Eggplant Puttanesca — How Much Love in a Teaspoon?


By Elizabeth Speth

As a child, I was not sophisticated.  I loved snack time and Big Bird, glittery snow on Christmas cards and other obvious things.

I never wept about opera, or paintings, or written words.  That would or would not come later.  I didn’t care one way or the other.

But my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan?  That.  Made me weep.  Hysterically.  When she said I could not have thirds.

Fast forward to today, as I huff and puff and lug tomatoes, eggplant and basil in from the garden on a 102 degree Northern California day.  My grandmother would recognize my plump, over-heated, eager face.

Because I’m cooking today.  I have a mission in the kitchen.  That is my favorite.

Looking back, remembering as I watched her cook, I realize she made a Puttanesca sauce for that dish, which was different, and good.  I have had to recreate many of her recipes from memory this way, because she did not share.  I understand, now, that she withheld many things and kept many secrets.  Certain women reserve the right to remain complicated.

But the sensuousness of her hands masterfully preparing food is seared upon my memories, and I trust them as I jot down my own formulas and techniques for cooking, in case my children are interested. I will share all of this, although my notes are short on cooking time and measurements.  It is hard to fit a wave of love into a teaspoon.

So.  Back to the recipe.

I pour all my yellow and red tomatoes, so many soft plops, into a pan of hot olive oil, add sea salt and pepper to the hiss, and watch them bubble and burst.  I add honey here, to amplify the summer sweetness of what’s in my pot.

Then comes a sudden turning point in the plot as I scrape finely-diced anchovies off my knife into the sauce.  I add chili flakes.  Lots of them.  Cognac.  Garlic.  Diced olives and vinegary capers.  Fresh chopped basil.  It’s a briny, spicy, sweet, rich, fresh-tasting concoction.  Like no other.  Like my grandmother’s.

I slice the eggplants and let them sit, salted, so the moisture will leach out.  So they will not be slimy or bitter.  I rinse them, dip them in beaten eggs, and panko bread crumbs.  I fry them until they are crisp.

I layer the eggplant disks in a buttered pan with the Puttanesca sauce, and buffalo mozzarella and aged Parmesan.  Top the thing off with bread crumbs and more Parmesan.  Bake until brown and bubbly.

On my plate is another chapter in the history of my grandmother’s kitchen, and also in the history of my garden.  As I walk through all the rooms of flavor on my fork, all the layers of the past and present in my mouth, I understand it is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t weep as easily these days, now that I am no longer a child.  But I acknowledge the urge.  So I have a third helping.

Panting, Petting and Passionate (Wet) Kisses: Saying ‘Yes!’ to Love in the Workplace

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By Elizabeth Speth

If you are human you have thought, from time to time, that there are things you must do before you die.

The urge to grab life by the — er… shoulders during our brief experience of it is universal.  We seem to agree certain milestones are proof that we were worthwhile.  That our existence was adventurously lived, thoroughly enjoyed, deeply understood.

We hope these milestones will teach us something about the world. Perhaps they will teach us only that gravity is inescapable, and bones easily broken.  Or why it is a bad idea to lose our passports, or eat fermented fish from a street vendor in a Third World village.

We embrace the idea of them because we are brave, we humans, when we realize we are on a mortal deadline.

I recently have experienced one of these must-dos, one of these milestones, and like a new religious convert, like a freshly-minted cigarette-quitter, like a reformed alcohol-guzzler, I must insist that you do as I have done.  Because it’s a life-changer.

I’m talking about romance — about passionate love — in the workplace. Office canoodling.  Fraternizing.

Contrary to all the warnings, the threats of termination, and heartbreak, and humiliation, I’m urging you to dip your pen in company ink.  Dock your ship in the company port.

I’m telling you to bring your dog to work.

Now, I happen to work for a very liberal and accommodating company in this and many other respects.  We actually have two office dogs, counting mine.  Plus an employee vegetable garden and fruit orchard.  We cook a lot together at work, have soup days and pizza days and hummus days.  Not all workplaces are as understanding.

But you’ve got to get around it.  That’s all there is to it.  It won’t be easy, I know, but it’s not easy to live for a year in a Tibetan monastery either, and you still have it on your bucket list.  Don’t you? You think the Appalachian Trail is going to take nine months and hike itself, with only a backpack’s worth of hardtack and lip balm?  No.  But you are still reading the guidebooks, aren’t you?

I don’t care how you do it.  Get that dog to work.  Tomorrow.  You’ll thank me.  That’s what I did with my boy George, a six-month old secret recipe of terrier breeding, with little beady eyes and facial hair that would make a hipster proud.  This is George. At work.

