My homemade bacon turned out to be emotionally complicated. I’m still wondering if maybe rather than write about it, I should have just developed a recipe for bacon ice cream.
Close friendships are sometimes hard to hang on to. Especially the ones that define you when you are young. You grow, you and your friends take different paths, your life’s realities, good and bad, change you. You make new friends, maybe you share your life with one, two or a few people who become part of the continuing nexus of who you are. If you are lucky, as I am, some of those people are the ones who “remember you when”, and love you anyway.
Just as the intellectual interests and everyday routines that define me today are different from the ones that did so twenty years ago, so are the relationships. In my life, food and books both have the power to create, renew and recharge connections.
The bacon I made for Chatcutepalooza held that power – transmitted through a streamlined version of Coq Au Vin, and a simple pasta recipe. (Years ago, I thought the pasta was Pasta Carbonara. It’s not. One day soon, I’ll make the real thing with some home-cured pancetta.)
My love affair with both these recipes date back to my early twenties – a time when making chicken stewed in wine seemed like the height of sophistication. A friend of mine found the Coq au Vin a 1989 issue of Bon Appétit. It was a recipe that bonded Lisa and I forever – opening the gateway to our shared love of cooking. We made it in upstate New York, in Brooklyn, in Boston and in Honolulu.
The version I made last week is a little different. I’m too old to set anything on fire inside the house (not deliberately, anyway), so I didn’t bother with the flaming brandy – and I broke down a whole chicken, rather than use the breasts called for by Bon Appétit. The taste, the rich brown sauce, and the memories evoked, were everything I was looking for. I hope I get to share it with Lisa one day soon. It’s been much too long since we were together in the same kitchen. Make it on a cold day and serve it with a substantial wine. You’ll thank me.
The other dish, my friend Jean named “Heart Attack Pasta,” dating it, and both of us back to the dark years when eggs were evil. I made it many times one very hot summer when Jean and I lived in a tiny apartment in Boston. It was quick, substantial and required almost no effort in our broiling, air condition-less kitchen.
That summer turned out to be a transitional both of us. She and I had both just discovered the relationships that would define our adult lives and we spent countless hours sitting around the kitchen table talking about what lay ahead and how our lives were on the verge of change. And eating this pasta.
I’ve changed it a little – added the kale, cut back on the amount of cream. I’m renaming it Spaghetti with Bacon and Kale, and even if you find the ingredients cliché – I dare you not to love the taste. The bacon is the heart of this dish – it’s flavor infuses every bite.
After that summer I would never be close to Jean again. We both married our new loves. I moved to the west coast, and stumbled through a backdoor into the world of journalism. She went to law school, and then embraced motherhood. We weren’t even Facebook buddies – just an occasional exchange of Christmas cards. But in my heart, she always remained one of my closest friends.
One night I dreamed of her – dreamed of sharing this pasta with her, sitting at that forgotten kitchen table. The next day, in one those life shaking experiences that should be confined to fiction, I discovered she’d died two weeks earlier, of melanoma, leaving behind her beloved wife and two beautiful young daughters.
For a long time I only thought of my friend only with sadness and anger. Sadness for her and her family, and anger at the arbitrary cruelty of death; something most of us experience many times over before our own turn comes.
A ridiculous amount of emotion went into creating my low rent spaghetti. But as unlikely as it sounds, what I carried away from my dinner was joy– joy in the strength my memories and the connections they keep alive. And gratitude for the depth of their textures.
It’s a lot more than I expected from a pork belly.