September 25, 2014

Blog the Twenty-third: Lasagna

Pure and Simple

When it comes to lasagna, I’m not to be trusted.  I am at my most bigoted.  I have not found any other lasagna acceptable but the lasagna of my people, and here I mean “my people” in the very strictest sense, namely, my mother’s people (not my father’s), and not just any of my mother’s people, but only the ones who emigrated to Brooklyn, for even the lone sister they left behind in the otherwise derelict village of Sacco has had her lasagna corrupted by that pestilence from the north, béchamel.  (In general I pride myself on not withholding from you, Gentle Reader, even ugly truths.  But here again I must not be trusted, for I will not acknowledge that the French learned how to make béchamel from Neapolitans.  As the Apostle admonishes, Some things should not even be mentioned among you.)

Further impugning my chauvinism is the fact that lasagna is not, speaking factually, a food of my mother's people. Lasagna was unknown in the impoverished post-war Sacco where my mother grew up.  It was my aunt Rose, the family pioneer first to emigrate to America by way of marriage to an Italian-American immigrant, who learned to make lasagna in the Italian diaspora of Brooklyn—in Canarsie, of all nieghborhoods!—and who ever after remained family maestra of the dish.  Her lasagna was the true magnum opus of Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey being but our American totem to surround with sundry more savory Italian foods, including at least two other meat dishes and a half dozen vegetable accompaniments, to follow the lasagna as the first dish.

But once again, I don't see that the facts matter much.  Although my mother's people did not invent lasagna, their recipe realizes its essence, and that's a much better reason for chauvinism, is it not?  Now I am not indiscriminate in my rejection of every other lasagna save ours:  I distinguish between partial corruption and complete abomination.  “Corruption” results from the introduction of an alien element that obscures the nature of the thing, however without undermining its essence, whereas “abomination” renders the nature monstrous by way of essential degradation.  In the case of lasagna, for example, whereas a meat sauce only overdoes it, a béchamel sauce positively undoes it; whereas peas are but perplexing, hard boiled eggs are repugnant; whereas oregano offends, nutmeg disgusts. 

How do I know this?  By grasping the essence.  At the heart of every nature is its essence, the formative principle of the whole that marshals its complement of natural properties.  What accords with a thing’s essence is good, true, and beautiful. What is repugnant to it, threatens its unity, its clarity, its harmony.  If a human being is healthy, they glow from within.  The glow failing, they reach for cosmetics; go to excess with those, and they even become ugly.  A healthy nature is of the essence—nothing can substitute for that.