I’ve always been of the opinion it’s hard to screw up spaghetti. You boil up some noodles, heat up some sauce, maybe serve it up with garlic bread, and you’re good to go. The sauce is the key ingredient of course, making or breaking the whole mix, but in general, there’s nothing to it. It’s worked for centuries, ever since Marco Polo stole noodles from China and some other guy poured tomato sauce all over them.
Yet when you get south of I-80 in the great state of Illinois, people somehow find a way to screw it up. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion people down here are like mad spaghetti scientists. They tell me they like to change things up because “spaghetti is boring,” without taking into account that it’s entirely possible their sauce just sucks.
The first time I knew something was amiss was when a friend of mine cooked up her noodles, drained the water, then opened a can of sauce and poured it right into the same pot as the noodles.
“What in the hell did you just do?” I asked her.
Dumbfounded, she explained she was cooking spaghetti.
I expressed doubt.
Growing up, my family had spaghetti every Sunday. My parents still do, in fact. Friends coming over for dinner would rave about my mom’s sauce, a blend she put together from different sources rather than open a single jar. Not once in all those years did she ever pour that sauce into a pot of hot noodles still sitting on the burner. Nor have I ever been to a restaurant — anywhere — that served their pasta in such a manner.
I thought maybe she was just weird, but then learned my mother-in-law does the same thing. With angel hair pasta, no less. They say it ends up this way on the plate, so why not spare the extra pan?
Because the sauce sticks to the noodles! They continue to cook it in the pot and everything congeals and sticks together. It’s just not the same. My wife defended it by saying that’s how it ends up the way we store leftovers, but leftovers are different; the initial meal is far more important than something I need to nuke up quick for lunch.
And by the way, my wife does not cook our spaghetti this way. I almost put it in our marriage vows.
The second oddity came from local restaurants. Somewhere along the line, someone determined pasta and fried chicken go together. I first encountered it at an all-you-can-eat chicken and spaghetti night, which my friends raved about. I soon discovered it at more restaurants, including one (alleged) Italian restaurant. They even serve it up with baked potatoes. Starch on top of starch? Odd.
You want chicken with your spaghetti? That’s what chicken parmigiana is for, people.
Next came the tendency to bake pasta. Not just lasagna, mind, but every pasta dish. It was many years after I moved before I could get mostaccioli without it being baked into a casserole. My friends’ parents made it that way, some relatives made it that way, and even a couple of restaurants made it that way. I guess all the layering of extra ingredients to make a really good lasagna is just too much work.
The local reasoning seems to be “Sauce sucks? Throw in cheese and bake the shit out of it.” Much like the pizza and Italian beef situations around here, I pretty much gave up. I lived and let live, content to let the locals continue in their ignorant ways while I get the real deal at home and visit the occasional restaurant that actually knows what they’re doing.
Then came insult to injury.
My wife found a recipe called “Baked Spaghetti” in a cookbook compiled by a local church. We’ve lucked into some good recipes this way, and I suppose the occasional violation of Italian food ordinances can be forgiven, what with my wife’s lack of appropriate zeal for the sacred art of pasta and the marital turmoil such disagreements can sometimes cause. (In other words, I sucked it up in case I wanted to get some that night.)
That’s when she broke out the bacon.
Who in their right mind puts bacon in pasta? Apparently the same people who can’t figure out it’s time to change their freakin’ sauce!
So the bacon went into the mix and the whole thing, as indicated by its name, went into the oven. The end result? A thick stack of too-stiff noodles, a miserly layer of cheese, and a dribble of orange, watery sauce. When I griped about the noodles, my wife informed me the recipe called for two cups of water.
Bacon and water in the core of pasta recipes. Cracker-thin pizza cut into 2″ by 2″ squares. An inability to tell the difference between Italian beef and Arby’s roast beef sandwiches. Ye gods.
I truly am a stranger in a strange land.