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Rigatoni, garlic bread, and ...

Kathy has frightened a herd of deer.

Several does and their fawns were parked on the hillside next to our house, bedded down, gnawing away on whatever they gnaw on. Contented, peaceful.

Kathy is convinced they gnaw on her plants, and she is probably right. As a result, each year features yet another version of Kathy vs. Wildlife as she battles to keep the garden on which she works so hard, and in which she takes great pride, safe from predators. Her garden is lovely.

People like it.

Deer love it.

The battle is in vain. As I remind Kathy, we live in a house built in the deers’ yard. No matter how many times she rushes from the house to send the rats of the wilderness scampering up the hill, they will return. When we are not home. When we are in bed, asleep.

They will return. And they probably laugh when they do so.

Flush with her temporary success, Kathy has flopped on the couch, searching one of her many gardening magazines for battlefield aids.

“I bet if I could get a quart of mountain lion urine, I could establish a scent perimeter that would scare the daylights out of those does.”

“Mountain lion urine?”

“Yeah. The deer would think twice about coming close to my plants if they smelled mountain lion urine.”

“Have you ever wondered how someone would go about procuring a quart of mountain lion urine? I mean, would you need something similar to a milking machine? Surely, you couldn’t do it by hand. You’d need tranquilizer darts, protective clothing, tazers …”

“True, it might be hard to come by. But, what about coyote urine? Coyotes scare deer, don’t they? You’d think they’d be easier to handle than mountain lions. I need to go to the Internet and look for a source for coyote urine. Where do you think I should start a search?

I don’t answer; I am off to something else, reading a sheaf of papers I brought home from work.

I have printed out a list from Mark Bittman’s blog site — a list of the ten top-selling grocery items in the U.S. As I scan the list, I realize how out of touch I am with the “regular” American diet and shopping habits. I’m as fat as most Americans but, apparently, I come by my flab in a markedly different way than the average Joe.

“Since you’re obviously not interested in what I have to say about urine, do you mind telling me what you’re doing?”

I walk over to the couch and lean over the back to show Kathy the list.

“Easy, Humpty. You lean too far and there’ll be no putting you back together again.”

I show Kathy the list: the top 10 grocery items ranked in terms of billions of dollars worth sold in the U.S. during the last year. The data was compiled by Information Resources, Inc.

At the top of the list?

Carbonated beverages.

There were $12 billion worth of carbonated beverages sold in the U.S. last year. I suppose that high fructose corn syrup has some kind of nutritional value. Perhaps coloring agents contain calories, vitamins and minerals; I don’t know.

Second on the list is milk, with $11.2 billion in sales, down more than 8 percent from the previous year.

Fresh bread and rolls comes in third — $9.5 billion.

In fourth place we find beer, ale and hard cider, with $8.17 billion in sales. No question about it: beer is nutritious — provided one keeps it down.

Fifth place goes to salty snacks. To accompany the beer, ale, hard cider and carbonated beverages.

Natural cheese sales, at $7.64 billion, ranks sixth on the list. This is one of my favorites: natural cheese is so much more satisfying than unnatural cheese, don’t you think?

Things get a bit sad at No. 7. Frozen dinners and entrees totaled $6.13 billion in sales. Proof, once again, that fewer people take the time to prepare meals from fresh ingredients. And a clue concerning the diminished allure of the family meal. Why eat together when everyone in the clan can simply pop an entrée into the microwave any time they get hungry?

Cold cereal rips in at eighth — $6.1 billion in sales, up 2 percent from the previous year. Recession, anyone?

One of my favorite foods is in ninth place on the list. Wine brought in $5.49 billion, up 3.7 percent from the year before. I adore grapes.

In tenth place, the prime grocery product of all time: cigarettes.

“Unbelievable. I am so out of the mainstream here.”

“That’s news?”

“No, I mean, I purchase very little of only a few of the items on this list. The only time I buy what you could call a ‘carbonated beverage’ is when I snag tonic water for gin and tonics. Rarely do I purchase milk. Cream? Yes, but not a ton of the stuff. I don’t drink beer, ale or hard cider. Salty snacks are not a staple, with the exception of an occasional pack of cashews or some of those little wheat crackers if there’s a decent soft cheese on hand. I think I may have purchased a frozen entrée once or twice in my life …”

“I love Amy’s mataam paneer.”

“Cold cereal? Yeah, but not Depression-era amounts. And I haven’t eaten a cigarette in I don’t know how long.”

“Ah, but don’t forget, Humpty, you make up a lot of lost ground when it comes to cheese.”

“Natural cheese.”

“You keep the natural dairy business going strong. I have never known anyone who eats as much cheese as you. Your liver must look like one from a goose in the Perigord. And, remember, there are entire vineyards planted in your honor. I bet you keep one of those screwtop bottles of wine behind the seat of your truck. Admit it.”

“Well, I do enjoy wine. It is a separate food group, you know. But the list mystifies me. Where, for example, is butter? And how about capers? Not to mention fresh produce. And how about poultry, flesh? And where on earth is the pasta? How could pasta not be in the top ten?”

Ivy, Jon and Banzai are coming over for dinner, so in reaction to the obvious American faves, I set out to produce an easy meal absent any frozen ingredients, with no accompanying carbonated beverage, lacking cigarettes and cold cereal, and including some items I believe deserve a place on the list.

Pasta.

Tomato.

Olives.

Onion.

Garlic.

Olive oil.

Sausage.

From the list: bread, natural cheese, wine.

I cut a ball of mozzarella into small cubes and shred a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

I cook a half onion, thinly sliced, in olive oil in a pot over medium high heat and, when the onion is soft, I add three cloves of garlic, minced and smushed with salt used as an abrasive. I add a can of tomato paste and cook until the paste takes on a mahogany tint and the smell hits the nose. Into the pot goes a 303 can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes, some extra virgin olive oil, a splash of chicken stock, some dry red wine, salt, pepper, oregano, basil, chopped parsley, a tablespoon or so or sugar and a teensy bit of thyme. I bring the mix to a simmer, adjust the heat, cover the pot and leave it go.

I brown high-quality Italian sausage (hot), breaking it into smallish lumps. (If I wanted to risk a bout of gout, I could throw in a bunch of sliced creminis at this point, allowing them to brown along with the sausage). When the sausage is lightly browned, I drain it on a paper towel then toss it into the sauce. I let the sauce simmer for an hour or so, adjusting the seasoning at the end.

I cook a pound of high-grade rigatoni, keeping it very al dente (since it is going to cook in the oven). I drain the rigatoni then toss it into the sauce and mix well. I hurl in the cubes of mozzarella and three quarters of the Parmesan.

I oil a large casserole and spoon the rigatoni and sauce into the dish. I sprinkle the top of the mix with the remaining Parmesan, tent the pan with foil and pop it into a 350 oven for 45 minutes or so.

In the meantime, I prepare a simple salad: chopped romaine, halved grape tomatoes, kalamata olives, dressed with a citrus vinaigrette.

I steam two large heads of broccoli, drain them and douse them with butter and a smidge of lemon juice. Some fresh-ground black pepper, and the broccoli is ready to go.

Fresh bread product?

You bet.

Rustic country bread will do the trick, or ciabatta — slices slathered with garlic butter (with chopped parsley) and some grated Parmesan, then browned under the broiler just before serving.

Oh, and a bottle of an everyday-drinker red. Maybe two bottles. It’s food, after all.

And what we will have is family, gathered together around the table to eat and drink … together. And nary a microwave bell to be heard.

For after dinner?

How about a cigarette and a digestif?

Mountain lion urine, anyone?