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Coming Home Pasta, an excerpt from Always Home by Fanny Singer

Coming Home Pasta, an excerpt from Always Home by Fanny Singer

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There are a few things, or, I should say, a few dishes, that I associate with coming home after a long period away. The main one, of course, is Coming Home Pasta. Whenever my family left for a stretch of weeks— what as a child resembled an eternity—we would come home to our strange-feeling house and immediately set about orienting ourselves through food. To be fair, we oriented ourselves through food wherever the place or the time or the country or the continent, but the fact that such an orientation felt necessary even at home I think does speak to our family’s particular brand of devotion.

I can very distinctly remember the feeling of coming home to the Berkeley house after a long trip. As we spilled through the front door, the house would creak under our luggage, as if in our absence, it had grown unaccustomed to the weight both of us and of our cargo. The house smelled a bit stale and of dust, always, a scent amplified by the ancient floor heaters as they were switched on and began to roast the particles accumulated after so many weeks of disuse. We always seemed to be returning after nightfall, and so these memories of nostos (a bit of Homerian vocabulary feels warranted her) are tinged with the inky hue of night, or rather have since taken on a fuzzy, winedark haze, much like the color Homer paints of the Odyssean seas. And indeed it was always a moment for opening a bottle of wine, usually red, because that meant that no one had to have remembered to chill it before leaving, Plucked from the cellar, it could be counted on to immediately slake parental thirst. One or the other guardian (or Bob) would descend through the trapdoor in the kitchen floor—an architectural feature I am so used to as to be inured to its eccentricity, though this detail is never lost on new visitors to the house—and proceed to the musty-smelling cellar below where, during my father’s tenure at least, a very considerable wine inventory was stored.

alwayshomeNo one unpacked. Rather a wordless series of actions was set into motion: the putting on of a pot of water to boil, the burning of a parched rosemary branch left out in the basket on the table (our family’s incense), the lighting of a candle, the rustling in the pantry drawers for a bag of pasta, opened or unopened—it didn’t matter. I was usually dispatched to the garden with a flashlight to pick a few handfuls of herbs. This generally meant parsley, sometimes a bit of oregano—only the herbs that could withstand a good stretch of neglect and whose flavor didn’t change too much if they’d mostly gone to seed. Sending me out into the dark of the back garden had the added benefit of giving my mom a brief window in which to quickly extract a few anchovies from under salt in their container in the fridge and add them to the sauce (if you could even call the frugal dressing characteristic of Coming Home Pasta a sauce). I would have balked at their inclusion; once anchovies were incorporated into a dish and decently disguised, however, I would eat them contentedly. Other things were rummaged for: some still-firm cloves of garlic to mince and fry in oil in the gleaming blue-black lap of my mother’s favorite cast-iron pan; some chili flakes to join the garlic there in its hot oil shimmy. The smell of the house would begin to transform.

There was reliably a nubbin of ancient Parmesan in the fridge, blooming with pale age spots but unspoiled. It would taste fine, even good, grated and married with the other heady flavors of garlic and chili and herbs and anchovy and sometimes a handful of coarsely chopped salt-packed capers, whose flavor was pleasantly abrupt and tangy. Sea salt, black pepper, and a good, voluptuous pour of olive oil at the end. This was Coming Home Pasta. We ate this concoction in relative silence. The darkness made it seem frivolous to switch on music; conversation felt redundant after so many hours trapped together in transit. So we twirled our next-to-naked noodles and ate to know that we had made it—made it back home again to the table.

Making Coming Home Pasta scarcely requires more articulation of method then I’ve already given it—it is very open to interpretation and should to be adapted to whatever you have on hand. Alice Trillin, the very beloved wife of Calvin “Bud” Trillin—the man I think of as my Jewish godfather, though I realize that’s a contradiction in terms— wrote me a not-dissimilar recipe called Lonely Girl Pasta for Fanny’s Exclusive College Survival Cookbook, the book my parents and Bob presented to me as a high school graduation gift. Alice submitted her recipe the year she passed away, and I’ve always felt more than a pang of sadness reading over its gentle and pragmatic instructions and economical ingredients. Still, I believe her recipe presumed the presence of at least a bell pepper or broccoli floret in the refrigerator, still fresh enough to merit inclusion. Such was not the case in our house, both because bell peppers and broccoli were generally frowned upon (I think my mom associated them with the insipid canned vegetables of her youth) and because her obsession with voiding the icebox of its contents prior to our departure bordered on compulsion. Her close friends and I tease her that one of her biggest pet peeves is an abundantly stocked fridge.

But despite the spareness of the ingredients and the unfussiness of the preparation, this is in fact a delicious pasta recipe. The Italians— progenitors of time-tested dishes whose names are nice-sounding translations of things as uncomplicated as “cheese and pepper” (cacio e pepe), “garlic, oil and chili” (aglio, olio, e peperoncino), and “tomato” (al pomodoro)—can be trusted on this subject: often the best-tasting dishes are the simplest.

