Unwrapping Every Day

Every day is a gift.

—Aretha Franklin

 

I let a big pot of spaghetti sauce bubble all Wednesday, Italian chicken sausage and chunks of pork simmering in its mysterious and fragrant depths.  Late that afternoon, I dipped thinly sliced eggplant in egg batter and an herb coating, and I fried it up in olive oil in the old cast iron skillet.

I piled the crisp, sizzly eggplant on a plate and I wiped the old skillet clean.

Then I swirled sauce in the bottom of that still-hot pan, and I layered the eggplant back in, and I poured more of that bubbling sauce over the top, and sprinkled it with fresh parmesan and grated mozzarella. I put the whole conglomeration into the oven to bake.

The sausage came from Fresh Thyme and the pork came from Kroger. The eggplant was from a generous lady at church whose garden has yielded her a crazy bounty. But the fancy jar of tomato basil pesto sauce that served as a basis for the tomatoey concoction that bubbled all day and thickened all day, perfuming the house so rosy-cheeked enterers said, MMMMMMMMMM…well, THAT, and the cheeses and the spices, came from a basket we won.

And all of that has me thinking about the gifts I am lucky enough to receive.

************

We drove to Marysville on a gray October Friday to meet Terri and Ott at the Half Pint. We’d never been to the Half Pint; we’d never been to Marysville, we realized in surprise. But the town is just about halfway between Terri’s house and my house, and we had a plan to meet up and pick up some baskets.

This is what happened: Terri’s organization, First Step, held its annual blues festival, Soulshine, in September and we couldn’t go. Soulshine’s a wonderful event, and it supports a wonderful cause—helping heal families torn by violence, providing resources to families before they reach that wrenching point. So we bought tickets anyway.

Part of Soulshine’s fund-raising each year involves a rich and wonderful basket raffle. And Terri took the money we sent for admission and turned it into raffle tickets with our names on them.

And we wound up winning two baskets.

We live near the lower east corner of the state and Terri and Ott live near the upper west corner, so making the trip to each other’s homes requires contemplation and a good amount of travel time. But we can meet in between, and then each of us only has to drive for about ninety minutes, and that’s something doable on a cloudy, cozy Friday afternoon.

So we decided to meet in Marysville, and Terri and Ott would bring us those baskets.

*************

The restaurant was fun, with pressed tin ceilings and brick walls and scuffed hardwood floors and well-worn wood tables and metal chairs. Not a lot of tables and chairs; just about enough to seat twenty people or so; hence, I think, the name, Half Pint. There were a handful of other diners, but we had a nice corner to ourselves, space to spread out and to pass the deep-fried cheese curds and the pretzel bites and honey mustard dip while we waited for our salads and soups and burgers.

And lunch was wonderful. We ate, of course, but mostly what we did was laugh: Ott is wry and funny, and Terri has a laugh that’s irresistible. When she laughs, everyone around her laughs, too, even if they didn’t hear the funny part. It’s the best kind of contagious.

We shoveled in food in-between, and we shared the latest news, of course, and then, too soon, it was time to go. We reconnoitered parking and the boyos moved two bulging baskets, and a bag of cold food, from Ott and Terri’s vehicle into the trunk of Mark’s Impala. Terri and Ott pulled away, waving, and Mark started the ignition. Jim was untangling his earbuds.

And as we settled in for the trip back home, I suggested that maybe we’d want to go to Marie’s, which was a chocolatier’s shop not so very far away in West Liberty. It was just a tiny hair out of our way; we could, I proposed, all innocence and no ulterior motive, find a treat or two for granddaughters’ birthdays. And the shop, I thought, was not so very far away from an entrance to the interstate.

But no arm-twisting was needed; Mark pulled out according to the bossy phone-directions lady’s dictates, and we cruised country roads, sun breaking through the clouds, clouds breaking apart and fading, to find an old train station turned into a chocolate-lover’s paradise.

Marie’s had something for everything. The old depot was lovingly restored. There was an exhibit of photos that detailed its move, back, I think, in the ‘70’s.

“Look at THAT,” said Mark, poring over the pictures. They showed a huge old flatbed lugging the entire depot. Hard-hatted crews moved power lines. People lined the streets to see the spectacle. And then there were photos of the depot coming to rest, and restorations beginning.

