The sun is not yet up, and my son James, 26-years old, is stretching his arms in the dining room.
“Should I get my shoes on?” he asks.
Jim’s dad, Mark, passes him on his way upstairs to dress for work.
“Good morning, Sabu,” says Mark.
“Morning, Dabu,” Jim replies, their own special dialect in play.
I have just poured my first cup of rich dark decaf; I haven’t even pulled my binder from the cupboard to parse out some loose-leaf, pick up a pen, and write my three required morning pages. My slow, fuzzy morning mind churns reluctantly.
“Sooooooo….” Jim says, a question in that one-drawn out word.
And then I remember. Last night, clipping coupons, I’d chopped a page full of great Tim Horton deals into their discrete elements. And I said to Jim, “Hey–we should go to Timmy H’s tomorrow for breakfast.”
“Cool,” he’d said, and I went back to my clipping. I’d been thinking of a meander over to Maple Avenue at, oh, say, maybe 9 or 10 A.M.
Yet here, up and waiting well before 7, is Jim. A whole thought-reel plays in tiny seconds: I NEED to do my morning pages; I haven’t even combed my hair. Everyone knows I need at least half an hour to wake up–and what the heck is he doing, up before the sun? Moms need their morning quiet time. Is the paper even here yet?
And I look at Jim, shining with expectancy. Autism and depression and OCD are all parts of his complex personality. One of his greatest pleasures is eating out. One of his autistic attributes is a tendency to be very, very literal. And last night I said, “We’ll go to Timmy H’s in the morning.”
It is morning. He’s been waiting. I bite off a retort, run upstairs to wash my face, comb my hair, make a feeble attempt at wide-awake presentability. I grab the coupons, kiss the dad, and we head out, James and I, just as the sky gentles into gray.
It is a warm January day, heading up toward an unseasonable 60 degrees. It is raining, the streets dark and shiny. The windshield wipers slap rhythmically, and Jim says, “Want some music?”
“Sure,” I agree, and he says, “Nothing dark though, right?” He pulls up the theme song from The Karate Kid. It’s the score to our trip to the doughnut shop.
Inside, a cheerful but sleepy bespectacled girl waits on us. We do a Laurel and Hardy routine, she and I. I hand her a muffin coupon and say, “Doughnut.” She says, “Muffin?”
“Yes,” I say and order up some decaf.
“Wait,” she says, pushing keys. Then, “Orange juice?”
Actually that sounds good, so I say sure. “Any coffee?” she asks, and I start to laugh. She pauses and then smacks her head.
“Decaf!” she chortles.
Too early, we agree, for effective communication.
Jim, using his coupons, orders a toasted bagel and two doughnuts. He surveys the case carefully, seriously, and asks for a honey cruller and a Boston cream.
“Anything to drink?” asks our new friend, and he requests a Pepsi.
For breakfast???? I think. Doughnuts and pop for breakfast? My teeth hurt just thinking about it, but I clamp my lips together and do not preach. This is not everyday; this is an everyday adventure.
At the pickup stand, we realize brazen inauguration hype is playing on the big screen TV.
“Mind if we sit on the other side?” asks Jim, and I agree wholeheartedly. We get the last table by the window and unload our bounty.
Jim lines his food up–doughnut, bagel, doughnut,–and begins to eat. And to talk. He has a passion for film, and he tells me about one of his favorite producers. This guy, he says, had a story he really wanted to produce, and so he signed an agreement with the studio to direct two superhero films. Then they produced, and he directed, his story which was, Jim agrees, a magnum opus. But the characters in the super hero films were neither: not super, and not, in Jim’s considered opinion, anything resembling heroes.
He crumples up the paper from his first doughnut and muses, while unwrapping his bagel, on why it seems that modern film-makers want to bring super-folk down to the level of mere mortals. He has worked this through, and his ideas are interesting. I nod and ask a question here and there, but mostly I sip my coffee, break my muffin into bite-sized pieces, nibble; I listen as James expounds an evolving theory.
