A long time ago I lived in Brooklyn. This Brooklyn sort of felt like Pittsburgh (I think, having never been to Pittsburgh). I lived beneath the highway. The buildings on my street were three storied homes with gray or blue or gray-blue siding. There was wrought iron fencing around the garbage patio, and shabby steps up to a linoleum-floored flat.
Faintly mustachioed Nonnas swept the walk vigilantly, to keep away dust, dirt, and the evil eye. Red sauce restaurants mingled with dingy dive bars, and Polish clubs for ancient immigrants who sat on squeaky chairs outside on nice days. It was a working class neighborhood that skipped a generation. Old people who’d settled the place in the fifties, and twenty-something interlopers lived together in resigned harmony.
I had a roommate I didn’t like much. He was sad and odd and so was I, I suppose. I preferred to be alone in the evenings, so I would walk around that strange place, neither city nor country or suburb. Harried Hasidic mothers wrangled half a dozen children on the sidewalk. Hipsters who got off on the wrong subway stop wandered in tank tops, looking for The Warsaw. I went to a bodega for a plastic container of sliced mango, which was all I could afford some days. Once I found a grotto filled with icons of the Virgin, candles, pictures, and other items of old devotion. On many nights after, I tried to find my way there again, but never could.
On one of those peregrinations I stumbled into an Italian grocer that reminded me of a store near my grandparents’ house when I was a child. The couple behind the counter smiled like they knew me, as I wandered the aisles looking for something familiar. It was one of those infrequent moments of young adulthood when the desire for a home that no longer exists was most overwhelming and melancholy, yet somehow lovely. The sort of loneliness that feels at the time lucky and poetic and fated. I bought a tin of anchovies, and thought I’d try to recreate my grandmother’s gravy with fat cans of tomatoes and a weird meat tied up with string.
I thought about all this today as I was making bagna cauda, a northern Italian dip that translates as (and I love this), “hot bath.” Because the anchovy fillets and minced garlic gently steep in butter and oil, infusing the kitchen with the potent fragrance of nostalgia.
It’s rainy here today, not quite spring, and I wanted to make a comfort food. You can use any vegetables you like; I kept some raw and quickly singed others in a cast iron pan, just to take the chill off. The dip should sit ideally over a flame to keep it bubbling, but I didn’t have one, so I returned it to the stovetop for warmups. It does separate, and is certainly rustic-looking, but will knock your socks off, if you, like me, have an unspoken desire for the old country, and strong, salty foods that sustained dockworkers and steamfitters, especially on holidays.
This is peasant food. And I am nothing if not one of those.
- 4 large garlic cloves, grated or minced
- 6-8 anchovy fillets
- 1/2 stick butter
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- In a medium sized saucepan over medium-low heat, stir together the four ingredients, until the anchovies break down and the garlic softens, 10-15 minutes. Serve with crusty bread and lovely veggies.