62 Years of Sauce

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 onion
–one clove of garlic
–olive oil
–oregano
–basil
–rosemary
–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
4 eggs
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.

Willie, Without Her

Willie Heart 2In the realm of true love, there is no ‘one size fits all’…

Willie’s bare cheeks are glowing by the time he walks into the Oleander Center.

“Mr. Randolph!” says Janice, at the receptionist desk. “You shaved your beard!” There’s an older nurse working with charts behind the desk; she turns sharply and gives Janice a severe look.

Willie stops and smiles a good morning at the nurse, says to Janice, “How kind of you to notice! It’s a big change for me.”

The nurse relaxes.  “Well, it looks very nice, Mr. Randolph.”

“How’s Miranda this morning?” he asks.

She shrugs.  “Happy,” she says.

Miranda, once the queen of the sassy, biting retort, once a woman buffeted by any emotion but mildness, is always happy these days.

Willie makes his way back through the shining maze of hallways. He greets most of the staff by name; they have become friends,—some are almost like family.  Willie has been visiting the Oleander Center for two years.

“She’s in the music room, Mr. Randolph!” says a dark-haired nurse in brightly patterned scrubs.

“Thanks, Sandy,” says Willie.

Miranda is in her chair by the floor-to-ceiling picture windows.  Her wispy white hair is pulled back in a bun. She wears a  long-sleeved white t-shirt and yoga pants: dancer’s clothes.  She has not danced in many years now, but her feet reveal her vocation.  Even in the stretchy terrycloth institutional slippers, they are the broadened, overworked feet of one who taught and plied a dancer’s craft, for a living, and with passion.

A small group of residents is clustered on the other side of the room with a young aide he’s never seen before.  He waves to the group; hands flutter back at him, and the aide breaks away to come and say hello.

“Your mother is having a good morning, Mr. Randolph,” she says, cheerfully.

“Not my mother,” Willie corrects, but gently. “My wife.”

The young aide turns a deep pink.

“Well,” she says. “Assuming just made an ass of me, didn’t it?”

Willie smiles.  “An understandable mistake,” he says.

It is.  Willie is 65.  Miranda is 87.

*****

They met when he transferred to Calamette University; he’d finished his two year degree at a commuter college in his hometown. He couldn’t wait to test out life in the dorms. It was 1967. Anything was possible, and most of the possibilities were happening on college campuses.

By the luck of a draw, Willie (who’d been plain ‘Bill’ at home–he was re-inventing himself)  had a dorm room to himself.  The pleasant roommate with whom he was intended to share space was there for about four hours, and then he and his stuff disappeared.

Gone back home, someone told him. Something about a girl.

Willie supposed a new roommate would be assigned, but, apparently, there was no pressing need for the space.  He was the sole lord of two single beds and two built in desks.

He liked it, the room to himself, but it slowed down his social entry.  And Willie was not a bluff, hail-fellow-well-met, kind of guy.  He made friends, but slowly; always, as people got to know him, Willie found himself firmly woven in to the fabric of whatever culture he was part of.

But it took time.  He was lonely that first week, listening to the thuds and thumps and bass undercurrent of the established social life in the dorm.

So he spent a lot of time with his books at the campus center cafeteria.  He refilled his coffee mug endlessly, diving into his advanced history texts.  This was the payoff, academically, for those two years of required courses: now he was in the meat of his program, in the courses he was dying to take.  His parents were pushing him to decide: was this pre-law?  Or was he planning on teaching?

Willie ignored the need to choose.  For now, he was submerged in the study of history.

The cafeteria had a huge banquette, built into a circular half wall. It rimmed the room. Small, two-seater tables flanked the banquette every three feet or so; a medley of chairs scattered around them, swelling into the traditional table arrangements.  By day three, Willie had his regular spot–on the banquette, just past the bustle of people grabbing noshes.  He was close enough to easily refill his mug, far enough away that the crash and mutter of the cafeteria was pleasant background noise for his reading.

