My grandmother was born Madeline Simone in New York in 1924. She was a first generation Italian American and English was her second language, like most immigrants. She stood 4ft nothing, as sweet as a saint and as staunch as one too. Like all the women in the household, during her day, she cooked but Italian households were a little different back then, at least the ones she talked about; the men cooked also.
My great grandfather, Salvatore Simone, made the “gravy”. That is what the Italians back east called spaghetti sauce. It is a meat sauce not typical of Bolognese but a Sunday meat gravy. My great uncles would hunt or get the meat for the sauce. My great aunts would have to help with making the pasta and peeling tomatoes. They would have to boil down the tomatoes for paste which took hours. They would then have to blanch and peel quite a few more for the sauce which they cooked in pork lard.
The sauce took days to make. It was impressive to hear how they made everything from scratch, fresh from the vine. It was more impressive to hear how the family had to work together to complete and serve this meal. These were the stories she would tell me of the family.
My grandmother lived with us so the stories I have are of me waking up to the aroma of onions, green peppers and garlic “browning” in the meat stock. I often say this stage of the sauce is where the essence comes out; the soul of the sauce, if you will. I know it is corny but when you realize the generations who have made this before and the multitude who have sat around the table to dine on it, it’s not so corny.
Her version, the more modernized method with canned tomatoes and supermarket items, now only takes about 6 hours to make so waking up in those early mornings meant we were going to eat that night. I could never wait until the sauce was done, however, so I would grab some slices of Weber’s sliced bread and conduct dipping raids on the large bubbling pot on the stove. She would always warn me of the raw pork in the sauce and the danger of eating it before it was fully cooked. That never deterred me. It was well worth risking a bout with trichinosis.
When I got a little older, I started helping her with the sauce. She never had it written down and in fact my mother and I don’t either so we better not get hit by a truck or the 100 year old family recipe will be gone forever. Don’t ask us for the recipe because we would not have the time to write it down. My reasons for helping her were selfish. I figured the more help she got the faster I will eat. I never realized I was partaking in an old family tradition although I never had to peel one tomato or make one string of pasta.
It seems like whenever she made this sauce everyone we knew would coincidentally show up at our house. It was like a beacon and I would invite my friends and even ex girlfriends to come over because I knew they enjoyed it. It was always a gathering and my parents had this huge, old round table in the dining room. It was perfect because we would all sit around it and the house would fill with laughter and conversation. At the time I cared only for the pasta. It took a few years away from my home to realize it was much more than the food, though, it was family.
My grandmother! If you knew her you loved her and that is no lie. She died in that house in 1996 from lung cancer. The last pot of sauce made when she was alive was made by me for her and on that day, at dinner time, the house was packed.
Today, I continue the tradition and with that I have recruited my oldest to help. My house will now fill with the “soul” of the gravy and my sons will carry on what was started years ago by my family. I still can’t wait to eat it though. Maybe I will look in the pantry for some Weber’s bread. What do you think grandma, is it ready yet?