This year, my mother-in-law Pat gathered her grown children around her Thanksgiving table. They came from small cities and villages within her western New York county; they came from the west coast and from the Midwest. They came to eat the first Thanksgiving dinner not cooked up and served up under the discerning eye of their father Angelo; he died in the dawning of 2015.
Ironically, Pat and Ang’s 62nd anniversary fell on Thanksgiving day itself this year. The marriage spanned 61 years of growth and change, war and détente, peace, turmoil and resolution, births and nurturing, work and respite, loss and renewal–in the world, and in their lives.
That’s a lot of years together.
That’s a lot of spaghetti sauce.
I ate spaghetti, growing up, and I liked it, but my Scottish mother’s version was not like ‘regular’ spaghetti. The sauce was thin enough to be translucent. Early on, she rebelled against shaping meatballs; instead she’d brown a big chunk of burger in the sauce pot. One of my brothers had an aversion to the texture and sight of any kind of stewed veggies, so Mom would clamp the big metal grinder to the countertop and run an onion through it. The grinding reduced the onion to mush; Mom would stir that into the cooking beef. (She always cleaned out the grinder by running stale bread through it, behind the onion; often there’d be ground bread in the sauce, too, which didn’t bother anyone.)
She would pour cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste into the pot. She would double the bulk with water, and stir in oregano and basil flakes. She would simmer it all together and cook up two pounds of thin spaghetti.
We ate it all with no complaints; it was hot, flavorful, and filling.
It wasn’t, though, traditional Italian spaghetti sauce. When I married Mark, I would really begin to learn the intricacies and variations involved with cooking a wonderful, thick, bubbling pot of what his family called, in Italian, “soukup.”
Angelo was the son of Sicilian immigrants Joseph and Mary–called Ma and Pa by their children and extended family. They married in the States in the early part of the twentieth century; they built a life in western New York, where they had seven children and Pa worked on the railroad. Ma was a stay-at-home mom; on Saturdays, Ang recalled, she would cook up a huge pot of sauce and bake enough bread for a week. Ang was always interested in cooking; he learned the secrets of sauce by watching Ma and helping her.
He brought those secrets, those tasty techniques, into his marriage with Pat, who was not Italian, but quickly learned the ins and outs of Italian cooking.
Sundays were family dinner days. In the early years of their marriage, Ang and Pat lived in an apartment above Ma and Pa, and, after church, they would gather downstairs around a huge and groaning dining table. Several of Ang’s siblings would arrive with spouses and kids; a special table would be set up for the young ones. Bowls and platters of pasta and sauce would emerge steaming from Ma’s kitchen, and the family would dig in with gusto.
When Ang and Pat bought their own home, that big table came to roost in their dining room, and the tradition of Sunday pasta dinners moved with them, too. They had five children in all, four active boys, and then, ten years after Thomas, the youngest, was born, the lovely surprise of a baby girl. Mark and his brothers brought friends home on Sundays; leaves extended the table to its utmost. Extended family might drop in. When the boys began marrying and grandchildren arrived, the practice of the children’s table had to be reinstated.
But the wonderful quality of the sauce never wavered. When I first knew Pat–I was in college and we worked together at a bookstore–she canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, and the pasta sauce was simmered from ingredients mostly home-grown and hand-preserved. A long simmer, the right seasonings, a little sweetness to cut the acid…attention to detail and patience were the most important qualities. Spaghetti sauce was a delicious and inexpensive way to feed a hungry mob.
The sauce that Pat simmered up in the kitchen of her lovely hundred-year-old home was far different from my Scottish mother’s. Pat and Ang served sauce that was thick, rich, and fragrant. (Their sauce was to my mother’s what robust stew juices are to thin soups–both valid, of course, but mightily different. I understood after first tasting Ang and Pat’s pasta why some Italian families call their red sauce ‘gravy’.)
