Linguini with White Clam Sauce
1 lb linguini or other what my daughter calls “slurpy noodles”
2 dozen fresh little neck clams
1 stick of unsalted butter
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup dry white wine you would be happy drinking
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
Put a big pot of water on the stove and don’t forget to salt it generously, recalling the time you did exactly that, and how your children now say things like, “Remember that time you forgot to salt the pasta, mama? DEE-sgusting!” This is about truth, not manners. They were correct.
Call your mom to make sure you have her recipe close to correct. Leave a message on her voicemail and realize the time—she might be at an AA meeting. But she’ll call you back. She always does, these days.
Send your husband to the store for Parmigiano Reggiano that you forgot to get at Wegmans earlier today. Unlike your other favorite pasta dish, spaghetti puttanesca, this is a sauce that benefits from the sharp, nutty, dairy punch.
Open the bottle of Pinot Grigio you grabbed on the way home, and hope that it is drinkable. You don’t know much about white wines—you’ve always preferred red–but your mother does. Or, she did. Pour yourself a glass and hit it with an ice cube. Remember—you can’t help but remember—how the sound of ice against crystal used to make you cringe. Home from the office on a weeknight, still in her heels and trench coat, she reaches first for the glass, then for the bottle, then for the freezer door. Clink. Plink.
Remind yourself that your mother has three and a half years sober and has become, for you, a lifeline. Sip. Breathe. Be grateful and go chop the garlic.
Ask your husband to take pictures. Acknowledge that he is better at this than you are. Be at peace with this. Let go of control. Let them–the husband, the clams– take care of you this time.
Soak the clams in a bowl of fresh water in the sink. Something about how the fresh water irritates, forces them to give up their grit. Let them sit while you chop the parsley, the scent of summer green reaching. Think about how it is only February but the crocuses, snowdrops and even the tulips are already coming up. Tulips! Your parsley overwintered, lush and rangy, last year. Imagine next year fuller, greener, even more.
Rinse the clams and place them in the bottom of your blue enamel Dutch oven, and cover with 1/2 cup of wine (which tastes just fine) a sprinkling of garlic and a full hand of parsley. Consider some lemon, but remember that it will turn the garlic blue. Opt not to. You can always add it later. Color is important. Remember your father’s problem with “brown food.”
Cover the clams and turn the gas to high. Wait for them to release their juice. Just a few more minutes. Resist the temptation to lift the lid too much. Be patient. Be patient. Soon.
Listen for the opining of the hard shells. (note here that you meant to write opening but like the mistype enough to leave it.) There is a kind of ticking sound, a whistling, coming from the pot. This will remind you, undoubtedly of lobsters and crabs in pots on the stovetop in Montauk during the summer of 1979. You and your cousin playing H-O-R-S-E on the hot driveway outside the bungalow. Burying him in sand. The way the ocean water broke over you, tumbled you, terrified, as you tried to reach your father, feet from shore.
Clams do not have faces. Be grateful for that.
In your kitchen now, the smell of garlic and wine and sea. Just breathe.
When the clams are done, realize you don’t know how to proceed. Should you remove them from the shells and toss them back into the sauce or serve them, prettily, atop a pile of pasta? It doesn’t matter. Make a choice and don’t look back. Either thing will be delicious.
Melt a stick of butter into the still-simmering liquid. Taste it. Add some oil. Maybe some salt. Pull the tender clams from their shells with your fingers. Put one in your mouth and bite down. Feel it resist and then yield. Yield with it and try not to think of sex or of the way your sister refused to eat this dish as a kid, how you could gross her out—and did—by saying the words, “sloop and slide, sloop and slide.” Now put them back in the pot.
Throw in the rest of the garlic, the rest of the parsley. Grind some black pepper. Taste it again and feel the spoon burn your tongue just at the tip. Your mother still hasn’t called back but it’s okay. It’s also okay to worry a little about how she will feel reading this. Tell yourself that she will know this recipe is really a love letter. Tell your husband to put the camera down and open his mouth. When he tells you yes, he likes it, but he likes his own mother’s version better, that will be okay too. A mother’s love and all.
Serve in the shallow blue soup bowls his mother gave you for your wedding over slurpy noodles. Grate some cheese. Squeeze some lemon over it if you want. What you want is a bowl of delicious swimming things: noodles, garlic, clams naked but for flecks of black and green.
Crusty bread, too, to tumble and soak. And sigh.