Sunday Pages: Oily-Oilies
A traditional Italian Christmas Eve recipe
Today is both Sunday and Christmas. I was looking forward to this calendrical synchronicity, as it would give me the opportunity to voice my grievances about December 25. I had the column mostly written and ready to go, in fact.
But I’ve decided not to run it. For one thing, I’ve already shared most of those thoughts on these pages, in a post from two years ago. For another, I have covid, and I don’t trust my judgment writing about anything remotely controversial. (Related: Please excuse this piece being disjointed and/or full of strange typos.) Also, having covid on Christmas, and thus having all of our plans called off, has given me a different perspective on things.
About the covid. Our 16-year-old got it last week. My son and I came down with it on Wednesday (so he has it on his 18th birthday, which is, somehow, today). My wife appears to have had it recently enough that she is immune, thank heavens. We appear to have a relatively mild strain, knock wood. What more can I say? We’ve managed to avoid SARS-CoV-2 for three years. It was a good run!
On the topic of Christmas, I will say this: If the guy at the bank tells you “Happy Holidays,” he is probably not an active agent of the godless Woke Left deliberately removing Christ from Christmas; he’s just trying to be considerate and inclusive. And if the woman walking her dog says “Merry Christmas” to you this morning, she is probably not trying to pressure you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior; she’s just trying to be festive. Because today is Christmas. It’s okay for anyone to say Merry Christmas on Christmas, just like it’s okay to say Happy Halloween on Halloween.
Whether we are Christian or Jew, Muslim or Hindu, Buddhist or pagan, agnostic or atheist, or just consider ourselves spiritual without holding to any one set of religious beliefs [raises hand], December 25 is a federal holiday in the United States. Most of us don’t have to work tomorrow. It’s a day we’re supposed to spend with our loved ones—“supposed to” in the sense of, we have an extra day off and so does everyone else, so it’s kind of built into the calendar.
This is my 51st Christmas. I’ve already spent more of them than I have left. I’m old enough to know how quickly and unexpectedly things can change. Friends and family members die, sometimes unexpectedly. Or they get sick and can’t really participate like they used to. Kids grow up and leave the nest. (Did I mention our son is EIGHTEEN today? He can now join the army, get married to a Russian national, fly to Texas to buy an AR-15, vote Republican, and other novel things to piss his parents off, should that be his wont. Although, at this particular moment, all he really wants to do is open his presents.) I was supposed to spend the 23rd and Christmas Eve with my parents, and I couldn’t, and I won’t ever get those days back. Life is so very fragile. We have to appreciate it while we can, and try to not get bogged down with stuff that doesn’t matter.
In the piece I decided not to share, I wrote this: “As Thanksgiving is a celebration of gratitude, today is the day we honor generosity of spirit.” That’s what Christmas means to me. It’s a day we give. So this week, for “Sunday Pages,” I’m going to give you a gift, Dear Reader: a special recipe, passed down to me from my grandmother via my aunt. I’ve made this every Christmas Eve since Gram died 13 years ago, and I made it last night, covid be damned.
The real name for this dish is spaghetti aglio e olio, but we know it as “oily-oilies.” The best thing about it is, if you stock up on the ingredients, nothing is perishable, so it’s a perfect, healthy pandemic treat.
You will need:
box of your favorite spaghetti
two cans of flattened anchovies in oil
First, put a lot of water in a big pot and set it to boil. Let that go for a few minutes to give it a head start. This recipe is all about timing.
Second, get one of those deep frying pans that’s half pan, half pot. Put enough olive oil in there to coat the entire thing. Seriously—don’t be stringy with the oil. Set it on full heat.
Third, throw in the garlic. My grandmother never used garlic, and I only use the bare minimum. Don’t overdo it. The Italian name for the dish is literally “garlic and oil,” but don’t let garlic overwhelm it. Italian restaurants in this country use too much garlic, and it’s a travesty.
By now, the oil should be heating up. Throw in all of the anchovies from the two cans. (I can see your ghastly expression from here. “I don’t like anchovies,” you’re insisting. Guys, no one likes anchovies. Trust me! Please!) Let this cook up for a bit.
Turn down the heat on the oil. At this point, you want not to burn it. It’s a fine line. The anchovies will sort of break down and turn into brown flecks in the pan. It looks strange. (Again—trust me!) Throw in the walnuts now.
By now, the water should be at full boil. Take a full ladle of boiling water and dump it into the pan with the oil. Watch the steam rise as you dump it! Stand back as you do this! Make sure you’re at low heat. Once the water is in there, it won’t burn unless you keep the burner too high. Keep mixing it, though.
Throw the spaghetti into the boiling water.
Next, throw the pine nuts in to the pan—pinoli, in Italian, or as my grandmother called them, “peen-yules.” Toss them around a few times. Turn the heat way way down.
Finally, take like two big handfuls of raisins and dump them into the pan. If the heat is too high, or you cook the raisins too early, they will get fat and explode. You don’t want that.
Finish cooking the spaghetti. Put it in a big serving bowl. Dump the oil/anchovy mix over the spaghetti. Use a fork, grab a bunch of spaghetti, and use it to mop up excess oil from the pan.
Toss the oily mix into the spaghetti, like you’re mixing up a salad.
Enjoy your oily-oilies—with a nice bottle of red, if you’re so inclined! Marvel at the magical properties of the anchovies, which create unique, delicious, salt-lick flavor and lots of nutrition besides.
Okay, I’ve kept our household’s newest adult waiting long enough to open presents from Santa.
Merry Christmas! I hope you have a wonderful holiday!
I was planning to resume the podcast this Friday, but as I mentioned, I have covid. So I’m going to take an extra week off to recover. PREVAIL will return next year—which is to say, a week from today.
LB and I will be back on The Five 8 on Friday, December 30, for our New Year’s Eve Special.