Mouths to Feed: A Remembrance of Things Pasta

By Celia Barbour

Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one’s own personal history ends and History begins. How many of my small, daily choices are shaped by global forces beyond my control? Are my opinions even my own? Am I wearing these flip-flops because Nixon visited China back in 1972?

It was cold noodles that sent my thoughts swirling down this tunnel. The other day, I was sitting in my kitchen, contemplating the various chilled pasta dishes I’ve eaten throughout my life, when I suddenly realized that I’ve always been history’s puppet. Sure, the seven-year-old me believed she was exercising free will as she stood at the Sunday Quaker Meeting potluck piling her paper plate with elbow macaroni dressed in a creamy dressing made from mayonnaise, minced celery, green onions, and sweet pickles. But in fact it was northern European immigrants who’d settled the Midwest a century earlier who were responsible for the ubiquity of this particular dish — a dish that was really just potato salad with one starch standing in for another.

pasta salad 2As a child, I was also quite fond of the tuna variation of the above-mentioned salad, which likewise began appearing in American cookbooks in the early 1900s, a time when the novelty of refrigeration made cold luncheon dishes seem quite elegant and exciting. Macaroni salads could be pressed into a bowl and then turned out onto a serving platter, giving them a dramatic, domed shape.

Peer pressure is a pernicious thing, and I hold it responsible for my sudden, absolute rejection of these salads. When I was a sophomore in college I used to hang out with a group of upperclassmen at their off-campus house, and one day, I arrived to find a big bowl of farfalle with fresh tomatoes, kalamata olives, green beans, and basil sitting upon their kitchen table. The senior responsible for this miracle had dressed it not with mayonnaise, but — good lord! — vinaigrette. At once, mayonnaise seemed hopelessly déclassé, and elbow macaroni a childish pleasure.

This spell of heady sophistication lasted all of about eight years, until I read somewhere that no true Italian would ever eat cold pasta salad, and, flushed with shame, I adjusted my opinion once again. (Somehow, thankfully, refrigerated leftover pasta marinara never fell prey to this renunciation.)

Fortunately, Asian noodle salads were in ascendance right around then, so I could go on eating cold noodles publicly in summertime. Which, when you get right down to it, is the whole point. When it’s hot out, chilled noodles are a very nice thing to consume. Their cool slipperiness offers the perfect antidote to the sticky, sweltering air — a kind of internal AC.

Peanut noodles fill this role nicely (so long as peanut allergies are not a problem). Everyone likes them: Midwesterners, Southerners, East- and West-Coasters of all descents. But they are fairly heavy, and sometimes that’s not what one craves. I have used the same peanut sauce to make a lighter salad, tossing it with cool ramen-style noodles, shredded Savoy cabbage, chicken, and steamed broccoli. It was good; everyone loved it.

But the best cold soba noodle dish I’ve had contained no peanuts at all. It was developed by chef Susan Feniger for a story I produced on her for O, The Oprah Magazine. The sauce is made from reduced orange juice mixed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallions.

pasta salad 1One good thing about getting older is that you realize that your opinions about things don’t define you (your opinions about issues are a different question altogether). Who cares, really, whether you are the kind of person who loves mayonnaise or hates it? Adores pickles or loathes them? We are all different, and half the time we don’t even understand why. For all I know, my affection for Susan Feniger’s soba noodles is a direct result of John Foster Dulles’s Domino Theory of foreign policy. Or maybe it can be traced back to a butterfly that beat its wings somewhere over the Pacific many years ago.

Whatever the reason, this simple, clean, light, and — yes — cold dish is my favorite summer pasta. For now.

Spicy Orange Soba Noodles

Adapted from Susan Feniger. You can substitute chili flakes or

a pinch of cayenne for the Siracha, if you like.

1 8-ounce package soba noodles

½ cup orange juice

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sesame oil

½ teaspoon Siracha, or to taste

1 scallion, thinly sliced on the diagonal

  1. Bring orange juice to a boil in a small saucepan. Reduce heat, and simmer until reduced by two-thirds, and syrupy, about 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, boil the soba noodles according to package directions, taking care not to overcook. Drain and rinse in cold water until completely cool. Transfer to a bowl.
  3. Combine the orange syrup, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, oil, and Siracha in a blender and purée. Toss with the noodles. Top with the scallions before serving.

Photos by C. Barbour

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