In Not For Bread Alone: Writers on Food, Wine, and The Art of Eating, distinguished authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Wendell Berry discuss food-related topics with the same intelligent, playful, and occasional dark voices that characterizes their literary work.
I particularly like the essay by Joyce Carol Oates, “Food Mysteries.” She sticks to her signature tone — wry and unsentimental — avoiding the nostalgia trap. Through a collection of anecdotes including her Hungarian grandmother, cafeteria food, and dinners with poets, she manages to translate ironic food observations into a genuinely compelling portrait of human nature, and its mysteriousness. One observation comments on “American nostalgia.” She writes,
“There are adults of middle age in whom the sudden acrid smells of cafeteria food (scorched macaroni-and-cheese casserole, canned spaghetti with tomato sauce, grease-encrusted french fries, ‘beef doves,’ ‘shepherd’s pie,’ ‘Texas hash,’ et al) galvanize taste buds dormant since eighth grade, with a hungry violence rarely experienced since eighth grade: but it is better not to be one of these.”
Well, ahem, I personally can speak to a fondness for grease encrusted French fries (I wish I could call it nostalgia; my enjoyment probably has more to do with the grease than nostalgic memories of my childhood) but that said, this idea of food nostalgia is interesting…
It makes you wonder: if our childhood taste buds can be galvanized as quickly as our amygdala goes into fight-or-flight, does anyone ever grow up? It’s like the saying, “I learned everything I need to know in kindergarten.” True — but what happens when we smell French fries? Suddenly we’re four-year-olds.
Our nostalgia for certain childhood foods hits at the core of human nature. Notwithstanding our biological predisposition toward carbohydrate-rich foods, what about comfort food has us so tightly wrapped around its silver spoon? Like little else, comfort food knows that we never shed our five-year-old selves: innocent, occasionally bratty, and placated by French fries. And it lives to mock us!
For this reason, I am always inspired by healthier versions of classic, calorie-rich comfort food. I love making old-fashioned “mac-and-cheese casseroles,” but a quicker, healthier alternative are what chefs call “midnight pastas.” They are improvised using basic pantry ingredients and impart a relaxing, after-your-guests-are-gone vibe.
Here is one of my own, improvised “midnight pastas,” except that I usually make it at 6:00 p.m., and then pat myself on the back for fulfilling the day’s cooking quota, for a crowd of two 🙂
The pasta is whatever you choose, or have on hand, cooked according to package directions. I personally think longer noodles are fun, such as linguini, angel hair, or spaghetti. I would cook about 1/2 pound of pasta so you have plenty of sauce to go around. Reserve a cup of the pasta water in case you want to dilute the sauce.
This is a hybrid of Barefoot Contessa’s Linguini with Shrimp Scampi (sans the shrimp) and Cristina Ferrare’s Angel Hair with Olive Oil and Lemon from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love.
Kosher salt freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
1/2 lemon, zest grated
Freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/4 lemon, thinly sliced in half-rounds
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley leaves
Chopped fresh mint leaves
Toasted walnuts, pine nuts, or almonds
- Optional: add sundried tomatoes, frozen peas, corn
- Substitute chives, scallions, or basil for mint, or use a different combination of herbs
- Substitute asiago cheese for Parmesan
Melt three tablespoons of butter and 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium low heat. Add garlic and sauté for one minute only. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Remove from the heat and add lemon zest, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and slices of lemon. Grate as much parmesan cheese as desired over the sauce and stir.
Add cooked pasta to the sauce and mix gently with tongs. Add more cheese and/or dilute with reserved pasta water as needed. Garnish with herbs and toasted nuts.