James and I left the dad to look at history. We went to look at chocolate.

We found  chocolate dogs and cats, milk chocolate with white chocolate spots, for granddaughters’ delectation. We found a bag of chunk chocolate that seemed to have Jim’s name on it. A smiling lady came around with a tray of treats—nonpareils sprinkled with scarlet and gray dots, peanut butter meltaways, little chocolate roses.

We sampled, if only to be polite.

We were VERY polite that day.

Mark slipped a bag of chocolate-dipped malted milk balls into our basket. At the counter, we discovered a young clerk packaging something called ‘chimney sweets.’

“What are THOSE?” I asked, intrigued, and she explained that they were square chocolate meltaways topped with a big dollop of caramel. Over that, they poured warm white chocolate, and the resulting confection looked very much like a snow-capped chimney.

“Would you like to try one?” she asked, and of course, I said yes. (Jim demurred. No, no thanks, he said; he really was kind of full.)

Biting into a chimney sweet: oh, my.

Jim, seeing my reaction, said, well, maybe he could fit just one.

We put a slim sleeve of chimney sweets in the basket, too.

Another friendly clerk rang us up and put an advertising flyer in our bag and told us that, if we thought the Halloween and Thanksgiving goodies were something, we ought to come back to shop for Christmas.

“This is a WONDERLAND at Christmas,” she said.

We put the chocolate in the trunk with the other goodies, heading off to let the bossy phone lady lead us home.

*******

And we went home and enjoyed the last weak rays of sun on a day that started out cloudy, and we fixed ourselves a light dinner. And then we brought those baskets from the car and put them on the counter and unpacked them.

And we discovered wonders. Artisan salamis and  chunks of hard cheese—asiago, parmesan,–and a chopping board and graters to make those cheeses into snowy mountains. Jars of pasta sauce, red and white; pastas and pestos. Mixing bowls and colanders and salted caramel biscotti. Spices. Dishtowels and potholders emblazoned with smiling, twirling, mustachioed chefs.

The travel basket had a mini cooler and drink holders and snacks and a fifty-dollar gift card for gas.

We spread the stuff out on the counter; we pulled out the sleeve of chimney sweets and shared them ‘round; and we marveled. And then we got busy putting things away.

************

Some days, life trudges on and I get crabby, thinking about all there is to be done, thinking about books I could be snuggled up reading by the fire, in the cozy chair. But NO, I think; oh, NO. Instead, I am pulling on my old sneaks to mow the raging onion grass in the front lawn or heading off to a meeting or running out to shop or to pick someone up.

And the rugs gripe at me, reminding me where the vacuum resides, and the weight of ungraded papers swirls overhead, and I am sore oppressed.

Thank goodness life has its own ways of smacking me upside the head when I start moaning my way down that road. It stands in front of me holding a cast iron skillet filled with bubbling cheese, sizzling sauce, eggplant baked into melting goodness.

“Excuse me???” says Life. “What was that you were complaining about?””

And I remember laughter and unexpected bounty, road trips and friendship and sweet tastes and the generosity of people only just met.

**********

Mmmmm,” says my husband, tucking in, and I watch him for a moment through the steam that rises from both of our dishes. And then I pick up my fork and tuck in myself. I think about our many wonders and the few reasons I have to complain, and I resolve, once again, to turn my face to see more clearly the gifts of every day.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Ode to a Skillet…

…a cast iron skillet.

Let T-Fal and Teflon

Take flight!

Skillet up straight

      I was using a kind of flat, shovel-shaped, wooden spoon-type thing to chop ground beef in my cast iron skillet, kind of mushing it down to brown evenly, when I had one of those clear, bright, sensory memories.  Suddenly I saw my little mother, five feet four inches and maybe 120 pounds, as they used to say, soaking wet, hair a kind of wild auburn, brown, and gray halo around her intense, concentrating face,–saw her chopping a big chunk of frozen burger with a butcher knife.  It was way before the day of the microwave; if you forgot to take the meat out to defrost, your options were limited.