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Why do you want to take your dog to work?  Why did I screw the top on his little commuter coffee mug (mostly because he doesn’t have thumbs), tuck him into the front seat beside me with his little briefcase full of chew toys and worming pills, and argue with him throughout the entire drive about who would pick the radio station?  Because it’s dangerous, my friends.  Wildly exciting and dangerous.

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This is George, saying goodbye to the family before leaving for work.

You haven’t lived until you look under your desk and see a tiny, snaggle-toothed, hairy devil’s spawn chewing furiously through a jungle of electrical cords.  Heart-plummeting doesn’t begin to describe the feeling as you count — one, two, three completely severed cords, and you hurriedly hide them behind the garbage can, hoping and praying you never find out what they once powered. Talk about an adrenaline rush.

Exhilaration is the only way to describe realizing your puppy is lifting his leg to pee on your boss’ desk chair.  During your performance evaluation.

That was the same day George also did something unspeakable to the executive printer, which is why he now has an appointment for a life-altering procedure at his veterinarian’s office next week.

I’m telling you it’s sheer adventure watching George passionately lick electrical outlets all over the building.  He is an ardent outlet licker.  He knows about grabbing life by the shoulders.

I think that about covers the danger aspect of this adventure I advocate.  Now let’s address the drama.  There should be drama in every milestone, every experience-of-a-lifetime.

George, I confess, is a polarizing force in the office.  He evokes strong emotions and responses. He is a bit of a thief, for one thing.  And he’s quick.  Many a co-worker has secretly, after looking around to make sure the coast is clear, slipped off her shoes to let her toes wriggle in temporary, private liberty.  In a split second — less than that —  the shoes are under my desk, George chewing them ecstatically to bits, making those odd, loud, grunting noises he makes when he is happy.

Shoe-less, trapped in her cubicle in shame, George’s barefoot victim must sit helplessly and listen as her shoe is murdered nearby. When I finally realize what is going on, I scoop up the battered, barely recognizable remains, I bury them hastily in shallow graves outside, and I say nothing.  At the end of the day, our poor naked-footed, fellow cubicle-dweller limps out to her car, traumatized and defeated, a grim, puppy-resenting look on her tired face.

Yes there have been problems.  Difficulties.  There has been urination.  But that is the definition of drama, is it not?

I have had to make adjustments.  The idea of a free-range George, traipsing from desk to desk, department to department, spreading love and joy, was not a sound one.  I re-calibrated, and I put up a child protective gate at the entrance of my cubicle, behind which George now sits, staring piteously out at passersby through his tiny button eyes.  Reprimanded for whining — and for overly dramatic sighing — he has resorted to throwing pieces of chew toys out of his cell, configuring them to spell out things like:  “Help me!” and “She’s mean!” and “She drinks!”

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George in captivity, not very happy with the carrot I packed him for lunch. Not that he helps me get ready in the morning or anything.

On to the warm, uplifting conclusion to my epiphany, my friends.

You must take your dog to work for the danger, the excitement, the drama, but you must also take your dog to work so you have someone there who understands you.  Someone who is part of your tribe.  For instance, George and are the most bedraggled, the least-groomed workers in our company.  This is what we usually look like, left to our own devices.

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But we look like this together.

We understand each other.  We are always hungry.  If we are ever not hungry, we still must be chewing something.  We are itchy and restless after short periods without stimulation.  We get overly excited about things.  We need a lot of short naps.

I bring George to work so I can stare at his warm little button eyes, under their busy, expressive eyebrows, when someone is yelling at me on the phone.

I need someone who can remind me about all the fun adventures we had together on the weekend, and that we will have more again after Friday.

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George and me, adventuring together on the weekends.

I need someone to sit at my desk with me, to help me decipher spreadsheets and write e-mails.

Big George

I need someone to shred an entire box of Kleenex over every square inch of our office when I step out to fill his water bowl.

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Sometimes he shreds Kleenex and shoes at the same time. He’s clever that way.

I need someone to eat the majority of my favorite orange highlighter and then keep me up all night while he vomits up piles the color of traffic safety cones.

My fellow employees need him — well, those who can forgive him about the shoes.

They need him to bark during unwanted conference calls, They need to cuddle with him after an angry client dressing-down.  He will look at them worshipfully when they are feeling less than proud professionally.  Especially if they sneak him a piece of chicken salad.  He is always available for a walk.  A slurpy kiss.  A game of tug-tug with a favorite tie or expensive pant leg.

We all need George.  You need a George.  At your work.  So you can take something as efficient, as unavoidable, as inevitable and business-like as a job, and you can inject a bit of thrilling, mortal humanity into it.  By way of sheer, joyful, unmitigated canine-ness.  Do you see the beauty of that?

Worst case scenario, you get fired.  You turn off your computer, with its frayed and severed cords.  You draw a diagram to show everyone where their shoes are buried, so they can have closure. You pack up your dog and you go home.  Then you are free to go to Tibet.

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