September 27, 2017
My strongest olfactory memory of childhood is gradually waking up on Sunday morning to the smell (perfume is a better characterization as far as I’m concerned) of garlic being sautéed in olive oil.
That was how most Sundays started.
My mother would get up early and start making her long-simmered Southern Italian Tomato Sauce (referred to as Ragu or Sugo if one’s Italian roots were close, “Gravy” if one grew up in New York or nearby, and often just “Sauce”). We unceremoniously called it “Spaghetti Sauce” though it was used on much more than spaghetti!
I think the better part of my culinary-cultural history is represented by that sauce. Every Italian family’s sauce is different, even if stylistic similarities can be identified. The sauces made by my mother and her two sisters that I knew, Aunt Margie and Aunt Mamie, were clearly related but also different. Each was good but it’s not as if they didn’t deviate from my Grandmother’s recipe. They were similar in that garlic and meat were browned in oil; tomato products, water, and seasonings were added; and the whole thing simmered for hours. The meats varied, the tomato products (tomato paste, tomato puree, whole canned tomatoes, etc.) and the proportions of them definitely varied as did the seasonings and other aromatics.
My mother’s “Spaghetti Sauce” to call it by its “historic” name, a name that I no longer use, is, without doubt, my most precious culinary treasure. I have only ever given the recipe out twice. In the 1970’s I gave it to John Bowker and his wife Margaret Roper Bowker. John was the dean of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Recently I gave it to Robert Reddington and John O’Malley in Palm Springs after Bob lamented the loss of the recipe for the long-simmered tomato sauce he learned to make while living in Chicago.
With my mother’s sauce as the near-constant backdrop to our Sunday dinners, the rest of the meal varied. The sauce could be served with spaghetti or some other cut of dry pasta, or with my mother’s home-made fettuccine, or with ravioli. Although my favorite pasta is gnocchi, we never had those on Sundays as my father didn’t like them. Gnocchi (always home-made) were reserved for a weeknight meal during the times that my father worked out of town.
The sauce has an abundant amount of meat in it, pork, always cut in big pieces, never ground or chopped. Nonetheless, the pasta was often accompanied by my mother’s slow-cooked roast pork or maybe a roast chicken.
It seems incongruous now, but in the 1960s, before the widespread use of antibiotics, chickens were expensive! (I’m not in favor of the prophylactic use of antibiotics but I’m just saying that’s why chickens are relatively inexpensive now.) I still have a handful of my mother’s “City Chicken” sticks from the 1960s. They are round, pointed sticks slimmer than a pencil but thicker than bamboo skewers. Pieces of pork and veal would be skewered in alternating fashion on the sticks, breaded, and fried like chicken drumsticks. This was less expensive than chicken!!
But back to Sundays…
Sometimes, after the sauce was bubbling away, my mother would make ravioli. Next to gnocchi, they are my favorite pasta, but manicotti and lasagna aren’t far behind.
We would eat our big meal around 1 PM on Sunday and my mother would get all of this done in time for that meal, including taking time to go to church, during which my Aunt Mamie, who lived upstairs, would be tasked with stirring the “Spaghetti Sauce.”
Making ravioli in a group is a lot more fun. I also find that making the ravioli on a different day from the day they are cooked and eaten means that I am not as tired and I enjoy them more. The pictures in this post are from a Sunday when I got together with Rich DePippo, Susan Vinci-Lucero, and my in-laws, Marisa and Frank Pieri, to make ravioli. I think we made about 30 dozen ravioli!
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