     Mom liked to decimate it into smaller pieces, which then cooked down faster. She’d turn the fire on low under the cast iron skillet, trowel in a little bacon fat, and–WHACK!–chop off a solid chunk of frozen hamburger and throw it into the hot pan, where it would sizzle and spit in the grease.

     She was a little wild-eyed on days like that, a little scary. I’d slink away from the kitchen, slide into the living room to watch TV. But the big pot of thick hamburger gravy, served over mashed potatoes, with a hefty side helping of canned peas, was delicious and hearty—not harmed a bit by all that whacking.

     The skillet she used could very well be the same one I was using to brown burger for Johnny Marzetti. When Mark and I got married, my parents gave us one of their skillets, and his parents gave us another.  That was almost 35 years ago. I’ve cooked my way through a series of omelet pans, Teflon fryers, and T-Fal skillets in those years, used ’em and cast ’em away. My cast iron skillets are still going strong.

     I started wondering about how old they might be, and where they came from, so we deciphered the block print in a big cross on the back of one of the pans. It said “Griswold,” and I looked that up on-line, discovered the pans were made in Erie, Pennsylvania, not so very far from where I grew up.  The Griswold Company had been in operation since 1865, the last year of the Civil War; they folded, crippled, according to Wikipedia, by labor and economic problems, in 1957.

     Judging by their markings–and by family history–our pans came out of the plant between 1919 and 1940, before our fathers marched off to to do their patriotic duty, before those idealistic young men saw and experienced things that would change their lives and outlooks forever.  Mark’s dad, Angelo, served in the Navy, shipboard on the O’Bannon; he remembers the ship’s cook taking special care of him when he developed a devastating stomach ulcer.

Skillet bottom

     My dad was in the Army; he did not have fond memories of the food. He couldn’t wait to get home to eat home cooking–he vowed to never eat another bite of Spam in this lifetime. And, of course, with war-time rationing and meat coupons scarce, the first meal my mother offered was Spam, fried crisp in that cast iron skillet.  That was the last time Spam touched that skillet; not once, in my whole memory, did that meat-like substance ever enter our house.

     But the skillet cooked a whole heck of a lot of bacon. My mother had a thick white ceramic mug into which she poured off the fat. And then she’d wrap two dish towels around the hot, hot handle, and, rearing around, stick the skillet into the deep farm-style sink, full of sudsy water; we loved to watch the steam explode and hear the angry hissing.

     Our kitchen could be a risky, exciting place to spectate.

     Mom saved the bacon fat and used it, again in the skillet, to fry up any number of things–fried bologna, which my father favored; eggs, cooked so the yolks were almost hard. Fried egg sandwiches were one of my parents’ favorite meatless Friday meals. I’m not sure those eggs in bacon fat met the letter of pre-Vatican Catholic law, but my mother never wavered. She even experimented with making hard little funny homemade doughnuts; she fried them in a couple of inches of melted, snapping bacon fat.  She would shake them in powdered sugar, crisp and thick with bacon grease.  We would munch them down.

     On very, very special occasions, my father would wrap a towel around his waist, fill the cast iron skillet with solid shortening and start it to melting down.  He would put us–any of us he could catch and corral–to work peeling potatoes.  It was, we imagined, like being on KP in the Army–we peeled what felt like piles of potatoes, and he’d look critically and say, “More.” Then we had to slice them, and the slices had to be thin enough to please; we’d put the sliced spuds in a cold water bath in a big old metal bowl, and, when he judged the fat was hot enough, Dad would start throwing the potatoes in, humming, cigarette dangling dangerously close to the food, stirring and flipping those homemade potato chips.

    He lined a big bowl with layers of paper towels, and he’d flip the finished chips in and liberally salt them.

    Oh, we loved those things, loved to grab them, as they hissed and sizzled on their greasy bed of paper towels, juggling them with our burned fingers and eating them straight from the bowl.

    “They taste just like McDonald’s!” someone would say.

     We had been to McDonald’s once, when my brothers’ Little League team (which my father coached) went to the regional tournament in Jamestown, New York, 35 miles away from our small town. We had eaten our first fast food burgers and fries; we had all had chocolate milkshakes; and we had heard the angels sing. I can’t remember if the team won or lost, but I can remember how those fries tasted.

