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  • Writer's pictureAmy Stephenson

It's Always Cooking

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

How to make sauce: recipe (barely) adapted from Alison Roman’s Dining In

Step 1: Buy three pounds of tomatoes and cut them in half, crosswise. Set them in a 3 quart baking dish, wounded side up. Add salt and pepper, generously, and chuck in a few cloves of garlic and some sprigs of thyme. Absolutely cover them in olive oil: around 2 cups.

The tomatoes in California were better than the ones in New York, but maybe we just haven’t quite gotten to peak season yet. I was in California last month, visiting for about 8 days, and I mostly just ate produce. I don’t think I had a single meal without an avocado next to it.

I ate avocados in El Cerrito where I got to see my dearest friend in her new town, visit her new house, see all the changes in her life since I've been gone. I ate tomatoes in Hayes Valley after early morning pedicures, where we drank champagne and talked about doing drugs and my friend still had last night’s makeup on his beautiful face. I ate a whole bunch of things at the bar I helped run, next to friends from my writing days and my bookstore days and my Shipwreck days, and I don’t even remember tasting those things, so focused was I on the rotation of good people in and out of the sunny alcove with the plush chairs toward the front of the bar.

Step 2: Stick the baking dish in a 325 degree oven for three and a half hours. This is a lot of time to run an oven in the summer, but it’s worth it. Also, in New York we have air conditioning, and so the two can sort of duke it out. It was warm while we were San Francisco, but also cold at night, and in the shade, and in the fog.

The last time I lived on the east coast was just after Alan went to Iraq. I didn't have A/C in my apartment, so I would spend my days after work walking in circles around the King of Prussia mall. I had only been in Philadelphia for two years and didn't have a single friend, but I was used to that. I worked too much to have friends, and anyway, "I'm 22 and too depressed to function because my brand new husband just left for war" was something that nobody else wanted to hear.

Step 3: When the tomatoes are shriveled and caramelized and somehow even more beautiful than when they went in, pull them out and set them on a trivet while you make the sauce.

The color here will remind you of something, it will remind you of 2017’s heatwave, when you had to host a Shipwreck for 250 people while the temperature was over 90 and the bookstore A/C was broken. You did the show with the lights off to try to stay cool, but in every photo you’re red-cheeked, you look like you’re about to collapse from heat stroke. The book was Stephen King’s It, and so there were red balloons everywhere, ones you brought, ones the audience brought. You took a photo of the crowd through one of the balloons, to make it look at hot as it felt. Two hundred and fifty red people sweating and laughing and still, somehow, in spite of the heat and the folding chairs, thrilled to be there.

Step 4: Slice some onions and sauté them until they’re soft, with some salt and some crushed red pepper flakes. I use way more red pepper than the recipe calls for, you know your taste.

Add some anchovies (the recipe calls for four but I use a good squeeze of the paste from the tube), and then two tablespoons of tomato paste. Stir until the paste turns red and sticks to the pan.

It might be scary to add anchovies to a red sauce; it was for me the first time. The sauces of my youth, made from canned tomatoes, loaded with meat and stirred lovingly by my now-estranged grandmother, would never have contained such an unlikely ingredient.

But trust me here: it's worth it. It's worth trying something that might fail. You can just close your eyes and do it. Sometimes you love a thing because it's comfortable and you don't realize that it could be better, could be so much better, if you just make it a little less safe. I spent my whole life trying to make people love me, a result of some terrible parenting and childhood traumas. But by the time I was standing in front of 300 people screaming with excitement—a time during which I was receiving fawning emails and handmade gifts and profiles in big media outlets—I physically could not absorb that any of that love was directed at me. That was when I realized that the problem wasn't that nobody loved me: the problem was with me.

When I finally decided I had to end Shipwreck, had to move home and get on with my life, part of me was terrified I would never feel that love again. I was wrong. My friends would never let that happen, we G-chat and Skype and send each other mail in a never-ending stream of I'm-thinking-about-you-s. It turned out I didn't need the applause to prove it anymore.

Step 5: Add the tomatoes. I like to break them up with a wooden spoon right away. They sort of fall apart in a really satisfying way.

I’m always fascinated by how food changes when you cook it twice, how heat and time can render something delicious in an entirely new way. A ripe, raw tomato slice with some olive oil and salt is divine; a tomato roasted in salty, garlicky olive oil until it turns to sugar and then built into a sauce is deadly sweet, that same divinity concentrated, so delicious it tastes like dessert if you close your eyes.

When I think about the tomatoes in San Francisco, they’re sweeter. Plumper. The smallest hot house tomatoes barely fit in my three-quart dish. Everything, in a way, was bigger there. Bigger like The Big One, like our little peninsula always one good jostle away from sloughing off into the Pacific.

There was an earthquake in our last year in San Francisco that woke me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. It was the kind that BANGS, not the kind that rolls, and though it only lasted a few seconds, I never made it back to sleep. I immediately started crying, shaking, I clutched at Alan as though he could save me from our hundred-year-old building falling down around us. I remember holding onto him for dear life and making noises like a scared child, I hate this I hate this I hate this. I thought: run. Get the fuck out of this state.

Step 6: The sauce will thicken. It'll happen really really fast, because you did all that work already, you took your time with the tomatoes. Oh—you should have made pasta by now, sorry I forgot to mention it. When the sauce is good and thick, you can chuck the pasta in, with about half a cup or so of the pasta water.

Toward the end of our tenure in San Francisco, I made this dinner once a week, the apartment we'd occupied for ten years constantly smelling like garlic and thyme. We passed our old apartment a few times while we were in town and whoever lives there now keeps the blinds down all the time.

I loved having those blinds open, loved to watch the hummingbirds in the tree outside, loved to listen to the buskers on the corner (sometimes), and the fathers explaining to bemused tweens what the hippies were. There were things I liked watching less, like how the cops arrested the same semi-homeless family with their toddler in a stroller over and over again for drug crimes. But it felt important to me to bear witness to it, to know my neighbors in that way and try to understand their lives. I can’t imagine closing those blinds.

Step 7: Make sure to adjust the salt. The salt brings out the sweetness.

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