This is the story of the ugly duckling.
I wrote last week that I was a vegetarian growing up, and this is how it happened. One night, I was staying at my father's house, and he had already gone to sleep. But I couldn't. It's as if the New York stars and moon had aligned to keep me awake to witness this seminal moment that would direct my fate for the next decade.
I was flipping through the channels, but a seven year old late at night, I couldn't find any Gem or She-Ra to watch. Too disappointing. Oh, but I did find these adorable little animals! They were minks, and the documentary was on how they went from being these nuzzling little weasels to the coat hanging in Mémé's closet. If you've seen such a program, you know how awful it is, and why it's on very late at night: so little girls like me won't see them, have nightmares, and go vegetarian. But that's exactly what I did.
I scribbled down the address, and sent away for information. It arrived, with more cute weasels, and fliers to hand out around my class. What a great idea! I figured. I called my headmistress, and asked if it would be all right if I handed out some anti-fur campaign materials. My school was all-girls and old, and in a fiercely pro-suffragette mindset, allowed us girls to get carried away with our hearts. I've always love that about that school.
Maman was also behind the whole thing, and as I mentioned, paraded into the kitchen armed with an open mind and Puy lentils. The day arrived when I was to hand out the fliers, and I put on my quotidian corded uniform jumper, rolled up my woolen knee socks, and slipped on my loafers. I got to class five minutes early, and left one flier on each desk. The teachers were informed, and all went swimmingly. I went home wrapped in smiles that insulated me from the cold wind, feeling that I had done something, made the weasels proud. Maman said I was spectacular, and made me spaghetti. I went to bed with rosy cheeks, and a slight protein deficiency, having no idea of the powerful love affair between the Upper East Side lady, and her furs.
The next morning I got to school, and sat down at my desk, still smiling, chatting with the other girls. Our teacher (whose name and appearance I will spare you out of consideration for you rather than for her) "ahem-ed" from the board. We turned at attention.
"You all received some very disturbing information yesterday from one of your classmates." She looked at me. "It is information this school does not support. If you have those fliers in your desk, I ask that you return them to me at once." One by one my classmates reached into their desks and obediently filed up to hand over the fliers. She took them, raised them up as a signal to me, and dumped them in the trash.
My school was one of those legendary schools that seem to exist only in Madeline storybooks where children really do walk two by two after the headmistress through the park in full uniform. We wanted to be there, to do well, to be accepted by the school. That is perhaps why it was such a wonderful school. At that moment, I felt the ideological iron curtain collapse down between me and my teacher. I was already from a Jewish family, and a brunette--different enough in those days. And now, heaven forbid, a vegetarian! I could tell she was wondering why on Earth she had to deal with the likes of me.
I went home hysterical that evening and buried my tear-hot head in Maman's chest.
"The injustice of it all!" she cried. "Liberté, egalité, sororité! You asked the headmistress!" I continued crying, and she made me more spaghetti.
Childhood injustice is never forgotten, and it is sharp as a cleaver to the heart. There you stand, proudly three feet tall, without any true belief that you differ from the adults in your midst in any real way. Until they remind you ruthlessly that you are at their mercy, and that you cannot so much as cross the road, with your feet or with your head, without holding their hand.
Every day for lunch we sat along picnic tables that had been assembled in the gymnasium. That school had the most wonderful food--a big hot meal at lunchtime, European style, but with dishes straight from Americana. It was the sort of thing Maman never cooked, like buttered, crumbing hot corn bread and mountainous Appleseed apple pies, and I loved it. I remember most clearly the roast chicken, and even more clearly the first day I realized I would no longer eat it. I turned to the little bowl of buttered green beans, and took my portion. I don't think anyone had ever touched those green beans before, but unlike the boiled, flaccid vegetables I mentioned last week, these were blistered in sweet butter, and salted. When I realized no one else would be eating them, and that they were all I had to eat, I took some more, and then some more again. I finished the whole tiny little lot. The lunch lady came by to see how we were getting on, and stopped dead in her tracks. She saw me munching away at the little green beans, and the empty bowl.
"Did you eat all these," she demanded.
I froze, terrified. "Yes, ma'am," I stammered. "I'm terribly sorry..."
She smiled and pinched my cheek. Then she brought me two more bowls full. After that, I became something of a legend with the lunch ladies. Alas, a girl who ate her vegetables. No surprises that they were French green beans.
My teacher witnessed these affairs, and stopped me on the stairs on day. "That Maman of yours is a terrible woman to do this to you. One day, you'll be grown enough to eat whatever you want, not just like a duck picking at the grass."
No one, and I mean no one, talks about Maman like that in front of me. I had the deep-rooted understanding that I was being manipulated, and in that way, I believe that my old and gray teacher had forgotten that children are in fact simply little adults. I went to retort, but I said nothing. Maturity in people, unlike in cheese and beef and wine, doesn't always come with age.
Of course, as the ugly duckling, the one who didn't quite fit in, I was taunted and asked many leading questions and stopped on stairs by teachers and all of it. But I also grew up learning creativity and adaptability in the kitchen that I perhaps would never have come to if I hadn't had to. To imagine my life now without blistered buttered haricots verts is a near impossibility, so inveterate have they become in my life, so much do they remind me of my school days.
In the end, I can't say if I've grown up into a swan. But like any good duckling, I had to learn to swim, or to sink. And as you can see, I haven't ended up as duck à l'orange as of yet. My dear school educated me in many ways, and I am thankful for all of them.
This week's spaghetti is of course a reminder of all the pasta Maman cooked for me over the next few years, and all the ways that we discovered that vegetarian food is not about not eating meat, it is about eating really good vegetables. And as necessity is the mother of invention, we had a lot of fun devising new dishes. This one is something of an ugly duckling as well, different from its peers, but after all is said and done, peerless. It is a pistou, but while French pistous usually omit the nuts, this one is all nuts. Pistachios, with a touch of mint, create this chunky green nut butter that wraps itself with garlic and parmesan around the strands of pasta, which are polka dotted with springtime fava beans, mint ribbons, and parmesan shards. Eat as-is, or serve (now that I am no longer vegetarian) with any summertime favorite off the grill, especially white fish fillets, shrimp, or chicken breasts.
- 1 pound dry spaghetti
- 1 clove of garlic
- The leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs of mint, plus extra for garnish
- 1 1/4 cups shelled toasted unsalted pistachios
- 1/3 cup shredded Parmesan, plus extra to top the pasta
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup shelled blanched fava beans
- Salt and pepper
A Note on Some Ingredients
- Fava beans or broad beans can be hard to find in America. I recommend looking for the pod version in farmers' markets and the frozen, shelled version in the freezer section at good, broad-thinking health-oriented markets or Middle Easter markets. If you can't find them, try substituting with baby green lima beans or even sweet peas. To prepare the whole fava beans, start with 500 grams of fava bean pods. Snap off the tops, and slide the beans out. With both the frozen and the fresh, blanch in salted boiling water for 2 minutes, then shock in an ice bath. Squeeze the green bean from inside the pale green bean skin (you won't need to do this with the little frozen ones). All ready to go.
Cook the pasta until it is al dente in a large pot of well salted, vigorously boiling water.
Meanwhile, make the pistou by smashing together the garlic, mint, salt, and pepper in a food processor.
Add in the toasted pistachios (make sure they're not hot from toasting), and whirl until the nuts are nearly powder. Drizzle in the olive oil.
Add in the Parmesan and butter, and pulse until combined.
Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.
Toss the pasta with the pistou and the fava beans, moistening as necessary with the reserved cooking water. Top with sliced mint leaves, extra chopped pistachios, and Parmesan.