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migration + staycation

There are seven little white birds sitting on a telephone wire, singing to each other. One lifts away and the rest follow, upward, like fat snowflakes against the blue sky. Then they twist up and around, revealing solid black feathers stretching across their wingspan. Tiny tuxedos, dancing in the wind.

I watched them through my car window, like I did the day before and the day before that, stopped in the road on the way to the old farmhouse. I craned my neck to see the dance, then noticed a truck behind me, patiently waiting. I smiled in the rear view mirror and the farmer flicked two fingers off the steering wheel, a country wave, and I carried on.

“Snow bunting,” said my father, emphatically, when I called him to ask about those little white birds. “They arrive this time of year, looking for winter berries, seeds and grasses, but they’ll be gone by spring.”

That’s when they fly north, following the cold, to breed in the northernmost islands of Canada. Nova Scotia is their southern holiday. They choose this place. It’s where they dance and play.

Nova Scotia, a southern holiday.

I’m back in the city now. Snow is swirling outside the window. I can’t see faces, just big scarves wrapped around cold clouds of exhalation. I think I’ll make pasta.

I often choose pasta based on action – spaghetti when I feel like twisting, penne when I want to pierce or lasagna when I feel like eating with a fork and knife. But today I’m looking for an experience, something that will make this place feel like a southern holiday, say, in Rome. So I reach for bucatini, the pasta I’ve been hoarding in the cupboard since I read about the bucatini shortage a few months ago. I had never thought about bucatini before reading that story; I didn’t appreciate that it’s a slightly thicker, hollow spaghetti; I didn’t know imports were down during the pandemic because of the sinister side of pasta importation; I didn’t know people were using bucatini in place of plastic straws, furthering the shortage. The writer of the story, who was deeply distraught by the shortage, lives in Brooklyn. I wondered, is there bucatini to be found in Halifax? And if so, is it that special? So I fired off a quick email to my friend Dana, an Italian New Yorker and former food editor who is a specialist on all things pasta, celebration and southern holidays. By the time I was back from my local specialty grocer with (several) packages of bucatini, she had replied:

“I cried the first time I ate bucatini. It was served with cacio e pepe, but a wetter, ever so slightly thinned out version of the sauce. It worked so well. Bucatini, in my opinion, are like little fire hoses. That whole slurping thing that happens with spaghetti happens twofold with bucatini, because of the hole within. Its natural straw-shaped quality allows for that rush of liquid/flavour/sauce in every bite. It’s the perfect conduit.”

As for raw bucatini used as a straw, Dana hadn’t tried it, but she’s up for it. Straws remind her of sipping mojitos on beach holidays, she says, or the rush of McDonald’s sweet orange juicing charging up their fat straws when she was a kid. Bucatini isn’t fat, but it is special, biodegradable, and in some places, hard to come by.

This explains why I am sitting in my kitchen, trying to sip water through bucatini. It’s not easy, and this drink is certainly not a mojito. Soon boys will fill the kitchen. One has a saxophone class over zoom and the theme from Star Wars will bellow through the house. Another will need a drive somewhere. Who is kidding who.

But I have a few more minutes, so I boil bucatini, along with the straw, then toss it in a slippery, cheesy, salty, peppery sauce, as Dana suggested. I serve it with a few roasted, deeply out of season cherry tomatoes to add a little colour. I twist and slurp those little fire hoses, experiencing the liquid/flavour/sauce infusion in every bite. A short, messy, toothsome, tasty, twenty-minute southern holiday.

As I wash up I think about those little white birds that are free to travel anywhere, but choose to come here, year after year. I think about Dana and far away friends. I think about how food can take us to far away places. I think about how important it is to go away, even for 20 minutes, in order to see what’s special about the place where you are from.

PS- We have lots of bucatini here.


Cacio e Pepe

This is based on the recipe we included in Food+Reflection, but this time, of course, using bucatini instead of fresh pasta. Some say the combination is cry worthy.

Serves 2

300g pasta – bucatini, spaghetti, linguini – something to twirl
2 tablespoons salted butter
¾ cup (177ml) pasta cooking water
¾ cup (about 50g) finely grated aged Italian cheese – (Pecorino is traditional, but Parmesan and Grana Padano also work, or try a combination)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Have two pasta bowls, forks and napkins ready. This pasta comes together quickly.

Bring a big pot of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt. The pasta water should taste like the sea.

In a heavy frying pan melt butter over low heat. Add cracked pepper and stir to combine.

Meanwhile, plunge fresh pasta into boiling water and cook until it’s ‘almost ready’ (about 1 minute less than what’s recommended on the package.) While pasta is cooking, ladle ½ cup (125 ml) pasta water into the pan with the butter and pepper. Bring to a gentle simmer.

When the pasta is ready, lift from the water with tongs, shake, and transfer directly to the fry pan. Top pasta with grated cheese and using the same tongs, quickly toss and fold everything together. Pasta should be well coated, wet and peppery. Add another splash of cooking liquid if pasta seems dry.

Divide pasta between two bowls and enjoy immediately.