Bubbles / Pasta with Anchovies, Garlic, Chiles, and Kale

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This week’s recipe: Pasta with Anchovies, Garlic, Chiles, and Kale

Since the election, there’s been a lot of talk about bubbles. Political bubbles, cultural bubbles, social media bubbles, it’s a veritable bubble bath! Except instead of a nice comforting soak in warm water, we have President Donald Trump. In order to understand how this catastrophe came to pass, we’ve been told, we need to pierce our bubbles and see things from the perspective of Trump voters—people whose economic anxiety makes them do and say a remarkable number of racist things, as Charlie Pierce has frequently noted. If you can’t tell from the previous sentence, I don’t think very highly of this bubble-centric line of argument. I don’t remember members of the conservative media eight years ago flagellating themselves for being so blind as to the popular will and asking disappointed, sometimes hysterical, Republican voters to step out of their bubble and into the shoes of someone who voted for Barack Obama. Just as Democrats are always called on to be bipartisan while Republicans will literally ally with the Russian government if it means sticking it to the opposition, the empathy is only expected to flow one way. The categories that characterize the mythical (and I do mean mythical) Trump voter demographic—white, male, Christian, poorly educated, middle-aged, blue collar, rural—are  among the most pandered-to in American political discourse. Sarah Palin wasn’t the first to divide the country into godless liberals and real Americans, but she perfected the art, and over eight years later, voting for Trump means you are in touch with the soul of our nation while voting for the woman who won 3 million more votes means you are a hopeless, bubble-dwelling elitist.

How do I know this? Charles Murray told me so, of course. Murray is a conservative political scientist who is best known for co-authoring a 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which argued that race correlated with IQ. In 2012, he wrote another book called Coming Apart, about cultural sorting and the decline of the white working class. I haven’t read either The Bell Curve or Coming Apart, and unlike my brother-in-law who is an academic, it is my policy not to give critical comment on books that I haven’t read. But Coming Apart features a “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” quiz that can be found in its original iteration and an updated 2016 version online. Since I am consistently being urged by the media outlets that I frequent to break outta that bubble, I thought it would be useful to know just how hard that would be. So I went to the PBS Web site and moseyed on down to Bubble Town.

The quiz is made up of 25 questions designed to see how disconnected you are from the “average white American and American culture at large.” You can click on a “Why this question?” button at the bottom to see the rationale for each question. Though the questions themselves are not phrased in a judgmental way, the “right” and “wrong” answers are clear. I was aware of Charles Murray’s politics so I wasn’t too surprised by the sneering asides on some of the questions about how living in poverty during grad school or buying a pickup truck for your vacation home in Montana don’t count. That doesn’t mean it was all bad. Some of the questions—about education levels, for instance, or having one or more close friends with whom you disagree politically—I found eminently fair. I appreciated that the quiz stayed away from specific political beliefs, although the fact that being an evangelical Christian got you extra points sure felt like a proxy.

My issue with the quiz is that Murray’s designation of what makes an average American is arbitrary at best and biased at worst. “Average” is supposed to mean “typical,” but when 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas—a percentage that grows with every census—why is it considered “average” to live in a town of under 50,000 people? When manufacturing has been dying and automation has been rising for decades, why is it relevant to have walked on a factory floor, for work or otherwise? Why does being an evangelical Christian—a significant minority in American life, but a minority nonetheless—make you mainstream? Some questions, like whether or not you lettered in a sport at school, he concedes are based in stereotypes and not data. And then there’s the question about eating at popular fast-casual restaurants, where Murray admits that he left off Chipotle because even though it is in the top 10 restaurants by number of outlets, it “is to the casual-dining genre of restaurants what Whole Foods is to grocery stores.” To me, that smacks of a narrative. Chipotle is popular but like living in a city (80 percent of Americans), being Catholic (23.9 percent of Americans), or not smoking cigarettes (85 percent of Americans), it’s not popular with the right people for the purposes of this quiz, so off the list it goes.

I know that this sounds defensive, and I’m not trying to make the case that I don’t live in a bubble. I absolutely do. I’ve had educational, cultural, and economic advantages that most people can only dream of. I’ve traveled to four continents but I don’t have a driver’s license. Nevertheless, I don’t understand why someone who lives in the largest, most diverse city in the United States, who has received a college education, who traveled to foreign countries and interacts on a daily basis with people from all different races and religions and countries, lives in a bubble, while someone who lives all their life in the same 10,000-person town, never went to college, has the same job that their father and grandfather had, never travels farther than the next state, and rarely or never meets a person from a different background, doesn’t live in a bubble.

Mainstream American culture is more complicated (and in my opinion, richer) than Murray’s quiz suggests. Just the questions on this quiz demonstrate that we can be a nation of Nascar-loving, varsity-lettering, Budweiser-drinking evangelicals, and that six of our top ten most popular TV program are shows created by and starring black people, a show about physics nerds, and a show featuring gay and interracial couples. There are people who voted for Donald Trump last year who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. While I believe that the Republican Party as an institution is way more destructive and extreme than the Democrats, I acknowledge that out there in the country, there are boneheads and jackasses on either side (speaking of which, you may have heard about Murray in the news this week after he was shouted down and physically attacked while trying to give a talk at Middlebury. Talk about boneheads and jackasses.) It makes me wonder how useful the concept of “average” could possibly be in a nation as large and diverse as this one. As for the concept of bubbles, I have no doubt as to its uselessness. Bubbles are clearly in the eye of the beholder.

So anyway, here’s some pasta. I made this last weekend when I overslept and needed to put together a quick lunch before my long training run. I used whole wheat penne but I imagine any kind of pasta would work. It was incredibly simple and yummy, thanks in large part to anchovies. Those salty little bastards are the best. They can sit in a tin in your cabinet forever, and they add so much flavor to any recipe (though I wouldn’t recommend putting them in, say, buttercream frosting). Combine that with garlic and red pepper for a little kick, and you’re all set to run nine miles—or, if it’s cold out and you’re lazy, four and a half miles.

Pasta with Anchovies, Garlic, Chiles, and Kale

From the New York Times Cooking Section 

Ingredients

  • Salt, as needed
  • ½ pound pasta
  • 3 tablespoons good olive oil, more for drizzling
  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red chile flakes, to taste
  • 4 fat garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers, patted dry with a paper towel to encourage browning
  • 4 anchovy filets
  • 1 small bunch kale, chopped (or use 3 large handfuls chopped kale)
  • Black pepper
  • Squeeze of lemon, optional
  • Grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

Instructions

  1. Bring a heavily salted pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in the largest skillet you have. Add chiles and a pinch of salt and toast until golden, 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Add smashed garlic, capers and anchovies. Let cook until everything is golden, the capers look crisp around the edges and the anchovies have dissolved into the oil, about 3 to 4 minutes. (You can help anchovies dissolve by mashing them with a wooden spoon as they cook.) Add kale and 2 tablespoons water and sauté until kale wilts and cooks in the pan and is well coated with oil, about 5 minutes. You might have to add more water if the water evaporates before the kale finishes cooking.
  4. Add drained pasta and toss well. Add more salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper, and serve drizzled with more oil and a squeeze of lemon if the dish needs a lift. Cheese isn’t necessary but if you like pecorino and have some on hand, feel free to shower it on top.
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