La Divina Commedia

I am looking for the perfect lasagna, making my way through cookbooks at midnight, ready for heartbreak but hopeful, like Dante seeking Beatrice.

I have been making lasagna for thirty years. I am middle-aged and in love and I am counting on lasagna. Marcella Hazan strongly recommends passion, clarity and sincerity when cooking and she particularly recommends it in the form of Le Lasagne coi Funghi e Prosciutto and I am considering it. Six layers of pasta, bechamel sauce, thinly sliced wild and cultivated mushrooms, prosciutto and freshly grated Parmesan. I have made it before. It is handsomely reliable. It is a good black dress with pearls. When I read the recipe at half past midnight, I think, No one, not even a man whose mother is a very fine Italian cook, and actually an Italian, could say that you had not made an effort when you take this out of the oven. I wonder if I can bring myself to refer to it as le lasagne.

My life with lasagna began when I was cutting classes at Boston University. I wandered across town, into the North End and discovered real Italian food. Sweet and hot sausage hanging in ropes, polpette taken out of a steaming pot and dropped into a paper bucket for me, fresh ricotta in a tub, boncini of fresh mozzarella bobbing in a steel drum and Parmesan in giant wheels and red peppers roasted over a hibachi while I watched. No one thought I should be studying Heidigger instead. No one thought I should turn down a single taste of anything. I stayed so long, a woman offered me a drink and I had my first shot of grappa in a paper cup, at dusk on Salem Street. It seemed that the only right thing was to buy everything I could and layer it between sheets of pasta. I cooked all night (it would not take all night if you did it. I had one frying pan and one stockpot.). I invited everyone I knew to come for dinner and I told each person to bring a bottle of red wine. I was eighteen years old, I had successfully fed twenty people. I had surpassed my mother. I had fallen in love with the entire country of Italy, and when everyone else had gone home, there was a handsome point guard washing my dishes. It was a culinary and social success of such magnitude that I thought, There is no reason to ever make anything else.

I finished college, still making the Tutti con tutti lasagna. My new husband said he had never eaten anything like it. He was from Minnesota and he meant it. The new husband came with a new stepson, on whom I could practice being a mother and after I taught him to avoid plaids and stripes, I showed him how to make chocolate chip cookies and I taught him to make three-cheese lasagna. I thought this would ensure that he could impress girls and never go hungry. Lasagna does not let him down and for the next twenty years, he impresses girls so much that if he were not such a decent man, he could choose never to cook for himself at all.

I had my first little girl and when I was trying to work things out with the mothers in her play group, I made Dieter’s Lasagna. It had ground turkey breast, whole wheat noodles, part–skim mozzarella and fat-free ricotta. One of the other mothers said, “I feel better about myself when I eat this way, don’t you?” I did not. I felt that I had betrayed all of ltaly. We left the lasagna and the educationally stimulating toys and I drove my daughter all the way to Pepe’s Pizza in New Haven. We finished off a small pie and when we got home I washed the tomato sauce out of her hair which I expected, but also out of her underwear, which I think must be the sign that you have really, really enjoyed your lunch.

Tempus fugit, and I had three kids and made the World’s Fastest Lasagna about once a week. I bought my pesto sauce. I bought my tomato sauce. I bought no-boil noodles (and there was nothing wrong with them at all) and I grated Fontina cheese on every layer. I tossed chunks of Fontina to my children while the WFL baked and they clapped like seals and we agreed that there was nothing wrong with any food that could be caught on the first bounce.

My husband liked to entertain. When I met him, he ate bulgur wheat and lentil casseroles and drank wine out of bottles shaped like fish. Now we’d come to have a whole shelf of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and 800 traditionally-shaped bottles in the cellar. I knew more about great wine than I needed to or can now afford to and to this day, I feel an odd, proprietary satisfaction when I see bottles that used to sit on our basement floor going for $400 a piece. (It’s 2 a.m. and I am thinking of a Barolo we once had. I wonder if it would be too powerful for the lasagna I’m contemplating. I wonder if I can call my former husband at 2 a.m. and ask if he still has some of that spectacular Barolo and it’s held up and if he does and it has, would he mind if I came by for a bottle this afternoon. I can almost persuade myself that this would be okay. I’ve done him some favors, over the years. He might be glad to do me a little favor, I think. He might be charmed by my spontaneity. I have to put the phone in my study, shut the door to my study, put an armchair in front of the door and then walk to the other side of the house.)

