchen.
When I look at my culinary pathology – when I track back to the beginning of when I got serious about cooking and looked at it not only as something enjoyable but also as something essential – I think back to my dad’s apartment. Shortly after he and my mom divorced, when I was ten years old, I grew tired of eating McDonald’s on our weekly visits to his place, so I suggested I cook dinner. It started as hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. But just like McDonald’s, I grew tired of it.
My dad suggested, one week, that I make spaghetti. I knew the essential skills – I was a pro at boiling water – but he also threw in a surprise. Italian sausage. Make spaghetti with Italian sausage.
Spaghetti, in my very young brain, was made with spaghetti noodles and a jar of spaghetti sauce, maybe with some ground beef stirred in for protein. Sausage? How did you even cook sausage?
I braced myself. I got in that kitchen with a pack of Johnsonville Italian sausage, a box of pasta, and a jar of spaghetti sauce. I cooked the sausages like they were hot dogs, cutting them open after a few minutes to see what the insides looked like, trying to figure out when they were done. I called my dad in to verify that the insides didn’t look raw, and then I cut them into bite-sized pieces, mixed them in with the sauce, and mixed it all with the spaghetti.
To a ten year-old, that was some seriously fancy pasta.
Years passed, and my interest in cooking actual meals waned as I fell more and more in love with desserts. Cooking dinner seemed like a necessary chore before enjoying whatever ridiculous dessert I had decided to make: grasshopper pie; kahlua cake; cheesecake with caramel sauce; funnel cake. Cookies were a favorite to make because the rhythm was predictable. I was too young to realize that baking relaxed me, gave me a way to busy my hands in order to open my mind. I was so religious back then – so focused on living my life in a state of prayer – and I didn’t realize that cooking was an act of prayer, a way to close myself off behind a curtain of butter and flour and devotion.
When I got to college, my fancy pasta tendencies only grew. Suddenly, I had money. I could buy spices – and spice blends. I’m telling you what, McCormick’s was my best friend in college. I’d coat chicken tenderloins in that salty, herby spice blend and pan fry them in olive oil while the pasta boiled. I eventually ended my vegetable embargo and experimented with yellow peppers, fresh spinach, tiny, potent cloves of garlic that I not-quite-minced, leaving the pieces large enough to crisp in the olive oil before I added chicken. In my friend Auzelle’s kitchen, I drank red wine and commiserated in angsty solidarity with my friends, fellow writers, all of us high on the notion that we had ideas and theories and stories to tell, poems to write, opinions that were too big for our bodies, opinions that were going to make us new and different from everyone who came before us. Amid all of that, I made fancy pasta. When we talked loads of smack about authors we decided not to like, I made fancy pasta. When we were unsure of where our futures would take us, who we would become, there was fancy pasta. My hopes and dreams were coated in asiago cream sauce.
To this day, fancy pasta is my favorite meal. When I went to Five Points Farm Market last week and picked up four different kinds of squash, fancy pasta was in the back of my mind. Today, when I looked at the clock and realized dinner time was approaching and I had to eat some protein, I knew fancy pasta was the answer.
Fancy pasta has grown with me. I stopped using jarred spaghetti sauce years ago (although I’m not hating – my roommates make some of the best, most comforting spaghetti sauce from those jars – that sauce can cure all manner of woes for me). I have grown more experimental in my vegetable selections – squash, kale, corn, sweet grape tomatoes. I have, furthermore, and possibly most important, learned to cook with bacon, extracting a smoky flavor without making my pasta taste like breakfast. (That’s not fancy – it’s just weird.)
I tried composing a recipe for Fancy Pasta (heretofore to be capitalized, granting it validity, importance, and proper noun status in my culinary vernacular). It seems fitting that any recipe I could come up with reads like one of my Granny’s recipes, with little guidance on amounts to use, time to cook, or how many servings it makes. It can feed a family. It can feed just you. Season to taste – know yourself well enough to know what you like. Cook till it’s done – whatever your definition of done is. Add whatever ingredients are in season, available at your farmers’ market, taking up room in the drawer in your fridge, whatever it is you like. Mix cooked pasta, cooked vegetables, seasoning, and a bit more olive oil in the pot, tossing to coat. Transfer to plate and sprinkle with whatever cheese you love – don’t skimp. This is Fancy Pasta. It is born out of the intersection of necessity, creativity, indulgence, and the sweet innocence that comes from making the plain parts of life just a little, well, fancy.