March 3, 2010
This weekend I watched my best friend eulogize his sister. I watched his sister’s widower, who is thirty-one, eulogize his wife, telling the sweet story of how they met as undergraduates at Rice, their first date an Old 97s concert, their sixth anniversary just a few months ago, just a week or so before she died in the midst of an earthquake in Haiti.
The same week that Dave flew home to begin the long vigil of waiting for news of his sister, my dear friend Wayne sat in an ICU waiting room night after night, keeping company and logging time as his mother recovered from emergency brain surgery to remove a cancerous mass.
Today I spoke to Wayne on the phone—his mother is doing well, feeling strong and working her way through chemo and radiation—but Wayne’s fiancée Elizabeth, if you can believe it, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor of her own. It woke them both up a few nights ago, Elizabeth gripped by a seizure, her body revealing its secret.
Understanding isn’t welcome here, friends. Answers, even if we had them, would do no good. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, moral indignance to the contrary be damned. If anything, what we can cling to is our insistence on aliveness, the instantaneous dose of perspective such news brings, like my realization that most of what’s on my to-do list is useless; my list of complaints and grudges, bullshit. I know it shouldn’t take catastrophe to get me to pause, to “what the hell” and toss out my agenda in favor of face-to-face time with the people I love, but all too often, it does.
I sat across from Dave tonight, espresso cups balanced on a rickety table between us, as we have done so many times before in our decade of friendship. Of course, everything has changed now, inextricably and irreparably and inexplicably. I make mix CDs and I hug him tight and try not to say anything idiotic, hope furiously that loving someone as much as I love him counts for something in this long-run weigh-in with grief.
Something about this dish screams “carpe diem” to me, perhaps because it’s so decadent without being fussy, comforting and dead satisfying. It’s the kind of thing you make when you’ve abandoned any healthy pretenses and instead decide to serve up a bowl of something unguent, tangled mess of joie de vivre.
Disclaimer: this is not a strictly authentic version of carbonara, and I know that. It is, however, a much less cluttered version than many you’ll find out there. To strip down further, omit the parsley and use guanciale instead of panchetta, splurge on fresh pasta.
1 lb. linguini or spaghetti
¼ lb. pancetta, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed & minced with a little salt
¾ cup Parmesan or Pecorino Romano
¼ cup dry white wine
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
optional garnish: chopped flat-leaf parsley
First things first—get the pasta going. Cook it as you normally would, but be sure to save about a ¼ cup of the cooking liquid when draining the noodles.
In the meantime, heat a little olive oil over high heat, then add the chopped pancetta and cook until it begins to brown. When it does, turn down the heat to medium and add the garlic. After about 5 minutes, your kitchen should be nice and fragrant. Pour in the wine and let it cook down, another 5 minutes.
Sprinkle the red pepper flakes atop the garlic-panchetta brew. In a separate bowl, crack and gently beat the eggs. Add in the pasta water and beat further—this is to temper the eggs and keep them from scrambling when you add them to the hot pan, which you are about to do.
Bring everything together: remove the pan from heat, then add the drained pasta. Pour the egg mixture over everything, tossing rapidly to coat. Sprinkle on your cheese and grind in a generous helping of pepper, then mix again.
Serve hot, with parsley and a little extra cheese as garnish, if you wish.