Friday, November 6, 2009

Pasta and piety

My friend Jeannie was here for a visit for a couple of days. We spent all day yesterday on a self-guided historic tour of our old neighborhoods in Hyattsville and College Park, Maryland. We were shocked at how much had changed. Like what happened to the place on Route 1 where in 1965 we used to get a huge plate of pasta with bread and salad for less than two dollars? We came back to my house and I cooked her pasta with my favorite sauce. Here's a piece from my book that includes the recipe.

Vocational Training

Have you ever heard that what you wanted to be as a child should be a clue to your true calling as an adult? If that literally were true, there would be an overabundance of cowboys and ballerinas and astronauts. I don’t recall anyone who wanted to be a plumber, or a butcher, or even a banker. My brother Mark wanted to be trash man. He practiced by piling toys in a blanket, carrying them to the top bunk bed, and dumping them over the side. He’s an adult now and he sells baked goods—maybe he would have been happier as a trash man.

I have been scouring the recesses of my memory, trying to remember if I ever wanted to be anything when I grew up. Something tells me that I once wanted to be a “stewardess” but it was not a burning desire. I think the stewardess phase probably came from my first flight, a trip to Texas when I was about 11 or 12. But for most of my childhood, I don’t think I had any plans. Maybe that’s why I’m a wannabe writer now. What else can I do?

There was a phase that I explored much later than most Catholic girls—I wanted to be a nun. I didn’t want to be a nun when I was an impressionable preteen. I wanted to be a nun late in my high school years. For me, the perceived calling wasn’t because of the strength of my faith. Rather it was the lure of something strangely romantic and dramatic. I liked the way the nuns floated down the halls with a quiet rustle. I liked the black habits and the laced high-top shoes. (Oh, my God, I just realized why my closet is full of black clothes and why I have seven pairs of Chuck Taylor high-tops—it’s the nun thing! Do you think they wore black lace under things?)

I was intrigued by the mystery of what went on behind the cloistered walls. The nuns who taught in my high school were semi-cloistered. They were allowed out of the convent to go to the adjacent high school to teach, but they had limited exposure to the outside world. When they died, they were buried in a small cemetery behind the convent. The belonged to an order called the Religious of Jesus and Mary. At the time, the nuns in this order were called “Mother” rather than “Sister” and French was the native language for many of them.

Although they were all white, mostly middle-aged, and obviously Catholic, their distinct personalities broke through the confines of their religious vows. Mother St. John of the Cenacle ran the school bookstore and taught Latin and Algebra. I had her for four years of Latin and two years of Algebra. She was a little tank of a woman and seemed stern but she had a sweet side and she was a wonderful teacher. She also was the designated driver who took the other nuns to the dentist.

Mother Mary of the Presentation was young and relatively hip. We called her Mother Prez. She taught English and organized the speech and debate teams. She recruited me to enter the diocesan speech competition, in the original oratory category. I competed with a speech about Dr. Tom Dooley, a physician who practiced in Viet Nam before the war was fully engaged. I wrote the first draft of the speech but Mother Prez added a line about Dr. Dooley being “my uncle, my guide, and my inspiration.” Lies, all lies. I only knew about him because I read a book about him—and he certainly was not my uncle. She convinced me to lie to strengthen the speech. What a kick she was. She died not long after we graduated from high school, a young cancer victim.

Mother St. Gregory taught religion and headed both the Sodality and the glee club. She was tall and classically beautiful, like Grace Kelly, with a voice like an angel. I still remember how graceful and ethereal she was. She organized a group of us to sing Gregorian chant in at a national conference for music educators. We sang Regina Coeli—until this day I remember every word in Latin. She also died young.

