Puttanesca for Mary Magdalene

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If I hadn’t gone into researching pictures, I would have loved to be a food historian. Maybe I can find a way into it in years to come. In the meantime, together with my Dad, one of my irregular diversions from PhD-land is collecting or inventing recipes to mark feast days.

Today, 22nd July is the feast of Mary Magdalene. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been looming large in my research recently (although I’ve just finished working on that chapter for the time being) and I’m an alumna of her College, so it’s a good feast to mark.

I’m not aware of any tradition of a particular foodstuff for her feast day, but I have invented my own:  spaghetti alla puttanesca is such a remarkably appropriate dish that one almost wonders if it was created for this very occasion. The name literally means “whore’s pasta.” It is said to have been created in the red light district of Naples, though its red colour and spicy chilli make the name appropriate whatever its precise place of invention. Likewise, the colour matches the red garb and hair of images of Mary Magdalene.

Biblically speaking of course, Mary is not identified as a prostitute, but thanks to Gregory the Great and centuries of religious writers and artists, she is conflated with various other women in the Gospels so that we think of her as a penitent prostitute.  Aside from the name, many of the ingredients of puttanesca can also be linked to Mary Magdalene.

Recipe for two portions

Start by heating the olive oil from a small can of anchovies; you may find that you do not need all of the oil. The oil recalls Mary’s association with the anointing of Jesus, though your fellow-diners probably will not welcome you using any remaining anchovy-infused oil for that purpose!

When the oil is hot, reduce the heat and slowly sauté finely sliced garlic. When softened, add the anchovies, chopped, a can of tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes if they are plentiful), capers (the observant may notice I didn’t manage to get hold of any today), olives (I believe they ought to be black, but I only had green in stock) and chilli to taste. Capers are tear-shaped, so they evoke Mary’s identification with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and her lamentation at the death of Christ.

Leave the sauce to simmer while you cook your spaghetti (NB. you may need to allow longer for the sauce to cook if you are using fresh tomatoes, so make sure you don’t start cooking your spaghetti too early, or you will end up with soggy pasta).

The spaghetti recalls the hair of the women anointing Jesus’ feet. There are thinner varieties of spaghetti called capellini “thin hair” and capelli d’angelo “angel’s hair,” but you need the more robust spaghetti to hold the sauce.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, check the sauce for seasoning and combine. Serve sprinkled with parsley. This garden herb serves as a reminder that it was in the garden that Mary encountered the risen Christ on Easter morning, mistaking him for a gardener. Parsley is one of the easiest herbs to grow at home, even if, like me, you only have a windowsill and some potted herbs from the local supermarket.

More feasts to follow at irregular intervals.

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