EATS FROM THE MAD MEN ERA

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[This one’s for you, Liz.]

An acquaintance who’s a fly on the wall of this blog  — she’s posted only one comment since she began following it and has no gravatar — recently let it be known over lunch that what she likes best are the pieces about literature and food.

The literature I understand. She teaches literature courses.   I met her in a writing group.  She writes.  She’s invited to read aloud what she writes in public places where people buy drinks in order to listen.

But food pieces?  In my blog? There have been just three in the nearly eighty posts I’ve done so far.  One —  about big pot minestrone — was because I really do often make minestrone in a big pot when it’s cold out, since it’s good, good for you, and lasts at least three days.  The second food piece came about because, as a promise to Bill, I was making something for the first time and thought, “Why not two birds with one stone?”  That one,  Brisket for Thanksgiving, I can’t even take credit for.  The recipe came from The Jewish Festival Cookbook. However, it did turn out to be quite tasty, if you’re as fond of onions and garlic as we are. The third was the upside-down roast chicken piece, which even I thought unmemorable when it came out of the oven onto our plates and then online. But I’d been stuck for something to write about, went to the kitchen to console myself, and found in the fridge both leftover roast chicken and a blog idea.

In short, a blogosphere cook I’m not.  So when I asked myself what I could do for my food-loving follower, I knew I needed help from a friend. In this case, the friend was old, and spotted with grease.

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Here’s the first page, just so you understand we’re talking about a very old friend indeed.

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In 1975, I was a P.S. 166 mother twice over.  [“P.S.” is the acronym for “Public School” in the New York City school system.] I had an eight-year old in Mrs. Koch’s third grade class and a six-year old in Miss Wishny’s first grade class. (Don’t ask who Tanya Kaufman was. If I ever knew, I’ve forgotten.)  It behooved me to contribute at least one recipe to this fund-raiser of a PTA cookbook.

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My kitchen repertoire wasn’t much to talk about even in those days.  To make my contribution  — and not shame my children by absence from this important Parent-Teacher effort — I had to look still deeper into the past, to that halcyon period between husbands one and two when I worked as an advertising copywriter in New York. (Although only once at an agency actually on Madison Avenue.) In that capacity I wrote snappy headlines and body copy for products to be advertised in glossy women’s magazines: clothing, shoes, lingerie, perfume, shampoo, furs.  [Never cars, refrigerators, butter, bread: back then you needed a Y chromosome to write about those things.]

One year I shared an office with a person even younger than myself.  Her name was Gina.  What I chiefly remembered about her by the time of the P.S. 166 cookbook, other than her quick-and-easy college girl’s recipe for spaghetti sauce, was that the summer we sat together in our two-desk office under our one giant ceiling fan, she wore a lightweight summer suit in dark blue without a blouse. That’s right:  just bra, panties and Gina underneath. No panty hose either; bare feet in high heels — a very European look in those days. It was probably a money thing; she had only the one suit to wear to work all summer because she was saving furiously to get herself to Europe, which she did the following year.  But it seemed sexy and daring at the time, even if she could never unbutton her jacket when the fan stopped working.

Although it was not until 1975 that Gina’s Spaghetti Sauce made its appearance in EAT! — Section VII, Dishes From Around the World —  the recipe for it was therefore really from the Mad Men era, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.  I can’t guarantee that those folks from the television series ate this in between their cigarettes, triple martinis and double scotches. But it was exactly the kind of food all the rest of us were then chowing down:  heavy, caloric, not at all healthy, and delicious.  However, I can guarantee that Gina’s recipe did not come from Italy, despite the “From Around the World” come-on.  She was pure WASP on both sides at least four generations back, with a last name to go with her genealogy.  [Perhaps the casting aside of blouse, slip and stockings and the subsequent flight to Europe was an act of rebellion?]

You will need a couple of proactive atonement days of salad and broiled salmon before you do this thing. So you can dig into it without guilt when it’s done.  But it really is very easy.  You could make it with just one onion, three cans of tomato paste, and a pound of ground beef, plus water and seasonings.  But to gussy it up a bit, I’ve added garlic, parsley and wine.

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Ingredients:

1 lb. extra lean ground round.  (You could also use ground sirloin, or even buffalo, which is leaner.)

1 large onion, roughly chopped.

Lots of chopped garlic.

Three cans of tomato paste.

Chopped parsley, as much as you want.

At least 1 heaping tsp.each of dried basil, oregano, cumin.

Salt, pepper, pinch of dried fennel, pinch of sugar and red wine. (None of these are in the photo.) The wine and fennel are optional. The salt and pepper are not.

Instructions:

1.  Brown meat on one side in large frying pan (cast iron, if you have one), together with the chopped onion and chopped garlic.

2.  When one side is done, turn and crumble meat with wooden spoon. Continue until thoroughly cooked.

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3.  Empty the three cans of tomato paste on top of the meat, add an equal amount of water (three cans full) and mix. You could substitute red wine for half the water.

4.  Add some of the chopped parsley, all the seasonings, and salt and pepper to taste.

5.  Throw in a pinch of sugar.

6.  Stir thoroughly.

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6.  Adjust heat to a simmer and go away.

7.  Return to kitchen every twenty minutes or so to stir, so that meat doesn’t stick to the bottom of pan.  Add more water and/or wine as needed.

8.  After an hour, it should be thick and savory.  Stir in more chopped parsley.

9.  Turn off heat and leave in pan for at least two more hours.

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10.  Reheat (with addition of water or wine if necessary) before serving on spaghetti, linguine or fettucine. A generous sprinkling of grated or shaved parmigiano cheese on top is a good idea, unless you’re dairy intolerant.

Note: Some people have also used this sauce for lasagna.  That’s more work though.  And more fattening.

Second Note:  When after thirty-nine years I made it again yesterday so as to have some photos to show you, I used gluten-free pasta. That’s not part of the recipe (and wasn’t even around when Gina was wearing her suit), but does help assuage subsequent remorse.

Third Note:  In EAT!, I estimated this much sauce would serve two people “opulently,” three “adequately.”  Those two or three people would have had to eat like pigs.  This much sauce is more than sufficient to serve two people generously for two days, with enough left over for them to have a modest portion one more time on a third day. Alternatively, you could go on stretching it ad infinitum, as long as there’s wine left in the bottle.

Fourth Note:  If you double the recipe (using a bigger pot) because you’re going to serve it to guests, call it Sauce Bolognese, or Beef Ragout.  It’s the same thing, but sounds fancier.

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ENJOY!

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