     Dad’s homemade chips were as good, if not better. They were such a complex operation that, on those rare occasions he’d cooked them–maybe every two years or so–they constituted the entire meal. And we were happy, more than happy, with that.

     Mark remembers Angelo searing meatballs in the cast iron skillet, getting a nice crust on them before putting them to simmer in an all-day pot of red sauce.  His dad cooked cardone in the skillet, too—crisp little fritters of egg and flour and wild burdock with herbs and spices.  Those met with mixed reviews, but Angelo loved to make them and loved to eat them.

   Those skillets served up lots of meals to two big, hungry families. When they came to us, they learned a couple of new tricks–we like to put cornbread batter in a greased and sizzling skillet to bake; we saute breaded eggplant and then bake it, layered with cheese and sauce until it’s bubbling and oozing. We rub the skillets down with grease occasionally–we use vegetable oil, the custom of saving bacon fat having been lost, in our household–coat them well, rub the excess off, and bake them for an hour at 325 every so often to keep them seasoned.

     So Griswold skillets have been on my mind. And yesterday, Roberta, a gifted chef and adjunct faculty member, invited me into the culinary lab to see the cakes her students had created for their practicum. All the cakes were two layer round creations, all baked in the same regulation-sized pans. But, within those similarities, the students’ imaginations had taken flight, and there were flowery ‘love’ cakes, ‘Frozen’ cakes, and a fall cake with a sturdy chocolate tree, frosting leaves falling, and whimsical little owls made of marzipan. There were air-brushed cakes and there was sculpted chocolate on cakes, and there was fondant in many colors and guises. There was a cake that looked like a Stetson hat; its brim rolled off the plate and slanted up toward the hat itself, cockily, on one side.

     “You go ahead and pick your favorite,” Roberta said. I looked at all those cakes, and I looked at all the students, flushed with pride and accomplishment, and I said, “No.” They were all amazing, those cakes.

     We talked a bit; I got to hear how the students had been inspired. I was inspired by their excitement and their passion for their craft. But then I had to go back to my office and get some work done.

     So I cut through the kitchen, and I noticed a cast iron contraption sitting on the vast gleaming metal counter top.

     “What is this?” I asked Roberta.

     She opened it; inside there was a cast-iron waffle maker. She flipped it over. The bottom had that tell-tale cross. It proudly admitted to being a Griswold product, made in 1908.

    “Wow,” I said. Roberta nodded.

     “These babies,” she said, “were made to last.”

     So I think of our two pans, and I think of our two sons, and I picture them in some long distant–I hope–day, a day when Mark and I are well-loved memories.  In my mind’s eye, they have thick dish towels wrapped around the handles of their skillets, and they are running–running those skillets to some big old sink after using them to cook up a big batch of–what? Jambalaya? Chicken wings? Browned and beautiful French toast?

   Maybe I’ll be watching them from a cloud, sitting with Mark, and my parents and his, and we’ll all be smiling. It’ll be like we’re watching a relay race we all ran a heat in; our laps over, we can rest and watch the young ones carry on. Which I hope they’ll do for a long, long time, but way out there in the distance, I see granddaughters limbering up, reaching hands back.

     “Slap that skillet HERE, Bubba!” they’re yelling, bouncing, ready to rush off into their own exciting lives.

     Things are just things, after all, but these things, these Griswold skillets, carry a whole lot of memories in their sturdy black selves. I hope they’ll still be in the race a hundred years from now.

Roberta and just some of those wonderful cakes
Roberta and just some of those wonderful cakes

The Carrying of Cookbooks

Streusel topped muffins

This cool and foggy May Sunday morning, I’m baking streusel topped muffins to warm us up. The recipe (a coffee cake recipe; I prefer to use a good coffee cake recipe to make my muffins) is from what we call ‘the new cookbook’–a version of the red-checkered Better Homes and Gardens recipe book. My sister-in-law Mary gave me my first copy when I first got married way back in the early eighties; that copy lasted until about 1994, when my husband and sons got me the latest edition for Christmas. Jim, who was four then and very literal, dubbed it the new cookbook because of its recency, not its title. Twenty years later, when we’re discussing where to find a recipe, we might say, “That one’s in the new cookbook,” and the seeker will know to go grab that twenty-year-old book.

