Heartburn and pasta primavera
Jackass, Nora Ephron, and eating in bed
I. Short takes
II. Heartburn (1986)
III. “Seasonal” spaghetti
IV. Other things I ate
BOYS WILL BE BOYS
JACKASS FOREVER (2022): What better way to distract from the work week than the pulverizing and breathtaking comedy of Jackass? Here are men resting in untrammeled, prank-fueled ebullience, divorced from any reality. Outsize adrenaline replaces plot, flab and flaccid junk swaps in for genderpolitks. Abject terror alternates with pure showmanship in an engaging display of heartrending audacity. But above all, the hivemind of bosom buddies, old friends and fresh recruits, conquers fear, pain, and life.
THE LAST DUEL (2021): Ridley Scott’s long “he-said, she-said” is lascivious and unexpectedly arch. The medieval Rashoman is admirable in its intent, but what will stand through the test of time are Damon’s mullet and Affleck’s dye job, and how Adam Driver comes between them.
BEAUTIFUL GIRLS (1996): It took me over ten years to watch the movie excerpted in a Taking Back Sunday single that I used to scream at the top of my lungs in high school. The movie, like the emo band, is mainly about angsty suburban boys pretending to be profound. Both of them feel a little embarassing. The movie concerns smalltown 20-something dudes with commitment issues. One of them develops a creepy crush on a young (like, really young) Natalie Portman, and none of them are good enough for Uma Thurman, rightly so.
Mike Nichols, 1986
More than two decades after Meryl Streep played mighty chef and food icon Julia Childs in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, she played a bourgeois food writer named Rachel Samstat in Heartburn. Vowing never to marry, Rachel falls head over heels for Nick, a “serious” journalist and serial philanderer played by Jack Nicholson. The movie is based on Ephron’s novel, which is based on her ill-fated, real life marriage to Carl Bernstein.
Minutes before the ceremony, Rachel gets cold feet and hides out in her bedroom, leaving the wedding guest to yawn and mill about her well-appointed Manhattan apartment where it’s all taking place. This scene, and many others in the movie, meander like a sentence without punctuation. You get the impression it’s meant to be funny, in that sardonic half-chortle sort of way, but nothing ever quite lands. It’s like hearing an anecdote from a stranger whose seriousness you can’t yet gauge, but they appear to be well-dressed, nominally attractive and of good stock, whatever that means, so you linger on.
And so the characters in the film coast on the merits of the actors’ star power instead of good writing. Rachel and Nick are so blase, it's hard to believe they were ever in love in the first place, much less to care about their flailing fidelity. This marks a fatal sin for movies falling under the “unhappy marriage subtheme” (one of my favorites), the success of which relies on at least one half of the dyad’s devastation. The characters in Heartburn are more irritated than destroyed, and what emerges is a self-serving and discursive portrait of a woman in crisis.
Streaming on Hulu.
Ephron’s appetites and reputation as a purveyor of domesticity are on full display. Some of the things Rachel cooks for Nick include linguini with clams, pork chops with mustard and cream, roast chicken stuffed with lemons, a version of which she packs for a picnic on the Virginia shore. When Nick for prematurely picks at a wing before the lunching hour begins, Rachel admonishes him like a child. Burnished with lots of herbs and lemon slices, the chicken looks appetizing in that stock-image way, if the image in question comes from a Ralph Lauren lookbook from the 80s.
Ephron can be self-accusing, such as when Rachel unwittingly leads a petty thief (played by yung punk Kevin Spacey) back to her group therapy session to rob everyone at gunpoint. But most of the time Rachel/Nora seems maddeningly unaware at how insipid her blunders are when they haven’t been dressed with spirited wit. The movie spends too many minutes on Streep singing “the itsy bitsy spider” to her daughter, multiple times, as if it were some charge of notable parenting. Carly Simon carries us into the end credits with her own melancholy original version of the nursery rhyme. I can’t think of anything more vain.
Couched in this limp unhappiness, Heartburn robs us of that aspect of “eavesdropping on the covetable lives of intellectuals,” which is one of the reasons why we watch an Ephron project in the first place.