By the last doughnut, he is talking about a screenplay he’d like to write, a story that’s a crossover between two popular, but, on surface, dissimilar franchises. It’s an intriguing idea, and he has thought it out. He knows which characters would be drawn to each other, in friendship and in romance. He has ideas about conflicts and enmities and how a new story would spin out among the characters from oft-told tales.
And then the food is gone, and Jim winds down. “Well,” he says. “Shall we go?”
We stop at Kroger, more coupons in hand, to buy the pizza he’ll cook himself while Mark and I go to a bar association dinner that night. We pick up a few necessities. I stop and pump gas, and then we head to the post office, a few miles across town. Jim plays more music. “Lord of the Dance” is followed by Metallica doing “Whiskey in the Jar,” and then he plays a new artist doing a cover of Night Wish’s “Story Time.” The artist is called Amateur, and a clear, sweet voice caresses familiar lyrics.
Jim’s tastes in music are eclectic and surprising.
I buy stamps and mail a bill and then, windshield wipers fwapping, we head home.
“I’ll get the bags,” offers Jim, and he grabs the groceries from the backseat and runs through the rain to unlock the back door. We schlep in, stomping rain off our feet at the door, greeting the bouncing dog.
Jim puts the grocery bags carefully on the counter.
“That,” he says, “was fun.”
I look at the clock. It is not even 9:00 yet, and we have crossed the morning errands off the to-do list, shared an unexpected treat, had a chance to talk.
“That WAS fun,” I agree, and I look at the kitchen with different eyes. I could, I think, take the aging apples and cut them up to make the kind of apple cake my mother used to make. I’ll use a recipe for Busy-Day Yellow Cake that Jim recently transcribed for me. The unexpected day’s start seems to open up other possibilities, a little healthy perspective-shaking having taken place.
I slice and chop the apples; I throw together the simple, one-bowl, cake batter, and soon the house smells warmly of cinnamon and sugar, flour and butter. What else is on offer, today?
Jim goes off to start his screenplay, and I realize I have all the ingredients for a pot of chowder waiting in the fridge. And I can roast the chicken bones leftover with some veggies and herbs to make a base for broth. The day simmers forth, and I decide to do unexpected things: I put away the outdoor Christmas trees I’d been waiting (Why?) for Mark to take care of; I decide, having just read an article about dust mites, to wash all the pillows. I change the shower curtain and pull the sheets off the bed. I throw laundry in, then head up to finish a book review I’d started way back the week before.
Jim switches from his screenplay to his paid work; he begins to transcribe a new batch of recipes as Frazier re-runs play in the background. Every now and then he roars with laughter; every now and then he calls out a progress report: Five recipes done!
Five more, he tells me, a little bit later.
And the cake bakes and the broth bubbles and the day flows into a wholly unexpected shape, not exotic, not extraordinary, but somehow morphed by the simple expedient of an unexpected start. A lesson to be learned, I think, and a habit to be broken, perhaps.
Certainly, there’s possibility to be pondered, in the transformation of the expected by a different kind of day’s beginning. There’s a lot of energy generated by adventures in ordinary time.
I can’t tell you how many of Jodi’s recipes I have bookmarked, and how many of those have become family favorites. So it’s a really, really big deal to have a recipe featured on Jodi’s blog!
The Ultimate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookie
A few months ago, I recall my youngest son, watching me mix together a batch of cookie dough, asking, “Do you actually enjoy doing that? Seems like a lot of work!”
I thought about it.
It is a bit tedious.
It makes a mess in the kitchen.
I could be binge-watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix or painting or exercising or reading or so many other things.
There’s something about baking…
There’s something about using Grandma’s old tin measuring cup and reminiscing about childhood summers.
There’s something about the way the house smells like home when you bake.
There’s something about the smiles you know will emerge when hubby sees stacks of cookies cooling on racks when he comes home or comes in from out of the cold.