Miranda entered his life before he’d been there a week.  One afternoon, Willie vaguely registered a tight passel of faculty marching into the cafeteria–slumming, apparently; there was a Rathskeller on campus for the graduate students and college faculty. They were debating something, though he never did find out what it was–campus politics, Viet Nam war, civil rights, women’s movement– it could easily have been any one of those, or maybe just a disagreement over whether homemade sangria was de rigeur. Whatever, a tall, regal woman, tight-fitting tank top, flowing cotton skirt, broke away from the group with a dancer’s flourish.  She swirled and turned and posed, one shoulder arc-ed toward the ceiling, her other arm, almost touching the floor, palm up toward the group.  They stared at her for a moment. Then one of the undergrads  began to clap, and that was sporadically taken up by people at a few surrounding tables.

The dancer laughed, shook herself back into lay-person’s posture, wiggled a hand in the air, and walked away from her colleagues to disappear into the food service area.

Willie went back to his book.

In a moment she towered over him, tray shading his light. He looked up, startled, from deep reading.

“You’re an anomaly, young man,” she said. “I’ve seen you here four days in a row.  There was a catfight the first day, a tray disaster the second, and a streaker on the third. You never looked up.” She put her tray down on the small table adjacent to his. “I want to know what you’re reading that’s so compelling.”

And that was how Miranda Quincey met Willie Randolph.

Their courtship was rich and textured; they circled around physical love, the difference in ages both compelling and offsetting. Their reluctance and restraint seemed, in the late sixties, downright counter-cultural. But after weeks of intense talk, which moved from the cafeteria to a local bar, and finally to Miranda’s trendy loft-style apartment, they gave in.

For Willie, who was vastly inexperienced, it was life-changing.  (He suspected that for Miranda, who was vastly experienced, the sex was more of a comfort.)

******

He shakes himself out of the reverie, smiles at the aide, and goes to sit with his wife. He steels himself for what he knows will come: the pleasant, vacant look of an old lady who has no idea who he is.  The dementia took its time moving in, creeping so slowly they could almost tell themselves nothing had changed from day to day.  But its spread, though slow, was inexorable.  It was like, Willie thought, a wine stain on a linen tablecloth, lazily sending fronds into new territory, the ruby stain seeping, seeping, until the tablecloth was completely compromised.  No good for its former use.  That was Miranda’s mind–the dementia seeped into all the nooks and crannies; he could picture it, dark, bubbling, almost–making her vulnerable mind completely unlike the brilliant tool it had once been.

Willie pulls a dining table chair in front of Miranda’s chair and sits; he puts out his hands to draw in each of hers.  But she surprises him.  There is a flash in her eyes, and Miranda, who has become completely non-verbal, says, with clear, great effort, “Woo.”

Willie’s tears, which seem always ready these days, well.  “Yes, baby,” he says. “It’s me. It’s Willie.”

She reaches one hand up to lightly graze his cheek.  Her eyes cloud.  “Gaw?”

“Yes,” he whispers, leaning in to catch every second of awareness. “My beard is gone. I’ve shaved.”

But in the time he took to answer, she is gone too; that tiny glimmer of Miranda is snuffed.  He realizes, Willie does, that that may be the last time he ever truly talks to her. Miranda has advanced stage four cancer.  When she still had her wits about her, she’d been very clear what she wanted should this circumstance occur.  No extra measures.  Plenty of pain alleviation.  But no chemo, no radiation.

At his last weekly meeting, the doctor confided that the disease was racing through her system, like, he said, she was encouraging it to hurry up.

Well, of course she was, thought Willie; wherever Miranda’s conscious mind existed, she did not want her body stuck in this in-between hell.

He sits with the gentle shell, the happy, vacant old lady who still smiles at taped classical music, for two hours.  Then Sandy comes to wheel her off to what lunch she can ingest and a rest in her crib-like bed. Willie stands and stretches and makes his way out.