The second you walk through the door, put the water on to boil. Even if it comes to a boil before you’ve gathered your wits or prepared the other components, there’s something about the way a pot of simmering water immediately lends atmosphere to a room and imparts a sense of homeliness. Salt the water abundantly. Locate whatever leftover, desultory dry pasta you may have in your pantry. If you are feeding more than one person and have a little bit of three kinds and not enough of any one, boil three separate pots of water. (Do not be tempted, as I often have, to boil different shapes or types of pasta in the same pot; it’s a guaranteed disaster of under- and overdoneness.) I don’t mind combining the varieties afterward so long as they’re all more or less the same species, although this admission no doubt amounts to some form of sacrilege—just try not to mix a fusilli with a linguine, etc.

Garlic—garlic is the next most important ingredient. Yes, this pasta can be made with an onion instead—that lesser allium—diced and softened in olive oil in a pan, but garlic is the flavor that I think most brings you back into yourself, most provokes that necessary feeling of reembodiment after a period of travel. Still, use the garlic only if its cloves are very firm and shiny once unsheathed, and the smell, when sliced open, is peppery and fresh and not at all dusty or stale. Mince the garlic (the more cloves the merrier) and fry in a heavy-bottomed pan in a good glug of olive oil. Once the garlic starts to smell fragrant, add a few pinches of chili, if you like spice, and then a couple of chopped anchovy fillets (the best I’ve ever tasted—and this from a former skeptic—are the high-quality Spanish varieties packed in olive oil). A few chopped capers are also welcome at this stage, but be sure to rinse them if they’ve been kept in salt. Be careful that the garlic never begins to brown or burn while your attention is elsewhere. Turn off the flame immediately if it starts to migrate in that direction.

Your pasta should be al dente, both because the toothiness of the noodles in some way compensates for the slightness of other ingredients, but also because you will be coming home hungry from a trip and will want to remove the noodles at the first possible moment. Heed this impulse. Use a spider or tongs to transfer the pasta directly into your frying pan, adding a bit of the salted cooking water if you feel it needs lubrication. Grate a generous amount of Parmesan into the pan and add a handful of chopped parsley if you have fresh herbs in your garden or in a window box. Correct with extra olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a generous showering of zest, a pinch of salt, or some ground pepper, if necessary. When it tastes just right, yell out, “À table!” as my mother did before every single meal, as if calling not just her child, but the whole neighborhood, to the table. There’s always enough food for one more.

Excerpted from Always Home by Fanny Singer. Copyright © 2020 Fanny Singer. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Photos by Brigitte Lacombe.

Molly O’Neill, 1952-2019 #KeeperoftheDay

Molly O’Neill, 1952-2019 #KeeperoftheDay

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#KeeperoftheDay – Molly O’Neill, 1952-2019. Please read Kim Severson and Neil Genzlinger’s remembrance of one of our favorite chroniclers of food.

“Ms. O’Neill, who came of age when the seeds of the modern farm-to-table movement were being planted, became a keen observer of what she called the ‘essential tension in the American appetite,’ which to her mirrored the conflicts in American culture. It was a tension between the refined and the lowbrow, the processed and the natural, ‘the civilized and the wild,’ she wrote in “American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes” (2009), which analyzed 250 years of American culinary history.”

Diana Kennedy #KeeperoftheDay

Diana Kennedy #KeeperoftheDay

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Diana Kennedy’s archives are headed to the University of Texas at San Antonio! From the New York Times:

“Ms. Kennedy started her career with “The Cuisines of Mexico” in 1972. The plurality of that title became the foundation of her work: reporting on the country’s culinary diversity, meticulously recording regional recipes and crediting them to home cooks, contextualizing food with the kinds of observations more commonly found in the work of botanists, anthropologists and historians.

“Eight books and half a century later, Ms. Kennedy is protective of her legacy. When the University of Texas at San Antonio asked to acquire her many hundreds of slides, notes and scrapbooks, and to restore her small collection of 19th-century Mexican cookbooks, she was thrilled, but there was no way she was going to sit around at home, waiting for the materials to arrive in Texas by mail.”

C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield #KeeperoftheDay

C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield #KeeperoftheDay

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On the latest episode of The Kitchen Sisters Present… we celebrate National Barbecue Month with stories of C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield: legendary BBQ man, sauce master, keeper of community, keeper of the flame, archangel of BBQ.”>The Kitchen Sisters Present… we celebrate National Barbecue Month with stories about CB “Stubb” Stubblefield: legendary BBQ man, sauce master, keeper of community, keeper of the flame, archangel of BBQ.

The Egg Wars #KeeperoftheDay

The Egg Wars #KeeperoftheDay

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Smithsonian Magazine recently published a story on their website about the Farallon Island egg rush, that took place as San Francisco was experiencing the Gold Rush. We thought we’d share our Hidden Kitchens story on the topic, The Egg Wars, originally produced for Pop-Up Magazine and NPR’s Morning Edition. Listen to an expanded version of the story on our podcast.