There’s something about making goody packages to send home…
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A young wife and mom I know, a former student, spoke recently at a training for those who love and care for people with mental health challenges. This young woman–let’s call her Elizabeth–told the group about her childhood. Elizabeth grew up with a mom with mental illness, a mom who loved her dearly but who, when things got beyond coping, would just go into her room and check out of life for a while. She’d leave the kids a note that might say something like, “You kids are on your own. I’m tired of waiting on your ungrateful little selves.”
Elizabeth, who has a big personality, outspoken and strong, would go and stand at her mother’s bedroom door.
“You get OUT here!” she would yell. “You come and take care of your children!”
That never worked, but in a couple of days, the mom would re-emerge, rested and ready to cope again. Then life would be fine for a while, until the stress built up to the sticking point, and the next note appeared on the kitchen table.
“I always thought that was normal,” Elizabeth said. “I thought everybody’s mother had her disappearing days.”
Then Elizabeth grew up and got married. After the birth of her baby, she plunged into a depression that did not, for a year, dissipate. Instead, other troubling symptoms arrived, and Elizabeth finally came to realize that she, like her mom, was mentally ill. Her treacherous journey to recovery and independence leads her to advocate for others who haven’t yet completed the trek. It leads her to understand her mother, with whom she remains very closely tied.
Elizabeth told her story, last week, with verve and laughter and poignancy. The group of care-givers pelted her with questions and comments, to which she responded with honesty, humor, and self-respect. When she took her leave, the room suddenly seemed empty, as if a huge force had just ebbed away.
The people gathered were quiet for a moment. Then one of the women said, “Wow.” She paused and then added, “She seems so NORMAL.”
My colleague and I looked at each other, balancing how to respond to that. But my knee-jerk, uncensored thought was, “Well, thank God she’s not.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘normal’ ever since, about what it means and where it happens and about whom it might describe.
I think of my mother, talking to me over morning coffee, after her prayers were said, when she was waxing a little wistful.
“Maybe,” she would say, “when things get back to normal, we’ll paint the living room.” Or: “Maybe, when things get back to normal, we’ll go visit Annie’s kids in California.”
I grew up hearing that ‘back to normal’ refrain from my mother, and I always wondered when things had been normal. I thought, at first, it must have been before me, because I couldn’t remember it. I was born, and from then on out, things were never normal. But someday, things would go back to being that way.
I looked forward to learning what exactly that meant.
I think of my son James, dealing with his own diagnosis as a young teenager, waking me in the middle of the night to plead, “I just want to be normal. How can I be normal?” And knowing what he meant, but not being able to assure him that, someday, yep, Buddy, you’ll just be a ‘normal’ kid.
And then I thought, but who’s to tell us what normal really means?
I look up normal in an online dictionary and it says this:
Normal, the noun, means “…the usual, average, or typical state or condition.”
In its adjective form, normal means conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected.
Normal, I kind of think, sounds a little bit boring.
But, if you use that definition, then Elizabeth’s childhood days WERE normal; they were normal for her family. It was expected that her mother, when life got too chaotic, would retreat to her cave. It was typical that the kids would band together, making meals, getting clean clothes for school, covering for their mother’s temporary absence. It was usual for Elizabeth to pound on that bedroom door, demanding an audience. And her mother’s eventual return to active life: that was a given, too, a standard.
“Gosh, that’s not normal,” someone might say, but it was. It was normal for them.
My mother had a ‘normal’, too, only her ‘normal’ might mean your ‘unsettled.’ Her family was together until she was four, when her mother died, and her father, shortly afterward, left his seven children alone. The eldest, Jim and Annie, were 16 and 14; they quit school and raised their siblings.The little troupe moved many times during those Depression days. Never settling in became normal to my mother. Never having quite enough to eat. Always having clothes that were a little bit odd, a little bit different, gleaned from charity boxes. They made it through, miraculously, but they struggled.
Struggling was their normal.
Later, when my mother met my father, and they got married, I imagine the two of them thinking, “Oh, God: finally. Love. Home. Normal.”
