One evening, I just wanted to make a quick dinner and get to the main event I had planned: curling up with the DSM-V and a glass of wine in order to diagnose my friends and family. Y’all might be subclinical but I’m hazarding guesses.
What was quick and easy to make? Pasta Puttanesca, reputed to be tasty and fast, and purportedly named for the Italian hookers who supposedly liked to make and eat it between servicing johns, or who perhaps lured johns to them because the pasta smelled so good. In most recipes, the word “prostitute” does not come up. “Ladies of the evening” is the preferred terminology, I guess because you’re supposed to imagine a bunch of sassy working “girls” in flouncy dresses making pasta in lace-up boots between nonviolent, non-degrading romantic interludes with scallywag gentlemen of generally okay character.
I like savory things, but the best thing about Pasta Puttanesca is confronting how cookbooks and recipe sites contend with its origin story. Neither Williams-Sonoma nor the Food Network web site address the name at all. Epicurious uses roughly the description I just did. Martha Stewart gets etymological but then snaps us all back to the decent, clean-living present day:
“Legend has it that this savory recipe was a favorite of ‘ladies of the night’ in Italy (the term ‘puttanesca’ derives from ‘puttana,’ the Italian word for ‘prostitute’), who quickly prepared and ate the dish between clients. Now, of course, it’s simply known as a flavorful meal that’s easy to make in just a few minutes.”
Wikipedia, because it’s no one’s brand, gets down on it: “Spaghetti alla puttanesca (…literally ‘spaghetti in the garbage style’ or “spaghetti in the whore’s style” in Italian) is a tangy, somewhat salty Italian pasta dish invented in the mid-20th century,” while Slate associate editor L.V. Anderson tells everyone to stop tittering and digs further into the dish’s raison d’etre and etymology:
“… neither of these origin stories seems particularly plausible—I mean, sex workers aren’t the only people who appreciate quick, aromatic meals. According to food historian Jeremy Parzen, the name has more to do with [how] Italians use puttana (and related words) almost the way we use shit, as an all-purpose profanity, so pasta alla puttanesca might have originated with someone saying, essentially, “I just threw a bunch of shit from the cupboard into a pan.”
And then Anderson does what everything on the internet does, tells you that you’re probably doing something wrong, or thinking incorrectly, or feeling feelings in the wrong way, or not hacking your toilet paper roll as you should, today, in the 21st century. She wants to be sure that you use enough garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, and crushed red pepper, and that you “throw your seasonings into the pot with abandon, and don’t hesitate to add an entire tin of anchovies…”
Basically, every recipe for puttanesca is about abandoning restraint, and cramming as many hot, spicy, pungent, oily, fishy things, into your pot as possible, including round things (capers) that look like miniature testicles, and celebrating how different things come together, using words like sweet, dark, oily, vivid, assertive, and invigorating. But to get real weird, you have to skew right, to the Pioneer Woman.
Here she is. I quote:
“I love pasta puttanesca. Love it, love it, love it.
So yesterday, I made pasta puttanesca. Made it, made it, made it.
And I ate it.
And the girl was happy…
I decided to grab my mortar and pestle for a very, very important reason: I just felt like it. I smashed up a couple of garlic cloves…
And smushed them up. And if you think you don’t like anchovies…you do. You really do.
You just don’t know it yet.
By the way, did you know bucatini is hollow? Kind of like a thick straw. I’ve loved it for many years.
And this, my friends…
Is so good I want to cry.
Make it tonight! I’m eating leftovers today.”
Emphases mine. Okay. Slow your roll, Pioneer Woman. Or actually, just go for it. Make it, make it, make it. Love it. Eat it. Cry. And then get at it again.
With all the heavy breathing everywhere, I must ask: When have you ever loaded up on garlic, anchovies, and capers in order to get laid (and paid)? Even given that hookers are, per Julia Roberts in that gritty, hyper-realistic near -documentary film Pretty Woman – which makes clear that most hookers are not human trafficked or economically coerced but just down-on-their luck gals who are good with cars destined to end up with a wealthy Richard Gere-type guy who is afraid of heights but will overcome that phobia to chase you up a ladder in a non-stalkery way to propose everlasting love – hookers! They don’t kiss much, according to Julia. But just how punishing would it be to get up in the business of someone who has eaten a tube of anchovy paste, mounds of garlic, hot red peppers and capers?
I’m also wondering about contact burns. In the same way that you are not supposed to rub your eyes after chopping jalapenos, what is the nature of, say, a 360 degree experience between a sensitive area and a cavity that has just crammed all of those ingredients in it? Maybe puttanesca’s not just quick and easy but a form of semi-passive aggression or perhaps defense, like, “Okay, come here, but a) I stink and b) How would you like some capsaicin on your mucous membranes and/or genitals?” Also, fuck you if you are going to patronize me and use putta and garbage interchangeably. I think of the woman I know who deliberately gained a bunch of weight in order to put off her stinker of a husband. (All he did was then hound her about eating not eating any more pistachios. They’re divorced now, thankfully.) So, because this is the internet, I posit this theory: maybe the puttas who liked Pasta Puttanesca were in fact inflicting a bit of punishment on their clients. Because you know what else you can eat in a rush? A ham sandwich. An omelet. Think about it.
But anyway, here it the recipe as it should be, for you:
5 garlic cloves, stripped of their paper garment, forced lovingly through a garlic press, so it knows who is boss but is not traumatized
2 teaspoons anchovy paste, gently but firmly manipulated out of its tube, made in fact to erupt out of that tube
1/2 teaspoon hot and ready red pepper flakes
1/3 cup extra-virgin, or at least born-again virgin, or just olive oil that will role-play as virgin
1 (28-ounce) can-you-take the-whole-thing tomatoes in juice (preferably Italian)
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, olives that have just been thoroughly, completely dug out
2 tablespoons fully drained, exhausted but thrilled capers
Pinch of sugar (optional)
3/4 cup coarsely chopped basil – just so coarse – oh, the texture…
Cook spaghetti in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 1/2 Tbsp salt for 6 qt water) until it can barely stand it any more and is al dente. Then go easy with the teeth.