Sometimes my husband and I used to cook together, but not often. Often, I’d make one dish the day before and watch the kids while he cooked. He was a more careful cook than I was or am, and it seemed that there is no way to argue the benefits of careless cooking, if there are any. The virtues of insouciance versus economy of motion. Exuberance versus an evenly browned crust. He used to say things like “There’s a better way to cut that tomato,” and I would say the kind of things careless cooks do, and then at some point, I just shrugged, and that is why we got divorced.

One night, ten people I didn’t know were coming to dinner. We had a toddler, a baby and a teen-age boy with a drivers license. A good Saturday for me would have been a walk and a shower and stiff drink. Instead, I made an extremely time-consuming, careful, elaborate and frankly demented dessert “lasagna.” It had guava cream and cream cheese whipped up together and layered between mandoline-sliced pineapple which had been sugared and run under the broiler. Instead of tomato sauce, there were finely chopped strawberries between each layer and a great mound of them sliding over the top. The visiting scholars liked it. The most important guest said he had never seen anything like it and he meant it. My husband was very nice about it, which is why although we do divorce, it won’t be for a long time and when it does happen, it breaks my heart.

It is three a.m. I am furious with Anna Del Conte and her Italian Pantry cookbook. Her lasagne are no lasagne at all; they are reginette imbottite, literally stuffed little queens which seems about right for such a fussy and somehow unyielding recipe. You fill a shallow oven dish with a bunch of the reginette, which you have made by cutting your lasagna noodles into half-inch ribbons, each strip with a ruffled edge and a plain one. You can see instantly that you cannot use store bought lasagna noodles, no matter how high quality, because you will have to save most of every noodle for something else. Maybe for regular people lasagna, is what I think. The reginette are nicely, predictably filled with ham, spinach and ricotta, covered with a cheese sauce and baked some more. It sounds fine for a ladies’ luncheon and certainly more promising than the other thing Del Conte has tried to pass off as lasagna: a Timballo de pesce, which she describes as well suited for the cook “who likes to try anything a bit more enterprising.” That’s her tone. “Povera,” I hear her saying. “His mother is Italian. What did he say. ‘The best cook in the world?’ Dio Mio. And didn’t I hear that his wife, that is his former wife – are they quite divorced? – was a wonderful cook? I am sure I heard that.” (She’s from Milan, but her voice in my head is a Maggie Smith drawl, a blend of pity, disbelief and condescension that makes me want to put my hand through a window.) You see what I’m talking about. I put The Italian Pantry behind Hopi Cookery and Our Amish Christmas. I pour a glass of red wine I can afford. I think about the fact that I have never worried about preparing a meal for anyone in my life. When I met my husband, I was a college student and my ability to cook rice and throw a chicken breast near it, was good enough. When I met my girlfriend, I had made a lot of family dinners and was ready to retire. She had made none and was ready to take up the whisk, which she did with great determination and the zeal of a convert. She wasn’t crazy about entertaining people, but she loved to cook for them. She made the best flank steak in the world, the most beautifully complex salads, a martini that could peel paint. I never cooked anything ambitious for her in all of our years together. The first year my husband and I were married, he made me a very fancy, old-fashioned seven-layer torte. We didn’t have a mixer. I think that we didn’t even have a whisk, although that seems impossible. He had blisters on both hands. I feel, acutely, that I am doing penance for all those years of blithe indifference to cookbooks, precision and something else important which I have been ignoring. If my ex-husband was here, he could make sure I didn’t screw up the recipe. If my ex-girlfriend was here, she could just make it for me. I can see them both on the couch, chuckling. This is a very good night for my former partners. At four a.m., I take the big yellow Gourmet Cookbook to bed with me, my hand on page 234’s Beef and Sausage Lasagna recipe, which follows the unappealing Mushroom, Radicchio and Smoked Mozzarella Lasagna and the elegant vegetarian Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Lasagna which sounds perfect if I am entertaining an elegant vegetarian which this man is not. I wake up at five a.m. as if someone has stuck a fork in my cerebral cortex. Six Advil and twenty minutes later, I am in the supermarket with the other people who shop at dawn. We are people coming off the night shift in crumpled uniforms and spattered scrubs, a few young mothers with their crumb-covered babies, old people, self-sufficient and unable to sleep. The cashiers are kinder at this time of day; they are like old-fashioned nurses; their brisk, firm manner discourages the weepy fatigue and self-pity people like us are prone to. But, we are not a bad group of shoppers; no one brandishes a fistful of coupons, no one bangs on the butcher’s door, demanding exactly four fresh chicken livers, no one screws up on the self checkout line. We are dogged.