And then: World War II erupted; my father was drafted less than two months after the wedding. That must have felt normal, to my mother, too: the important people seem to have to leave, don’t they? She and her baby, my oldest sister, followed Dad as long as he was based in the States, but when he was shipped overseas, she went to stay with friends in Ohio. Where my sister died, with my dad far away. They say my mother just about died herself, from that much normal.
And Jim has a normal too: days filled with writing and reading and the watching of movies, with organizing and rearranging and time at the computer. And just lately, with the onset of a new small business launch, he has hours of independent industry. He likes to accompany me to work and take up a spot in a small study room, where he works away, his fingers flying over his keyboard. When he’s flush, he’ll treat himself to lunch at the College cafeteria. He chats with my colleagues when he sees them in the halls. At home, after dinner, he searches to find a series we all like so we can watch an episode or two together in the evenings.
He doesn’t like to party; he’s terrified to drive. But he has a normal, Jim does. It’s his normal; it’s not like anyone else’s.
When we say,’That’s not NORMAL,’ we mean, really, it’s not ordinary, or, I think, regular. We mean, this is not a lot like everyone else’s. We mean it’s not average, and it’s upsetting or weird.
We say it like being normal is a good thing–like it’s THE thing.
But I think of the people we remember from history, the ones who made a difference: I think of Abraham Lincoln, who was too tall and probably depressed and didn’t really win any elections until he became president–Lincoln with his high, nasal voice, and his weird southern wife and the two of them grieving for that little boy who died. Lincoln navigating a country through a Civil War, finding the words to say as his train charged toward Gettysburg. Lincoln with his folksy tales and homespun education and scary premonitions.
Let’s face it: that man wasn’t normal.
And think about Mark Twain, with his white suits and his stogies and his stories, his acerbic wit and his lifelong feuds. Or how about Einstein, showing up, splendidly dressed at an awards banquet, then sitting down to let his pants ride up and show off his hairy white ankles? The genius who always forgot to wear his socks. What of Eleanor Roosevelt, with that remarkable voice and her gender-bending friendships, and her vast influence on an important presidency and a country’s civil rights? What about Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi; what about Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen and John Lennon?
Please. NONE of those people are exactly what you’d call normal.
It strikes me that normal sounds restful and safe and like a haven; it strikes me that normal is probably not what, or where, any of us, really, wants to be.
This is not to say that being ‘not normal’ is easy.
It is not easy to be mentally ill in a place and time that writes you off when you surface with a diagnosis and a behavior that’s quirky and distressing.
It is not easy to be developmentally delayed or to have a physical impairment in a society that prizes perfection.
It is not easy to be a woman in a political arena that treats women with utter contempt.
It is not easy to be a person of color, or a person of an alternate gender, or even a person of an advanced age, in a biased society that cannot recognize its own biases.
It’s not easy–but it is normal for those people so placed. And for all of those people, and all the other people whose differences I didn’t mention, there is the possibility of a rich and meaningful life–a life of contribution and love and accomplishment.
It is hard, I think, to be ‘not average.’ It is hard to be outside the boundaries, to be reminded, everyday, of where you don’t belong. But. Those are the folks who change things. Those are the folks who invent and create. Those are the folks who start the movements and win the freedom that the next gen’s normals take for granted.
Those of us a little far from center–we have a chance, I think, to make a real difference.
This has been a week of startling surprises, a week when we have to wonder: what will the new normal look like? Whatever it looks like, it’s not an end to striving or growth, or to beauty and progress. Challenges may be greater; we may have to cast our net more broadly. But there’s opportunity lurking in the haze.
And to create, as a troubled, heartsick, nation, the possibility from the improbability, we need all our voices. We need the farthest out, fringiest voices to join the chorus, to pull us out of the slough. Our definition of ‘we’ needs to expand and expand and expand.
The gift of this week, even in our fear and distress and trepidation, may be a whole new, more inclusive and more caring, definition of normal.
First, I thought I’d write about history.
