Thursday, October 07, 2010

The pasta pot

Today is the sixth anniversary of my mom's death, which is hard to believe. The cosmic confusion of the passing of time, the way her loss feels immediate and recent yet so very far away. I'm not doing anything special today in her honor; there is no grave to visit so that takes away that ritual, and I'm not religious in any way so there's no service to attend. But what I did last night was cook pasta in the pot that my mother used to make pasta my whole life. I imagine she acquired the pot in the late '50s, maybe early '60s—all I know is that every single time she cooked pasta for dinner, the water went right into that pot and got generously salted right away. The pot remains in pretty good shape.

My mom was not a particularly passionate or enthusiastic cook, nor was she any kind of foodie. She and my dad would make fun of the family friends who insisted on ordering sushi in Japanese ("uuuuuniiii," she would drawl, as if just saying the word was the height of pretension. Though to be fair, using the word "uni" was probably more pretentious in 1983 than it would be today). My mom didn't like Gourmet magazine, and insisted that every recipe began with the words, "Take a pint of heavy cream." Our cookbook shelf was slim, and the volumes were rarely consulted. I wonder sometimes what my mom would make of my food obsessions.

As an opera singer who studied in Rome in the mid-1950s, my mom did learn a thing or two about Italian food, and she made a mean meat sauce. I used to love her eggy, bacony version of spaghetti carbonara, a dish I continue to attempt to perfect, without much success. I think my parents even made basil pesto at some point in the '80s (gazpacho and hummus were big experiments then too, back when they seemed so exotic and weird!).

When my mom passed away, my sister and I had to sort out all of her things, the accumulations of a relatively long life—she died the day after her 70th birthday after a three-year struggle with lung cancer. I took the pasta pot right away, along with the mezzaluna curved knife she used to chop garlic and onions super fine. That mezzaluna is so worn-out that its wooden handles give me splinters. I took the cast iron pans, the ones with white enamel on the exterior, all mottled and chipping away but that still make an excellent burger on the stovetop. I took a few of her mugs, most of the mid-century modern Rosenthal china that my parents bought in Europe after they were married, and the groovy bright-orange colander (which has now turned into a crayon container for my nieces).

So in honor of my mom I continue to use this metal pot with all its scratches and a plastic handle that's loose and gets too hot to touch. This pot has boiled enough pounds of spaghetti to climb me back like Rapunzel to my childhood of family dinners. That pot has produced hundreds, thousands, of batches of noodles and cottage cheese, a Susie Lerner specialty made with Manischevitz egg noodles, Breakstone cottage cheese and generous amounts of butter and black pepper. My sister makes that for her kids now, which makes me really happy.

Last night I made linguini with zucchini and brown butter–poppy seed sauce, a weird combination inspired by a recipe from the Sfoglia cookbook. It was way decadent and rich, and is nothing my mother ever would have cooked in a million years. It's amazing to think this one pot has fed me my whole life, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.