He has an appointment, and then he’ll stop and see Victoria, their daughter. Victoria, who was born when he was 21: there are fewer years between Willie and his daughter than separate Willie and his wife.

******

They had had to be careful; the college had rules about faculty dating students, although of course the rules had been made for older men preying on pretty coeds.  They’d kept the secret pretty well, he thought; he told  elaborate stories to his dorm-mates about where he went on the weekends and every Wednesday night, weaving in just enough of the truth to be convincing.  It was an older woman, he told them, someone local.

“OLDER older?” asked Skip, his pot-head next-door neighbor. “Like, not like OLD older, right?’

“Old enough,” said Willie, “for the French to think she’s sexy.”

His friends sighed.  Anything French reeked of musky sex.  They admired Willie for his glamorous mystery woman. His  time apart from Miranda was spent studying; he was becoming known–unjustly, he realized; anyone could immerse himself in his books–as the resident genius.  The other guys treated him with something like awe.

That was the first year: he went home for an abbreviated Christmas break, told his parents he had a mid-mester project and returned to spend a decadent two weeks wrapped up in Miranda.

By then he realized very clearly she was not perfect. She could be waspish and stingy; she wanted, always, to be the center of attention.  Her wit was acerbic; and sometimes, it was plain mean.  She didn’t hesitate to vent it on people–salesclerks, wait staff, Willie–who didn’t meet her expectations.

Her expectations were high.

But Willie was distracted, immersed in his books; he was happy to worship her if she was happy to give him free rein for his studies.  She didn’t think he was perfect either, but she did, she said, think he was delicious.

She called him ‘BT’, for Boy Toy.

He did NOT call her his ‘old lady.’

He had a perfect 4.0 his junior year, and by summer, Miranda was pregnant. He took her home to meet his family.  They were appalled.

His sister Katie: Okay, screw her, but don’t MARRY her!

His mother: Are you NUTS?  She’s four years younger than I am.

His father offered to send him to a college on the other side of the country, a fresh start–somewhere ‘that woman’ would never find him.

Willie laughed.  He loved his college. He loved Miranda.  And while an instructor couldn’t date a student, there was no reason she couldn’t be married to one.  In fact, he said, if he was married to Miranda, he could attend school free.

It’s a hell of a way to get a free education, muttered his mother, and his sister added darkly, You know it will never last.

Five years later, as they crashed into their early fifties, Willie’s parents announced they were splitting up. Each remarried; each of the new marriages floundered, too.  Both died alone, in nursing homes.

Katie married her high school sweetheart in a fairy tale wedding.  They lasted seven years.

Willie and Miranda drove to Pennsylvania, got married in the parlor of a JP’s home, with the justice’s wife and son as witnesses. They ate their wedding supper at a McDonald’s.  Pregnant Miranda lost it on the way home.

Just as well, she said, we didn’t pay for anything fancy.

Willie got a part-time job at the local newspaper; she took a sabbatical year. They settled into the loft apartment. Willie studied and worked; Miranda exercised and bloomed.  They stayed in town and had a lovely Christmas in their nesting cocoon.

Victoria was born early in March.

From the first she was a sturdy, placid baby.  Willie expected a mini-Miranda; but Vic was not that.  She looked in fact, like his father, built sort of like a barrel.  Solid, even, dependable.

Miranda surprised him.  There was no disappointment that the baby–clearly their one and only baby–was not a dancing swan.  Miranda accepted Victoria just as she was.  No, it was more than that: she loved Victoria for whom she was, loved every second of the unfolding of her personality.  There was never any jealousy between the two women; there was no traumatic teenaged mother-daughter conflict.  Victoria always knew clearly what she wanted; in high school she told them that, while she would go to college, she wanted to do a cosmetology course at the career center instead of the traditional college prep. She did; she excelled.