It’s probably not a good move not to cook for someone until the sixth date, but Rachel cooks for Nick on their first. They share a post-coital bowlful of carbonara in bed, a much sweeter and enviable scene compared to George Costanza biting into pastrami on rye between thrusts. The last time I ate in bed was with frequent necessity when I dated a guy with three male roommates, none of whom ever cleaned the living room. On top of the covers we’d have pizza boxes or Indian takeout, but never a cooked meal. The kitchen was also filthy.
In Heartburn, Rachel and Nick neatly twirl spaghetti into spoons to shelter any splatter. It could just be the serving bowl, but the pasta appears speckled with parsley or something like it, which seems a bit of a salubrious touch to something as velvety and unctuous as carbonara.
Nora Ephron was married to Carl Bernstein from 1976 to 1980, during which the most coveted spaghetti in America was undoubtedly the pasta primavera at Le Cirque.
The showstopping dish may seem baroque. It is after all, just spaghetti strewn with a medley of lightly cooked vegetables, married with a sacrilegious trinity (as far as Italian pasta is concerned) of butter, cream, and cheese. However, with this dish at his nominally French restaurant, Le Cirque proprietor Sirio Maccioni helped change the perceptions of Italian dining from everyday checked-tablecloth fare into something more sophisticated.
The original pasta primavera included mushrooms, broccoli, and zucchini, which doesn’t appeal to me. You can pretty much any vegetable you like. A Bon Appetit iteration from the same era, apparently their most requested recipe, contains cauliflower (which would also disturb my palette unless heavily coated in saffron), and a modern update uses romanesco and miso paste, to up the umami quotient.
I am loyal to the Gourmet version from 2003, which asks you to first soak dried morels and then use the soaking liquid to coat the pasta. It elevates the dish into more than just your average back-pocket weeknight dinner. The very thorough recipe reproduced below.
Pasta primavera from Gourmet, April 2003
Makes 6 servings
1 oz dried morel mushrooms
½ lb asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ lb green beans (preferably haricots verts), trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
¾ cup frozen baby peas, thawed
2 teaspoons minced garlic
½ teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ pints grape or cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 lb spaghettini
½ stick (¼ cup) unsalted butter
⅔ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Finely chopped basil and parsley
⅓ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
Soak morels in warm water in a small bowl for 30 min. Lift mushrooms out of water, squeezing excess liquid back into the bowl. Pour soaking liquid through a sieve lined with a dampened paper towel into a small bowl and reserve. Rinse morels thoroughly to remove grit, then squeeze dry. Discard any tough stems. Halve small morels lengthwise and quarter larger ones.
Blanch asparagus and beans in a large pot (large enough to hold the pasta) uncovered, about 3 minutes. Add peas, cook a minute more. Immediately transfer vegetables with a large slotted spoon to a bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then drain them. Reserve hot water in the pot for cooking pasta.
Cook garlic and red pepper flakes in 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet over moderately low heat, stirring, just until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add drained vegetables and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, 2 minutes, then transfer to a bowl. Reserve skillet.
Return water in pot to a boil and cook pasta until al dente while you cook the tomatoes.
Heat 1 teaspoon garlic and red pepper flakes in oil in a skillet over moderately low heat, stirring, just until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add quartered tomatoes with salt and pepper to taste and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are softened, about 3 minutes. Add halved tomatoes, vinegar, and water and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and halved tomatoes are softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Keep tomatoes warm.
Drain pasta in a colander. Immediately add butter, cream, zest, and morels to the empty pasta pot and simmer gently, uncovered, 2 minutes. Stir in cheese and add pasta, tossing to coat and adding as much of reserved morel soaking liquid as necessary (up to ⅔ cup) to keep pasta well coated.
Add green vegetables, parsley, basil, pine nuts, and salt and pepper to taste and toss gently to combine.
Things that gave me heartburn but I ate them anyway:
Hot italian beef with alluringly spicy giardiniera, from Dog Day Afternoon
A cafecito, the perfect short coffee-drink, from My Cuban Spot, along with a crispy empanada, fried to order, with guava and cheese commingled inside.
Fermented chrysanthemum and oolong teas that taste like wine, which I wrote about for Bon Appetit
Chicken fried steak, and a frozen strawberry-persimmon daiquiri, topped with whipped cream and edible flowers, from Yellow Rose