I read a fable once about a man who drowned because he refused to let go of a trunk filled with his prized possessions. And I’m on board with that; our things should not own us. Every so often, I go into purge mode and really think: do I need this? Does this add anything to my life? Would anyone be at a loss if I got rid of this? Have I used this within the past year?

And so blouses that I like but will probably never wear again, books that were mind-opening when I was 32, jewelry with broken clasps, scented candles, tape players,–they all land in a box for the thrift store. I have cookbooks on my shelf, however, that I’d be hard-pressed to let out of my grasp, even as the waters swirled around my ankles.

My Betty Crocker cookbook holds together with packing tape; it has a pie chart photo on the front featuring, among other culinary treats, a fondue pot full of pale orange stuff. My brother Sean and I bought that book for my mother in the very early seventies; we bought it with money saved from baby-sitting and paper routes, and when Mom opened it, she blurted, “No! You spent TOO MUCH!”
We were so proud; that was Mom-speak for, “What an incredible thing!” The Betty Crocker Cookbook was Mom’s cooking bible, and her old version came out just past World War II. We knew we had given her a gift she would cherish and use, and when it came to me after her death, the cover was already wobbling apart. I used it enough to seal the separation and the packing tape came out.
I make the recipe for Hungarian Goulash in this volume; it’s a recipe I met under the name ‘Beef Paprika’, and that’s what we still call it. A dear friend, Pam Hall, fixed it for a dinner party when we were running with the same crazy post-college crowd, and my companion then and I fell in love with it. It was a recipe that Pam’s mom, a truly gifted cook, was testing for the Betty Crocker kitchens. It’s re-named Hungarian goulash, in Mom’s cookbook.
Pam is gone now, too, and I never follow that recipe without thinking of her openness and generosity; nor do I ever use the book without memories of meals at my Mom’s. (And…I love the picture of Betty Crocker on the back of the book; she had been revamped for the Women’s Liberation movement of that day, and sports a smooth page boy haircut and an ascot type collar. She looks as if she could be bringing home the bacon before cooking it up in pan…)

From that same era, I have a slim paperback volume, Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook. That was a wedding shower gift from another dear friend, Sharon, a high school friend who stayed close during college. We lost the reins of friendship after that, but I still think of her fondly whenever I gently open this aging book. One section talks to young couple-cooks about stretching a budget; I used those recipes a lot. I still make the ham and bean skillet fairly regularly, and there’s a concoction made from leftover ham, cheddar cheese, and Bisquick–Bisquick’s big in a lot of these 1970’s recipes—and sprinkled with sesame seeds that’s a nice side with a steaming bowl of soup.

Last month, there was a potluck at Mark’s work for a departing colleague; most people signed up to bring a dish, but Mark was tapped by his colleague Debbie to bring what we call ‘Lee Brothers.’ It’s a mac and cheese recipe from a book that my darlin’ niece Meg gave me–The Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook. There they are on the cover–Matt and Ted Lee, their waists about as big around as the circumference of my knee–and I turn the page to find recipes with no regard whatsoever for modern diets and cholesterol concern. The mac and cheese recipe is actually listed under vegetables, with the argument that school cafeterias always considered macaroni and cheese a vegetable side.
The dish calls for whole milk, lots of cheddar and Swiss cheese, butter…it is oozey and fattening and totally wonderful. (How do those Lee boys stay so thin? Do they EAT their own cookin’???) For the potluck, Mark mixed it up the night before and rolled it into the crockpot, letting it cook on low all morning at work. There were no leftovers to worry about when he brought the crock pot home. (This recipe, by the way, is easily available via a quick Web search; I needed it just post-move when cookbooks were still packed away, and opted for the easy route.)
I also favor the Lees’ recipe for Hoppin’ John at New Years’ time.

Meg, like the Lees, is now a South Carolinian, and she gave me, also, Baked by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Lewis and Poliafito opened their first bake shop/cafe in Brooklyn, but they followed it, I believe, with one in Charleston; when I visited Meg, we visited that (no longer run by the founders, but still–quite, quite yummy.) This book yields the closest recipe I can find to Starbuck’s Reese’s cup cookies. I can’t find those cookies in any of the Starbucks in this area of Ohio; I insist on braking for Barnes and Noble stores in New York and PA–not a hard sell with my boys–on the off chance of finding my favorite cookie in their attached cafe’s—and usually my luck holds. Meanwhile, I strive to re-create those cookies in my kitchen; Baked offers a pretty darned good approximation in its peanut butter cookie recipe.