I got up early to start a draft. I let the dog out and said goodbye to the husband who hurried off to slay legal dragons, and I plunked my battered IPad on the dining room table. I poured steaming coffee into my new favorite mug, and I sat down and flexed my fingers.
And I thought about the author I’d met this weekend, GL Corum, who became so fascinated with the Underground Railroad in Ohio that she moved here from the east coast just to do her research. Corum showed us a map. On it, she had plotted the homes of people who were known to have actively supported the Underground Railroad. There was a line of homes, a flowing river of homes–yes, a RAILROAD of homes,–all along Zane’s Trace, placed a thoughtful and systematic twelve miles or so apart.
They were just far enough apart that a person could walk between them in a day.
But the fascinating thing that GL Corum found was that these homesteaders had bought their land and built their homes in the 1700’s, the early days of the United States. Corum maintains that a freedom network was in full force fifty years before anyone thought of dubbing it ‘the underground railroad’. She has evidence that people were quietly helping the enslaved to reach the geography of freedom from the earliest inception of slavery in the United States. And she says that prominent families, including Ulysses S. Grant’s, were among them.
There were good reasons the people involved didn’t boast to their friends, didn’t keep receipts, didn’t write things down: lives hung in the balance. More important for a person to reach a place of freedom than for a helper along the way to get a footnote in a history book.
Corum maintains, too, that the histories disremember President Grant. US Grant, she says, was so popular that, at his death, the roads were lined for seven miles with throngs of mourners hoping to see his funeral cortege–the biggest crowd, she told us, ever gathered in the United States to that point. Grant, says Corum, was more popular in his presidency than Lincoln ever was in his, and was a highly effective president, to boot. His image as a drunken butcher was a gift to posterity from Ku Klux Klan detractors; she’s pretty certain of that.
Her presentation had me thinking all week. I thought about published history and personal histories and about how what we believe is often part truth, part myth, and part expedience on someone’s part. When it comes to history, I mulled, what can we really believe, and what should we question? And when is the questioning important?
Is it always better to know?
I sat down to explore that, to write about histories individual and familial and political and histories that are hidden and histories that are just wrong. I poised my fingers above the keyboard and pondered what I should say and how I wanted to say it.
And then I noticed that the wind was blowing, a hard sweeping sound circling my house, and I ran out the front door to see if my morning news had arrived, and if it was in danger of blowing away. The little dog came with me to the front door; she shoved her nose into the bumptious air and sniffed, and I ran down the two brick steps to the walk, and I grabbed the errant newspaper. It had a spotted green leaf glued wetly to its plastic cover.
The dog yipped; I looked up from my leaf-peeling to see the back end of a bounding deer disappearing down the slope behind our across-the-street neighbor’s house. The sun shone, pale and tired. And I said to Greta, my crazy hound, “It’s cold, Greta! The first cold day of autumn!”
We pulled the front door shut behind us and retreated to the warmth of the house.
I didn’t write about history. There were more questions in my mind than thoughts to share. I’d better explore this a little further, I decided.
I scrolled through WordPress, and I noticed that one of the daily prompts this week was ‘generous,’ a concept I like to thrash around in my head. There are more important ways, I think, than financial ones that people show their generosity, telling ways that often go unsung. Then I looked at email and opened a call from a magazine to submit essays, and their monthly theme for September was ‘generosity.’
And I thought, Well, there you go. Clearly I am meant to write about true generosity.
So I sat down to do that, and I decided maybe the best way was to create vignettes, short sketches of people who were truly giving—not of money, but of time and talents and resources–people who disdained names on plaques, or headline recognition, or medals or fanfares or flowery accolades spun from an august dais in front of a hefty crowd of the duly impressed assembled. I started to try to spin a series of stories about people who comforted when they could have used comfort, who shared when they didn’t really have enough for sharing, who made time even when it meant they might have to give up precious time later, themselves.
I wrote about all these different generous people, in these different challenging circumstances, and when I sat back to read it, I thought, No. This is all wrong. This is one person, not a half dozen. And this is meant to be a short story, not an essay.
