Cod cheek pasta, and transcending the ethnic aisle.
Adapted from: Spaghetti alla puttanesca, the flavourful Neapolitan dish.
This TikTok addiction of mine is undeniably corrosive, but I can’t resist the window onto how others live. The other day, after watching what felt like the 1000th video about the spicy rigatoni at Carbone in New York (a casual $34), I started wondering how pasta earned its seat at the luxury food table. With pasta as a gateway, Italian cuisine has not only woven itself into the North-American cultural fabric but has clawed its way up the class ladder, from the humble red-sauce joints of yore to contemporary fine dining restaurants dubbed their ‘upscale homages.’ It’s a remarkable trajectory.
I thought about it again this week as I was making a version of spaghetti alla puttanesca, a red sauce pasta with anchovies, olives, and capers which loosely translates to “spaghetti in the style of a prostitute.” The origins of the name are widely debated, with three prevalent theories:
One: it was a quick meal that sex workers in Naples could whip up between clients.
Two: it has to do with the aromatics of the dish, and how they might “might have something in common with the scent of a mid-century Italian prostitute.”
Three: it was invented by restaurateur Sandro Petti one night by throwing together some “random shit” – or “una puttanata.” (More from food writer Jeremy Parzen on this.)
I buy the random shit theory, because the etymology tracks, and because that’s precisely what this dish feels like. A kitchen sink, paltry-pantry kind of meal. Delicious, don’t get me wrong—but with an inextricable thrown-togetherness. Which makes it even more ironic to me that pasta puttanesca regularly graces the menus of higher-end Italian restaurants in Toronto, and fetch upwards of $20. Your beef ho fun could never.
From poverty cuisine to prestige
Italian cuisine wasn’t always this readily embraced. Not that long ago, eating at Italian restaurants (and their Chinese, Hebrew and Russian counterparts, which is not an exhaustive list) was considered slumming—in other words, poverty tourism. For Italians in the United States, it was a combination of upward mobility and a program kickstarted by the New Deal in the 1940s—in which “New York City started marketing Italian restaurants as interesting, cheap, and exciting places to eat”—that helped them transcend this status, although the ascent into fine dining didn’t happen until the nineties, according to food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray:
“Things can get popular, but it’s very difficult to climb the class ladder.” For Italian food, that didn’t come until the 1980s and 1990s, when restaurateurs began to emphasize northern Italian cuisine rather than southern. Risottos and wine sauces from the north became fashionable, and provided a class marker between the pastas and pizza of the south. In the 1990s, says Ray, “if you want[ed] to charge a price that’s higher, you [had] to call yourself northern Italian.”
Eurocentricity was on their side, of course. In the same way that Greek and Spanish food have largely been stripped of their “ethnic” label, but Mexican and Thai food have not. That said, seeing how Italian cuisine has traveled through the Western food landscape gives me hope. As a new cohort of first and second generation immigrant chefs try to tell the stories of their parents’ cuisines in a new way—and more channels are attentive to these stories than ever—I am looking forward to the appropriation and integration of all immigrant cuisines into the cultural vernacular and through the pearly gates of fine dining. In the meantime, I’m about to make some low-exposure filtered #aesthetic TikToks about Bun Bo Hue. It’s all about creating desire, no?
Capellini with Cod Cheeks and Olives by Clifford A. Wright (which does not sound like a real name)
A recipe I referred to loosely. Didn’t have celery or parsley and didn’t particularly miss them. Instead of adding anchovies in with the olives and capers, I cooked them down with the shallots until they disintegrated—the best way to experience an anchovy, in my opinion. Like a pervasive, grounding bass line.
So, in what feels like an absolutely ungratifying punchline, I have COVID. While it has not affected my sense of smell for the most part (exceptions being: water tastes metallic and cilantro is back on the likes list!) it may have dulled my ability to string together a sentence. Please chalk this up to my renewed devotion to a timeline.
See you in two weeks,