#keeperoftheday #keepersofeggs

LBJ Library Oral History Collection #KeeperoftheDay

LBJ Library Oral History Collection #KeeperoftheDay

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#KeeperoftheDay for #PresidentsDay – LBJ Presidential Library Oral History Collection.

While doing research for our Hidden Kitchens story, Black Chef, White House, we came across an oral history done with Zephyr Wright at the LBJ Presidential Library. Wright was working as a home economics student at the historically black Wiley College in Texas when Lady Bird Johnson hired her as the family’s chef. She cooked for the Johnsons for 27 years in Texas and Washington, D.C.

In a lilting, gentle voice, Ms. Wright tells her stories:

“The first night that I met President Johnson, he was late as usual. He was always late for meals …. Now there have been times that he’d get on the phone himself and call me and ask me how long would it take to get something ready for the whole Cabinet and sometimes he’d walk in with them and you didn’t even know he’s coming. And I’ve seen a time that I’ve fixed a meal in 10 minutes for 25 or 30 people.”

President Johnson’s awareness of the difficulties Wright experienced traveling through the segregated South — the hardship and humiliation of not being served in restaurants on the road, the difficulty of finding accommodations — are believed to have influenced his work on civil rights reform and legislation.

Listen to Black Chef, White House:

The Center for Discovery #KeeperoftheDay

The Center for Discovery #KeeperoftheDay

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#KeeperoftheDay – The Center for Discovery

On the Splendid Table, Ruth Reichl talks about how an article she was writing about prosciutto led her to The Center for Discovery, “a facility where people suffering from severe disabilities find not only nourishment from the organic feed they help raise, but a sense of purpose.” Listen to the interview.

And discover The Center for Discovery yourself: thecenterfordiscovery.org

Georgia Gilmore & the Club from Nowhere #KeeperoftheDay

Georgia Gilmore & the Club from Nowhere #KeeperoftheDay

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#KeeperoftheDay – Georgia Gilmore & the Club from Nowhere

In honor of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, we reprise the story of Georgia Gilmore and her secret civil rights kitchen.

In the 1950s, a group of Montgomery, Alabama women baked goods to help fund the Montgomery bus boycott. Known as the Club from Nowhere the group was led by Georgia Gilmore, one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights era.

Emily Dickinson #KeeperoftheDay on Her Birthday

Emily Dickinson #KeeperoftheDay on Her Birthday

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On the occasion of Emily Dickinson’s 188th birthday, we once again salute her as a keeper of the cake, keeper of the rhyme, keeper of the soul. Listen to Black Cake: Emily Dickinson’s Hidden Kitchen. #KeeperoftheDay

Our Sonic Signatures

Our Sonic Signatures

With each series we do we have theme music, a sonic signature, that ushers in the stories on NPR and our podcast, The Kitchen Sisters Present…

For our Peabody Award-winning series, Lost & Found Sound — we created a mix of a Tony Schwartz recording, Music in Marble Halls made in the early 1960s with Jimmy Giuffre playing clarinet and his wife walking on high heels in a Manhattan office building that we layered with sounds of the century, including the voices of  legendary Memphis DJ, Dewey Smith, the Watergate hearings, The Edison Phonograph, and Edward R. Murrow. We produced it in collaboration with the astounding Academy Award-winning sound designer, Randy Thom at Skywalker Sound.

The theme music for our first Hidden Kitchens series was a scrap from a recording on Arhoolie Records, by Csókolom a modern Gypsy-ish band we heard with legendary record producer, Chris Strachwitz at a Folk Arts Festival in Memphis in 1998. Chris was so taken with the band he got them to meet him at Sun Studios two days later and recorded the album, May I Kiss Your Hand. In the second season of the series we merged it with a recording Polish violist Wieslaw Pogorzelski made with our sound designer extraordinaire Jim McKee.

The music that opened all the stories in our Hidden World of Girls series on Morning Edition and All Things Considered was Asha Bhosle with Kronos Quartet, from their album collaboration, You Stole My Heart. The cut you hear is Piya Tu Ab To Aaja (Lover, Come to Me Now). It was a riveting curtain opener for those stories of coming of age, rituals and rites of passage, women who crossed a line, broke a trail, changed the tide.

Le Tigre and their song, Sixteen, was the theme music for our series, The Making Of… what people make in the Bay Area and why…, a collaboration with KQED and AIR’s Localore. We were scoring our story, The Making of the Homobile: A Story of Transportation, Civil Rights & Glitter and the Homobile founder, Lynne Breedlove was telling us about driving with Le Tigre blasting out of the car. We took a listen and a theme was born. Here it is with the trailer we did for the series.

The most recent season of Hidden Kitchens — War & Peace & Food on Morning Edition had it’s own theme music — the opening of Paul Simon’s lyrical, Can’t Run But.

And now, with the launch of The Keepers a new theme comes to herald these new stories — Moondog’s Stamping Ground. Thank you, Moondog for holding down your corner and endlessly blowing our minds with the music in your head.