Friday, April 1, 2011

NostalgiaFood: Linguine White Clam Sauce!

I was a latchkey kid in the 1980’s and like a lot of other latchkey kids I rooted around the kitchen after school while my parents were stuck in traffic commuting from their jobs in the Big city. Call it Reagan-era self-reliance, but if I didn’t fend for myself I was surely going to starve.

Lucky me, our kitchen was always stocked up, and growing up in the NY metro melting pot, the canned food aisle in the grocery store was no exception. Caribbean island staples like Goya beans and cream of coconut were stocked alongside American classics like baked beans and Hormel Chili. In my Italian-American neighborhood, my one particular nirvana in a can was: Progresso Linguine White Clam Sauce (with Garlic and Herbs).

Two decades and 3000 miles later, while searching for Drano I stumbled upon rows of these delicious blue cans in my local Safeway. Should I pretend that I didn’t furtively and nostalgically place a can in my basket, take it home and cook it up? Did Progresso's white clam sauce stand the test of time? Once I cranked off the metal lid, the oily, greenish liquid within had a vague garlic aroma that intensified as I gently heated it on the stove. I poured it over angel hair pasta as I would have in junior high school. The dish was surprisingly flavorful if not slightly metallic. All I was missing was that powdery sour cheese sprinkled from the green can, probably a good thing. Reader, I ate every single bite.

Canned linguine white clam sauce is what I call nostalgia food, a food experience that evokes a lush emotional memory even if in all reality, it is far from gastronomically ideal. (Like a breakfast of Spam cubes and fried rice. Or, Lyle's Golden Syrup on white bread toast. These are real breakfast's that Giant Sous Chef and I had as kids. The former disturbingly fatty and salty. The latter, oddly bland and the shiny syrup always ready to drip from the knife and stain your navy school sweater.)

The only antidote for a nostalgia food craving is making your own. You alone know exactly how the dish should taste and how the flavors meld in your mind, in your heart and on your tongue...

Tender chopped clams, Littlenecks if you can find them, in a bright, fragrant seafood jus flecked with garlic and parsley. Unctuous sauce clinging to warm linguine strands with just the right saltiness and bite. Steaming clam shells nestled among the pasta mounds. I topped each plate with buttery toasted breadcrumbs and parsley. Paired with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc it's the perfect pasta for a long winter weekend or a lazy summer night. Don't forget to invite Spice-E...

TOP 3 Linguine White Clam Sauce Experiences:

- Lenny's Clam Bar in Howard Beach, NY. With a guy who feared garlic on first dates. I ordered the white clam sauce and a big side of garlic bread. "I don't care if you don't want to kiss me later," I said. I twined my fork into a mound of pasta. The garlic slivers were visible. "I'm eating this."

- The day before Thanksgiving, Detroit. 1990. We got in on an evening train and Susie's Grandma Ginny made us a late supper. I watched her pour a small jar of clam juice into the broth. She served us wine, and, later, let me smoke in her kitchen while we talked like girlfriends. I was at college in the Midwest, a great place to learn about classic American flavors from classic American women.

- In January 2008, we christened a cherry red round French oven, a wedding present and an heirloom piece in the making, with a big-lovin' batch of linguine white clam sauce, I shaved skinny curls of parmigiano reggiano over the top.