I think that anyone who loves reading has gone through periods of time where they get lost in a story. Where the narrative becomes more real than real life. But there’s something even stranger about getting lost in research, a feeling that perhaps fewer have felt, but no less strongly.
Getting lost in research is different than getting lost in fiction. There are no characters that feel like your friends, no imaginary worlds that you feel you know by heart. But it’s no less real a feeling when, after days of reading about someone’s life, you start to feel that you may know them. I’m starting to feel that way about Mark Twain.
The “comparative” part of my Comparative Literature degree involves a study of Twain and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It involves endless reading about the life of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain, and the more I read, the closer I feel to him. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m often stumbling upon gems like this:
“Because he came to the study of foreign languages as an adult, and because he was largely self-taught, Twain was painfully aware of the semantic and grammatical barriers that separate languages and the difficulties that communication in a foreign tongue creates. To study a foreign language was, paradoxically, both liberating and oppressive. On the one hand, a command of French and German provided entry into the “adult” world of cosmopolitan, educated society; on the other, it made him a “child” again as it limited his means of expression and forced him to rely on others for the satisfaction of needs and desires.*”
This is yet another feeling that I — and many others — know all too well. Learning a new language is exciting at first… until you reach that point when you realize that there are five-year-old children in the street who speak better than you do. You learn more; you realize, someday, that you speak better than they do… but you still sound like a teenager, or at the very least a fairly uneducated person. The more you learn, the more you realize you still have to learn. It can get very discouraging, especially given how long I’ve been at it.
I don’t feel the sort of anger that Twain felt when trying to communicate with an Italian family with whom he was staying, four languages flying around the table and no one really understanding. But I do have other feelings, feelings that are strange and foreign and not-foreign all at once. When I’m with my French friends, I feel 12 and 6 and 14 and 25 and 46 all at once. I feel like me, but I don’t feel like me. I feel like a version of myself and a version of someone else. Through language, I am constantly reinvented, becoming someone who is both more and less like me.
The more I change, the more I grow into the person who moved here and lives here and speaks two languages as a regular fact of life, the more I realize how strange it is to have had those feelings — so vivid, even now — of knowing exactly who I was at 6 and 12 and 20 and 22. Of thinking, “This is it; this is me…” only to feel like a completely different person now.
Of course, the truth of it all is that everyone is composite, a person built out of pieces that come from everywhere. This piece is one of the few that has remained in tact of home, of the person I was when I lived in New York. The Italian component — oddly perpetrated by my German-Irish mother — and the security that is comfort food.
For the marinara sauce:
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp. olive oil
pinch of salt
1 clove garlic, minced
1 can tomato paste
1 large can tomatoes
For the béchamel:
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour
1 cup milk
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
For the vegetables:
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 small eggplant, diced
1 small zucchini, diced
2 cups crimini mushrooms, sliced
First, make the marinara sauce. Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion to the oil with the salt. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the clove of garlic and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomato paste. Stir to combine. Add a can of water and the tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Use an immersion blender to purée the sauce. Set aside.
For the vegetables, toss the eggplant and zucchini with 1 Tbsp. olive oil and 1 tsp. salt. Place in one layer in a baking pan and roast at 400 degrees, tossing occasionally, until soft and browned, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbsp. of olive oil in a pan, and add the mushrooms by the handful, browning them and then pushing them to the outsides of the pan to make room for more. When all of the mushrooms are browned, combine them with the other vegetables for the vegetable layer.
For the béchamel, whisk together the butter and the flour in a small saucepan over medium heat. Allow it to come to room temperature while you prepare the other ingredients. When ready to use, heat the cup of milk in another saucepan or in the microwave. Add the milk, by the tablespoon at first, whisking all the while. Allowing the roux to come to room temperature is the fool-proof secret to a rich, creamy béchamel. Season the béchamel and set aside.
Once these sauces are prepared, you’re ready for assembly. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place a dollop of tomato sauce in the lasagna pan and smooth it over the bottom of the pan. Place a layer of lasagna noodles over this thin layer of sauce. Add a layer of tomato sauce over the top. Next, add a layer of vegetables. Top this with a layer of béchamel. Add a layer of noodles. Continue layering — tomato sauce, vegetables, béchamel, noodles — until you run out of ingredients. Make sure that the top layer is not noodles.
Cover the lasagna with foil and bake for 30 minutes. At this point, you can refrigerate or freeze the lasagna to eat another day, or you can continue with the recipe.
When ready to serve, sprinkle the cheese over the top of the lasagna. Bake at 400 degrees until the cheese is melted and bubbly.
*HOWE, Lawrence, Mark Twain and the Novel. The Double-Cross of Authority, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 51-52.