Mother St. Angela was the one closest to my heart. She was short and round with an impish face and a hint of white hair beneath her wimple. She was the French teacher. My graduating class was the first to have four years of French with her. She was bursting with pride for the small group that stayed with her for four years. At the end of the fourth year she decided to have a little party for us. So she planned for weeks and on a lovely spring day, we had a little celebration in the garden behind the convent. Although we had been at the school for four years, this was the first time we were allowed into the garden. Mother Angela made us root beer—homemade root beer. It tasted dreadful but it added immeasurably to her charm. There weren’t more than 15 girls in our fourth year French class. She became frustrated with me because I always found someone to chat with during class. “Mademoiselle Xander!!” she said with an icy stare. Then she moved me to the last seat in the row, at least five desks removed from anyone else. She lived a long life in the convent and was buried in the cemetery near the garden where she served her root beer. She taught us how to pray in French. It’s useful to be able to speak to God in more than one language.

Sometimes I think I should have entered the convent, but I probably would have lusted for the outside world in no time. Still sometimes I think it would have been wonderfully peaceful to live removed from the mania on the outside. Living in quiet, few decisions to be made, few worries about mortgage payments or rebellious teenagers. No concerns about whether or not my “relationship” is working. The only important relationship would have been with God.

Recently I visited my friend Kathleen who had left an abusive marriage and took refuge temporarily in a convent. Although none of the sisters where there when I visited, Kathleen told me they were with an order of Italian nuns called the Little Workers. There was a picture of the sisters in the entry, a photograph of them with some religious dignitary. They were little gnomes, dark, scrunched women in modern religious habits. They looked very Italian. Picture these little workers, like Snow White’s dwarfs, going off to harvest souls for the Lord. Their convent is just a large old house in northeast Washington, D.C., with a wrought iron front door and multiple door locks. The house smelled like old people. Too bad—I was hoping it would smell Italian, like garlic sautéed in olive oil and plum tomatoes. In the foyer was a poster on the wall, like a poster of Bob Marley in the bedroom of what we call a high-risk adolescent. But the Little Workers had a poster of Mother Theresa, tacked on the wall with push pins. I was expecting the smell of incense, highly polished floors, crucifixes, and statues of the Blessed Mother, not a push-pinned poster of Mother Theresa. But I suppose convents just aren’t what they used to be.

Some religious women consider themselves to be married to God. In the mid-60s I was captivated by a poem by Lynne Lawner, entitled “Wedding Night of a Nun” from a book of the same title.* I recently found a copy of this out-of-print book and wondered how this vaguely erotic book ever found its way into a Catholic girls’ school library. Lawner wrote:

Yet I wonder as I lie with him tonight
And mumble praise into the vacant pillow,
If it is not the same
And he another, who, being what he is, has excuse for absence.
I see his form pass through the dark forest
And as I lie in terror and desire
Feel his breath upon my face
And my humanness.

Lynne Lawner almost got me to enter the convent, just to see if that’s what really happens for a young nun. I didn’t want the vocation, the life of prayer and dedication to God’s work. I wanted the passion, the dark romance with someone beyond human form.

*Lynne Lawner, Wedding Night of a Nun: Poems. Little, Brown and Company. 1960.


The mere thought of olive oil and garlic and plum tomatoes is making me swoon. To me, there is no food more perfect than a simple pasta dish with fresh ingredients and real Parmesan cheese. This is one of my favorites.

Pasta Amatriciana

4 tablespoons good quality olive oil
1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 thick slices bacon (pepper bacon especially good) chopped
4 ounces Irish (or Canadian) bacon cut into julienne slices
1 28 ounce can Italian diced plum tomatoes with juice, coarsely chopped
¼ cup dry red wine
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 pound pasta of your choice (capellini, linguini, or rotini are good)

Heat oil in large skillet on medium heat.
Sauté the onion and garlic until translucent
In separate non-stick pan over medium heat, sauté the both bacons until brown.
Add bacon to pan with onion and garlic.
Add the crushed dried red pepper, black pepper, and parsley.
Add the tomatoes and wine and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, until sauce thickens.

Pour sauce over cooked pasta and top with parmesan cheese.

Serves 4.

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