It needs, I thought sadly, to be completely rewritten. I sighed and put my IPad back into its charger, and I went off to the do the work my day job requires. The wind was howling now; clouds were scudding across the blue sky; and I finally had a reason to wear my fleecy new jacket, swag from the 10-K Wendy and I walked earlier this month.
By the time my work was completed, it was mid-afternoon. In the kitchen, I looked at the big crockery bowl of new potatoes and at the autumn basket containing, among other things, pears and apples. I looked out the big kitchen window to the driveway and watched a series of acorns hit the blacktop, tops wrenching free and flying. The wind gusted; leaves scuttered.
The clouds were glowering now, and I knew that it was a cooking day.
I took some beef and some pork from the chest freezer downstairs; I took a ball of pie crust dough I’d mixed up a month or so ago from the kitchen freezer. Jim brought me Volume One of the family cookbook he’s crafting; we found recipes and wrote down missing ingredients, and we searched through the coupon files, and we went for a quick Kroger run.
We returned thirty minutes later with olive oil and brown sugar and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls,–returned in a cold, soaking, autumn rain. The boy and I bundled the groceries into the house, and we settled the dog, who hates the rain. Jim had an inspiration percolating, an insistent mental jumping bean, so he gathered up his writing gear, and he moved into the living room.
I washed my hands and started cooking. I rolled out dough and shaped a bottom crust and flipped open the cookbook to the page that talks about pies with crumb toppings. I sliced fruit and slid the slices into the big flat Pfaltzgraff bowl Pat gave us. I thought that probably there was something more comfortable than slicing apples in my kitchen on a brisk and rainy autumn day. The oven was churging into life, and cinnamon and nutmeg were dancing together, their scents rising from the growing pile of apple slices, floating on the currents crafted by the ceiling fan.
I peeled and chopped and slid residue into the grumbling disposal, and I watched the leaves flat-falling onto the slick black pavement of my driveway, where they lay, spread-eagled and hopeless, as the rain pounded them silly. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of any more comforting thing to be doing.
And I made stew, chopping meat into small neat chunks, sliding the gristle and fat into a little saucepan to simmer with some water for the spoiled little dog. I heated olive oil in my heavy kettle, and I sautéed onions; and then the meat, dredged in whole wheat flour and seasoned, went into the sizzling mix.
The dog jumped up and cried just for the tantalizing smell of it.
I sliced celery and crushed cloves of garlic and added them to the simmering. I peeled carrots and potatoes, and I sliced and chopped and cubed. I defrosted beef broth and veggie broth; I crushed rosemary and basil, dried from plants that live right outside my kitchen door. I stirred and swirled and let it all simmer. The flavors met and mixed and married; and the smell of roasting apples rose and sang aloud.
The rain fell, and I watched the pilot episode of SuperGirl with Jim in the snug family room. When the dog leapt off my lap, I dug out my yarn and needles and started knitting a hat for a baby. Every so often, Jim would freeze the screen, and I would jump up to stir the stew, to pull open the oven door and check the pie, to slide the rolls my buddy Sister Schubert had made for us from their plastic packaging and cover the pan with aluminum foil.
The dog sighed herself to sleep on the carpet at my feet. The pie came out of the oven to rest, bubbling up fragrant caramel juices, on the warming rack. I turned the stew down to simmer gently.
Supergirl got in touch with her amazing powers.
And Mark came home and we explored the day just past, scooping ladles of stew into thick white bowls, breaking open soft hot rolls and letting butter melt inside them. The gray sky darkened into night, the dog took her reluctant last meander out in the chilly neighborhood, and we settled in to watch a long-awaited film with plates of pie a la mode.
The wind blew. I pulled the ratty old throw up to my neck, scraping the dregs of the apple-y syrup, the vanilla bean ice cream, from my dessert plate, and laughing as Paul Newman and Bruce Willis traded barbed remarks. Mark went to lock the back door; he reported the deer family was nestled up tight under the pine tree out back, finding their own familial warmth this blustery night.