She went to the local college, free: Miranda taught there just long enough for Vic to graduate. Victoria got an early childhood teaching degree, uninterested in working, like her mother did, with college students , or with the middle-schoolers her father enjoyed so much.  She got a job at a day care, married a nice guy named Charley, moved away, and wound up doing hair at a salon. Charley was killed when Vic was 32. They never had kids.  Vic moved back to town, got a job in a store that sold women’s wigs and hairpieces–their most reliable clients were drag queens–and soon moved into a manager’s position.

She had friends, a  cozy apartment; she went to church (which was more than Willie and Miranda had ever done) and taught Sunday school; she volunteered at the library.  She had a rich life, and the fact that it might not have been one that Willie and Miranda picked for her did not diminish it.

Willie, who’d started teaching right after graduation, was able to take an early retirement not too long after Miranda left the college.  They did it all–they went to Paris; they saw Broadway shows. He took her picture as she danced at the lip of the Grand Canyon. She took his picture as he peed into it. They ran a 10K together. They rode the train through the Canadian Rockies.

Willie went bald. He grew a beard.  He never tried to look more youthful.  He was never, not once, tempted to stray.

When Miranda, in her late seventies, showed clear signs of failing, Willie was glad they’d had that time, glad Victoria was near.

Inch by relentless inch, he lost his wife.

*****

Today, he gets in the car–a little two-seater they’d bought ten years ago, so they could feel the wind in their hair in the summer–and drives twenty miles to the city, to a shop that sells toupees and hairpieces.  They have his hairpiece waiting for him. He goes in for the final fitting.

He is sitting in front of a mirror, seeing himself clean shaven and with hair on top of his head for the first time in 20 years. The toupee is not outrageous; it’s an ordinary, older middle-aged man’s haircut, peppered with gray.  It looks as if he’s grown it.  The woman who fits him is silent for a long moment. Finally she says, “It’s perfect.  You look ten years younger.”

Willie, again, begins to cry.

*****

Later, he drives to Vic’s shop.  She is alone when he walks in; she turns to look, and then looks again, and she, too,  begins to cry. It is, thinks Willie, a day for tears.

That afternoon, they visit Miranda together, and then they go out to dinner.  He thinks about explaining to his undemanding daughter–but she doesn’t ask, doesn’t wail, “Why, Dad?” She simply says, “It’s just this, Dad: Mommy stopped, but we keep going.” They eat a comforting meal at Bob Evans; afterwards, Willie drops her off at her apartment.  He squeezes her hand and she smiles at him.

Miranda dies a few weeks later, quietly, softly, just slipping from one realm into another. They have a memorial at Vic’s church; Willie is touched and gratified by the number of mourners–current friends, former students, Katie and her son, several of Vic’s flashier clientele (Miranda would have loved that)–who come to express their sympathies.

There’s a lovely sermon; people speak.  Willie, though his legs feel leaden, gets up and shares a story he has written out about traveling with Miranda.

That, Willie tells the crowd, is the line he’s having engraved on Miranda’s tombstone: Some things just can’t be scripted.

He sits down with relief; he has never been the performer in the family.  As people exit the church, they shake his hand, hug him.  One of the nurses from the Oleander, all teared up, thanks him for the story.

Finally, it is just Willie and Vic, left to pick up a few last things in the church hall–a triptych of photos, a thick stack of cards.  They carry the stuff to Willie’s car; Vic uses her remote start to get hers going, warm it up.

They are exhausted, but wound tight. They meet at the diner and get coffee, cradling the mugs in their cold hands..

“Vic,” Willie says to his warrior daughter, “I don’t know who I am without her.”

She gazes at him, at his new look, the new shirt and pants he’d bought for the service, her loyal, hurting father suddenly morphed into an attractive, mysterious man. She knows what it means to re-invent a life, and she takes his hands in hers and squeezes.

“Daddy,” she says, though she hasn’t called him that in 42 years. “Daddy. It’s your time to find out.”