There’s a big international conference on “Advances in Nutrition and Cancer” starting in Naples tomorrow, and the headline story is that Ragu, properly prepared, is a terrific cancer fighter. And there’s another story in the local Neapolitan press announcing that people who drink lots of coffee live longer than those who don’t.
So two of the staples of the Neapolitan diet are very good for you. Add to that the beauty of the place, the wonders of the culture, and the generally nice weather, and you should be asking yourself what in the world you’re doing wherever else you are. We’re drinking espresso and stuffing ourselves with maccheroni and ragu.
But you’ve got to do it right. The high concentration of cancer-fighting antioxidants comes from prolonged cooking of tomatoes, and it doesn’t work with vegetable oil. You’ve got to use extravirgin olive oil. And you have to take your time, as I learned when I first starting studying Neapolitan cuisine. A friend wangled a dinner invitation for me at the home of the president of the Neapolitan Culinary Academy, a tall skinny man (go figure) who has a day job as a professor of botany at the University of Naples. As directed, I called him up to thank him for his generosity and to ask when and where I should show up.
“Well, dinner’s at 9 o’clock,” he replied, “but you should be here by 1 or 1:30.”
“Eight hours early? How come.”
“Because it takes seven or eight hours to make a proper ragu, and we’ll do it together. That way perhaps you will get a proper introduction to Neapolitan cuisine.”
I got a wonderful introduction (and, as time went on, an in-depth education). As the latest scientific research has now confirmed, my instructor got it exactly right. You have to take it slow. The basic method is simple, although there’s a little trick to it. You brown a smallish piece of meat, along with a bit of onion, in the pot, using the best extravirgin olive oil you can find. Then you add a tablespoonful of chopped or crushed tomatoes, and simmer it slowly until it turns dark brown. Then another spoonful. Wait til the color is right, then another spoonful. When you’ve got the right quantity, remove the meat and keep simmering. Eight hours later, you’ve got it. Cook the pasta, pour the ragu on it, and your health and happiness are significantly advanced.
Yes, a bit of parmigiano or pecorino is welcome.
For those of you who read Italian, there’s a fine Marxist history of Neapolitan cuisine with the intriguing title “From leaf eaters to maccheroni eaters,” which is a fascinating social history of early modern and modern food in this fascinating city.
When you’re done eating your ragu, have a nice espresso and laugh. You’ve delivered a blow to the belly of the beast.