And I thought about history, and I thought about generosity, and then I put my arms inside the old blanket and I snuggled, and I gave myself up to watching the satisfying film and savoring, in the company of my husband and son, the comfort of the warm old house, settling around me on this harbinger night. In the morning, I thought, my brain will churgle back on and I can determine what portentous things to write about this week.
Right now, though, I decided contentedly, I’m soaking in the comforts of the first cold day of autumn.
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.
Thanksgiving Day here in the States is a wonderful day to weave gratitude into reflections. I thank Vibrant at https://blabberwockying.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/in-praise-of-gratitude/ for challenging me to not just BE thankful, but to express those thanks on WordPress! Vibrant writes and lives thoughtfully and compassionately, and I am honored that he shared this wonderful opportunity:
The Challenge Rules:
- Share this image in your blog post
- Write about five people in your life you are thankful for
- Write about five things in 2015 that you are thankful for
- Spread the love and challenge five other blogs to take part
Five (groups of) people I am thankful to have/have had in my life…
- Today is Mark’s parents’ 62nd wedding anniversary—but they are apart. Angelo, Mark’s dad, passed away early this year, and Pat is roasting up her turkey without his help and advice for the first time in a very long partnership! It’s been an adventure to be part of Mark’s family on our journey together…
- Of course, Mark and Matt and Jim, who have shaped and enriched my life in so many ways…
- Julie, Alyssa, and Kaelyn, who bring fun and flash, femininity, beauty and caring, into the sometimes masculine mix of family…
- That wonderfully wacky, talented, and diverse bunch of people I am related to through blood and laughter…
- …and the people I am honored to call my friends. Happy Thanksgiving to all!
In 2015, I am grateful for…
- The opportunity to write and share on WordPress
- Wonderful colleagues
- Creative projects
…and I realize how simply lucky I am. Many people are not safe today, are bereaved, and/or don’t have the things–material or otherwise–that make life snug and comfortable and a place from which to launch. If only–
I am so grateful for people who choose to follow my blog! I don’t always visit back right away, but I always get there.
Here are five new people I am looking forward to meeting. Maybe you would like to explore their blogs, too!
With a thankful heart, I wish you happy blogging, my friends!
- A winning, winsome talent
- A bent for thoughtful friendship
- Generosity and a giving nature
…Let blend. You’ll find you’ve arrived at FreeSpirit’s wonderful blog. You’ll truly enjoy visiting:
Then add a huge pinch of thankfulness to FreeSpirit: I am touched and honored to be included in her Versatile Blogger award nominations!
FreeSpirit asked me to mention seven things about myself, and I’m all about recipes this Thanksgiving day—a cooking bout is coming on,–so I thought I’d include some of my favorite flavors and foods of the season…
- Turkey—white meat; sandwiches the next day, on fresh homemade bread, are the best;
- May be a cliché, but I love green bean casserole with French fried onions;
- Stuffing with lots of onion and celery;
- Warm yeast rolls with butter melting;
- Fluffy mashed potatoes with perhaps a hint of cheddar;
- Shortbread cookies cut into turkey shapes;
- And, of course, a warm slab of pecan pie, real whipped cream.
Hmmm…sounds like a recipe for clogged arteries! Good thing this only happens once a year.
I’d like to highlight three blogs that inspire me with recipes and other goodies!
Jodi, at http://lifeinbetween.me/2015/11/26/eat-pie-drink-wine-be-thankful/, shares her cooking and baking talent. Oh, the cookies I’ve made from Jodi’s recipes. They’ve earned me unjust fame among my colleagues. Jodi also writes about art and crafts, card-creation, and nature’s creation. Her photography and poetry uplift.
Lyn, at http://lynzrealcooking.com/2015/09/02/cream-puffs/, gave me a great idea for a leftover turkey dish! Lyn’s life has been full and multi-textured—mom to a large family, she has lived in the Middle East and now resides in the States. I’ve learned so much from reading her posts.