Mark gave me a chicken cookbook, the Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes, when we lived on Orchard Street; its chicken corn chowder recipe was a great thing to cook when in the law school years, with hungry young law students visiting for meals. (Mark’s young classmate, Todd, used to pass him notes in the midst of challenging class sessions. “I’m hungry; I need soup,” the note might say, or, “I like chicken corn chowder.”)

I have a stack of those little fund-raiser compilation books with the plastic spiral bindings; they yield the best recipes for things like no-bake cookies, Buckeye-style Rice Krispy bars (corn syrup and peanut butter instead of marshmallow; a topping of melted chocolate chips; these don’t last long on my counter), and never-fail pie crust. I go to Julia Child for roast chicken (and one of these years, she’s going to show me how to make French bread). My Joy of Cooking helps with everything from how long to cook a roast of beef to a reliable recipe for raspberry bars. And Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Cooking is my go-to for risotto; my homemade broth is forever enriched by her technique of roasting the bones and veggies before immersing them in a deep, long simmer.

I also have notebooks full of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines or printed from the Internet; my son Jim helps me organize these by numbering pages and creating tables of contents. This is where Mark’s parents’ recipe for “Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs” resides and my sister-in-law Mary Ann’s directions for Buffalo Wing Dip, along with a classic cheesecake recipe that can’t be beaten and Louise Pelletter’s directions for a long-simmering red sauce.

I suppose I could add my favorite recipes from each of the cookbooks I’ve mentioned; type them out, save them to a thumb drive, print out a copy and paste them in a notebook. That would be efficient, maybe.

But I am not so interested in efficiency in this process.

Everyone once in a while my Jim, who is a lover and a maestro of lists, will sit down with a cookbook and start listing recipes we should try. So we will experiment, say, with parmesan crusted chicken–very, very delicious-or pepperoni bites, a classic seventies appetizer treat. Our repertoire, getting just a little bit stale, expands.

And my cookbooks give me the sense of continuity, of gifts, not just of the physical book, but of the tastes of the giver, and their care for my well-being. The cookbooks I’ve gifted to myself give me the sense of the passing on of important techniques and processes–a true home-making tradition not limited to an age or a gender, but an essential part of any life. I like to open and savor them; I like to read the intro’s and anecdotes.

I have worked with young people immersed in strong passed-down traditions; I have worked with young people whose lives don’t have the shape and the girding this kind of passing-down provides. I feel for that second group, having been lucky enough to have both, the passing down of lore from family and friends, and the acquiring of new traditions along the way. But I know that, with caring friends and personal curiosity, good stuff can be shared, and traditions can be begun.

That’s why my cookbooks travel with me. I’d let go of their trunk if I had to choose between them and the deluge.

But it wouldn’t be easy.

A Good Sauce Simmerin’

Handwritten methods, preserved and passed
Handwritten methods, preserved and passed on

Even on really, really cold days, little dogs have got to go outside. Greta is dancing anxiously. I go shlep my feet into my duckies, zip my purple “Washington DC” hoodie up to my chin, and slip my jacket on over top. I stuff one pocket full of plastic Kroger sacks [read: poop bags], pull on my gloves, and we head outside.

Greta is as dismayed as I am by the cold; she dances around the yard. The snow has a thick crust, and she can’t find a place that feels good. After several fruitless circles, we head out the drive for our normal neighborhood walk.

Pretty soon the dog settles down, ignores the cold, and starts sniffing; there are splashy deer tracks from one yard across the street to another (I came home at moonrise the night before and saw them, our neighborhood deer, seven in all, loping silently across the street; it was eerie and beautiful). Something with a compelling smell must have been dropped near the sidewalk around the corner before the snow fell; Greta doesn’t want to leave one spot, and keeps pawing at the crust and trying to snout something out. I give her a few minutes’ sniffing time and nudge her on.