Sleep-deprived and moonstruck, I hear the boxes of no-boil noodles and the 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes in juice call to me and they do not say reassuring things. They say, “How old are you, anyway?” They say, “Do your children know where you are?” The flat leaf parsley waves at me with the cheer of the truly malicious and I end up buying two pounds of it because I cannot remember what a quarter-cup looks like. I picture Augusto on a recent bad day, dark circles under his eyes, overdue for a haircut, harried and out of sorts. I am so blinded by love, I bang into one of the young mothers and her baby. The baby lifts his Sippee-Cup grandly, up and over me, like Queen Elizabeth christening a ship. I smile at the apple juice running onto my shoulder and she smiles and the young prince smiles and wipes animal cracker on my sleeve and I have no idea what to do with all the love that is flooding the grocery store.

I pick up and put down the package of ground veal. The veal is not feeling the love. The veal says to me, “You have refused to buy veal on principle for the last twenty years. Look at you. Slut. Collaborateur. For shame.” The veal is still talking when I get to the little Italian grocery store for the fresh ricotta and the homemade sausage. The old lady wrestling with the giant pan of eggplant Parmesan nods. We have done this a couple of times a year for the last five years. She nods, I nod. Suddenly, this seems terrible to me. And, also, I see what she sees. A woman in faded track pants and a dirty t-shirt, wearing a bright orange hoodie borrowed from someone much younger. My hair is blowing around like a dark and greying cloud and it seems possible that word could get back from this old woman to Augusto’s mother and that the word on the Italian Madre circuit will not be that I am a lady in the living room, a genius in the kitchen and exactly what I should be in the bedroom but that I am a nearsighted and short-tempered writer with so many bad habits, you wouldn’t wish me on anyone’s son. I am dabbing at my eyes and putting my things on the counter. I seem to have bought enormous purple figs, moaning ripely in their green box, and prosciutto to drape over them, like a silk slip, and a wedge of Gorgonzola, already crumbling moistly in its waxed paper and the old lady elbows her son out of the way to ring me up and say, very kindly, Making a nice dinner?

I say, Yes, I am making a nice dinner. I say that I hope it will be nice. I am almost bent over with hoping that it will be nice and that I am not making a small and significant error in judgment today, which will turn out to be just one of a galaxy of errors in judgment, including my two previous marriages and divorces and, in the middle of the galaxy, very large, with a dozen rings around it, is the terrible idea that I might ever try again. The old lady hands me a tissue and rings me up. She says, Lasagna? I say Yes, lasagna. A very simple one. Veal, beef and sausage. The veal, she says, you don’t got. She calls to her son who grinds another half pound of veal for me. Little calves are suffering horribly for me and I feel very bad about this but this recipe is the only thing that stands between me and my fears. The old lady rings up the veal and she says to me, You got a nice wine. I say that I have a nice enough wine, and we both shrug. We are both thinking, two bottles would be a good idea. She says, You got a nice dessert. I don’t. I had planned to make tiramisu, which I can do in my sleep, but not today. The old lady puts four cannoli in a box. I look dubious, if it is possible to look dubious, lovesick and terrified, all at the same time. He’s Italian, she says. You bet, I say darkly. Very. His family?

From Canino, I say. She wraps red and white twine around the box. Ah ha, she says, big sweet tooth.

I cook all afternoon. It is a wonderfully straightforward recipe and even as I am weeping over the onions, I think, I can do this. I set the table. Twice. I shower and try on clothes that seem appropriate for the occasion, although I cannot bear to characterize the occasion. I have nothing to wear. I think, I cannot do this.

He is pleased by everything. He eats everything. We laugh all night. He tells me stories. I tell him stories. He washes the dishes. We finish the wine. We go to bed. We marry and grow old in Italy. We die in each other’s arms.