BreyBrey at http://ordinaryadventures.co/2015/11/21/my-daily-bread-cheeseburger-pasta/, shares the vicissitudes of daily life…and a wonderful recipe or two. This smart, savvy young lady has much to say and the wit to say it well!
I invite Jodi, Lyn, and BreyBrey, if time and space allow, to share links to sites and blogs that inspire them in their creative pursuits!
This Thanksgiving, I am truly grateful for you, FreeSpirit, and all of the wonderful people I’ve connected with through WordPress. Happy blogging, my friends!
Here’s something that really is neat: Maddy, at https://asoldasyoufeel.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/the-real-neat-blogger-award/ has nominated me for this award:
Maddy writes amazing blogs, AND she is a wonderful and supportive blogosphere friend and colleague. You’ll very much enjoy your visit to her blog: it’s REALLY neat! Thank you, Maddy!
There are rules, of course, for accepting this award and passing it on:
- Thank the nice person who nominated you, and include a link to his or her blog.
- Complete the task your nominator assigns. (Maddy has posed seven questions, below.)
- Nominate several bloggers—up to seven, if you like!–you put in the ‘real neat’ category. Give them a challenge to complete, and share these rules.
- Include the logo, above, in your acceptance post.
Here are Maddy’s thoughtful questions:
- What makes you smile?
When someone re-purposes something very cleverly, I am delighted. Recently I came across a piece about an old treadle sewing machine morphed into a laptop desk. Oh, the wonderful convergence of old tech and new tech! THAT made me smile!
- What is your best talent?
I am so thankful inherited the teaching gene; it’s given me a rich and heartening career.
- Who is a hero in your life?
My friend Kim navigates cancer, with grace, courage, and true valor—and selflessness. Now, after all treatments have been tried and abandoned, she is volunteering to teach fifth graders to write creatively.
- Dogs or cats?
We have always had dogs.
- Winter or summer?
Winter. (I’m originally from the Buffalo, New York, area.)
- Movies or theatre?
Movies are essential, and theater is a treat!
- Beach or pool?
Wimpy pool-person, me. (Also red-haired and easily burnt, so lazing on the beach always means trouble!)
There are SO many blogs that, like Maddy’s, are REALLY neat. Here are just a few I know you’ll love, if you haven’t discovered them already. I challenge any who accept this nomination to tell us what they look for in blogs—What makes you decide to hit that ‘Follow’ button?
Here’s something that really makes me smile:
Vibrant has deemed my blog ‘Versatile’.
He’s not one for flattery or status-jockeying.
Oh, you’ve got to visit ‘Blabberwockying’!
Is your aim to grow, be inspired—oh, is it?
If so, you won’t regret that visit!
I’m trying to proceed in accommodating style,
So I share these rules for being versatile:
If you are nominated, you’ve been awarded the Versatile Blogger award.
- Thank the person who gave you this award.
- Include a link to their blog.
- Next, select up to 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly. (I would add, pick blogs or bloggers that are varied and excellent!)
- Nominate those bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award — you might include a link to the original site.
- Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.
And in case you’re thinking, “What in tarnation?”
Here’s where you can go for more information: https://versatilebloggeraward.wordpress.com/about/
And here, my friends, are seven things about me:
1.I’ve never learned to climb a tree.
2. I DID play tennis pretty well.
3. I was shy when young, but emerged from that shell.
4. My sons are 39 and 25.
5. Good writing makes me glad to be alive.
6. I’m a LITTLE bit of a rolling stone, but I gather moss.
7. My mother-in-law taught me secrets of great spaghetti sauce.
Are you, like me, a variety lover?
If so, here are blogs I think you’ll want to discover.
La Tour Abolie: https://wordpress.com/read/post/id/96630433/2950
Tricia at Never Less Than Everything: https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/38901430/870617093
Marica_bo at https://ontheroadthrough.wordpress.com/
…and, oh, there are so many more.
We’ve wonders and wonders yet in store!
Happy blogging, my friends!