Unless it was a Friday, or Lent, the sauce could contain many different kinds of meat–usually an abundance of meatballs, often Italian sausage, and sometimes pork or chicken. My father-in-law was partial to putting pig trotters into his red sauce; I didn’t doubt that they sweetened the sauce. Those seemed, though, blatantly anatomical steaming on the plate of meat which Ang would strain from the sauce and place in the middle of the table. He and Pat would put little bowls of sauce at intervals; there would be grated cheese and crusty bread and greens to make a salad. And two huge bowls of pasta with scoops could be easily reached from all seats.
A lot of sauce was ladled at that table; the sauce fueled conversation, discussion, and camaraderie. As years went by, Pat’s methods changed; the proliferation of good, economical, high-quality canned sauce made the hard work of handpicking, peeling, juicing, and canning tomatoes unnecessary. But the canned sauce was only a base for the magic that Pat and Ang worked in their kitchen.
Along the way, Ang discovered a recipe in his local newspaper; it was Dom Deluise’s mother’s meatball recipe, it was darned good, and we use our adaptation of it to this day. I imagine the sauce being shared around tables for generations to come–feeding hungry families, complementing joy and struggle.
So here, in honor of Ang and Pat’s long partnership, and of the first anniversary, just past, they’ve spent apart, here is the method for that long simmered sauce….
We use (to feed 4-6 people):
–one 6-ounce can tomato paste
–one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
–one 24-ounce can of spaghetti sauce, traditional or meat flavored
–a portion of a recipe of Dom’s Mom’s meatballs
–three links of Italian sausage
–one clove of garlic
–a bay leaf
–one quarter cup of sugar
Coat the bottom of a heavy stock pot with olive oil, and heat that over a medium flame. In it, sauté chopped onion until almost translucent, then add the garlic clove, crushed. Stir until the veggies are sweated and soft, then add the tomato paste and sauce and spaghetti sauce. Fill the empty sauce jar with water, twice, and stir into the pot. Add the spices and sugar and bring to a simmer. We cook and stir, simmer and steep, for at least three hours.
Meanwhile, bake the meatballs (recipe follows) and parboil the sausage. At least an hour and a half before serving–and you can do this well before then–add the meat to the pot and let everything simmer so the flavors will meld and blend.
As the acid bubbles to the top of the sauce during the early simmer, skim with a flat spoon. You can sweeten the sauce in several ways. We usually add at least a quarter cup of sugar; I know people who add a cup or more. We have a good friend who peels a carrot and halves it and throws both halves into a steaming sauce pot. Pork bones also seem to add sweetness and cut the acid; we save the bones and leftover meat from a roast, and in they go.
Chicken, also, cooks down into tender strands in the sauce and adds a wonderful flavor; I don’t recommend putting pieces of chicken in the pot with bone intact, though. The tiny bones come unglued and separate into the sauce, and unsuspecting diners crunch down on bits of hard bone. Much better to remove the flesh from the bones and throw just the tender meat into that simmering brew.
We like to serve this with a tossed green salad, grated parmesan, and a loaf of crusty bread. Of course, a bold red wine goes nicely too.
It’s easy to double or triple this method for a crowd, and you can be daring with add in’s. We love the sauce with fresh zucchini cooked into it, for instance. And in Lent, Mark’s dad always omitted meat and added sardines and chopped hard-boiled egg. In those times, instead of topping the sauce with cheese, Ang would heat olive oil in his cast iron skillet, and brown up a big batch of bread crumbs. The family would use them in place of parmesan, and Mark still loves his sauce topped that way. And of course, vegetarian possibilities are endless, too. A neat trick Pat taught me was to add dried fennel to the sauce; its taste evokes Italian sausage, even when there’s none to be found in the freezer.
Leftover, this sauce makes a dynamite base for a thick, spicy chili.
Our version of Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs
2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork (ground turkey works, too, as does ground chicken…)
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or–I often use 1/4 cup of dried parsley)
1/2 cup grated cheese–our favorite is a romano/parmesan blend
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 minced onion
***Optional: 1/2 cup pine nuts
Mix all ingredients; let stand for 1/2 hour.
Shape into meatballs.
Fry gently (to brown), or bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Add cooked meatballs to sauce and simmer.