Eventually, cold or no, we enjoy our usual productive walk around the block, and arrive home energized and feeling a little righteous for having braved the frigid air. And then the big reward: opening the back door and being enveloped in the fragrant scent of spaghetti sauce simmering.

I have been learning to make sauce since, in my early twenties, I realized that my version of red sauce was totally uninspired. Spaghetti sauce could be a wonderful meal, and it was economical for struggling young marrieds; it was the meal of choice for small dinner parties, and the preparation got a little competitive. (I remember friends who served us our spaghetti and meatballs at a coffee table, where we sat on fat, hand sewn pillows, eastern style. The meal was delicious, but our legs fell asleep and we hobbled out to our car afterwards.)

I went looking for kind mentors who would share their sauce-making wisdom, and I was blessed with good ones.

I still have the index card on which Mrs. Louise Pelletter wrote out her method for me. It was the first time I’d ever considered cooking with real garlic bulbs, and Mrs. P., who, with her husband owned the Book Nook, where I worked for joy–and who was the mother of dear friends–took pity on me and wrote notes like, “When using garlic cloves, I usually take them out & discard them when sauce is cooked. You may use garlic powder.”

For a long time, I opted for the powder; the bulbs were just too exotic for my novice cooking skills.

Mrs. P’s recipe involved a 24-ounce can of whole tomatoes, a big can of tomato puree, an equally large can of tomato paste, and a day’s hearty simmering. It was the first time I’d ever known that you might put sugar into spaghetti sauce; Mrs. P’s recipe called for a cup, and she wrote in the margin, “I use MORE!” The secret, I learned, was a long simmer, and to skim the furzy acid off the surface as the tomatoes cooked down and the flavors melded.

In the summer, with my sister-in-law Mary and her sister Marsha, I juiced bushels of tomatoes in Marsha’s backyard, spent long hot hours canning the juice, and put that in my spaghetti sauce as part of the base. I swore you could taste the sunshine.

And then I was lucky enough to marry into a family whose sauce is legendary; I learned tricks like throwing in some fennel when the budget doesn’t stretch to adding Italian sausage. I discovered, too, that there are lots of meats that really enhance a spaghetti sauce–pork is wonderful; chicken is amazing. Simmered all day in the sauce, the meat is tenderly drenched with the robust flavor.

The Zanghis would scoop the meat out and serve it on two platters, put little gravy pitchers of sauce at about three foot intervals down their long dining room table, and set out two big bowls of pasta. The big table, passed down from Angelo’s mother, Mary, always seemed to be crowded; friends of Zanghi offspring were never shy about inviting themselves for dinner.

As food processing got more sophisticated and more really decent, ready-made spaghetti sauce become available on the supermarket shelves, our sauce methods have adapted. We no longer use the jars of whole tomatoes or the tomato puree; instead the bases of our sauces are canned spaghetti sauce, tomato paste, and little jars of tomato sauce. To that we add as seasons and freezer allow.

If we’ve had a pork roast, I’ll save the bone and the leftover meat, which sweeten the sauce in a wonderful way. Boneless chicken breasts cook to tender pieces in the simmering sauce, and in the summer, sautéed zucchini and yellow squash add to the joy. My friend Wendy suggested throwing a carrot in for sweetness; it makes a nice compromise for Mark and me, as I prefer a sauce sweeter than he likes.

But the sauce still simmers for at least three hours.

Along the way, Angelo, my father-in-law, found an incomparable meatball recipe. It was in an interview with Don DeLuise in the Dunkirk (NY) Observer, and we call the wonderful result Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs. First roasted in the oven, then simmered in a bubbling sauce, they are absolutely primo. (Our adaptation follows.)

I have gotten to the point where I know my sauce will be reliably good, but I doubt I’ve finished learning. I look forward to ‘aha!’ moments when friends casually share the secrets that give their sauces that special, unique zing.

And I look forward to the fragrance of the house on a cold winter’s day, when the sauce has been simmering, when the boiling pasta water steams the kitchen, and when a fork slices a meatball in half, releasing an irresistible scent. And when the meal is over, the leftovers tuppered, and we’ve toddled off to watch TV, there’s still more looking forward to be done. Because I know that sauce will make an AWESOME chili the next night. But that, perhaps, is a story for another day.

******

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/ 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.