recipe: from the Latin, singular imperative of recipere, to take, receive.
by heart: learned in such a way it can be spoken from memory.
I received my Italian heritage through food – through a sauce that is thick, greasy, salty, and orange-colored. Put together so that no one flavor predominates.
When I make my family’s pasta sauce, it tastes the way Mama made it and the way Grandma’s tasted in her kitchen when I was very young. There was no other kind of sauce. I am certain that if I went to visit the place Grandma Anna Maria and Grandpa Tony were from in Italy (where they were distant relatives promised to each other at birth), I could sit down and taste the same sauce there – even though one hundred-fifty years have passed.
Sauce is compounded. It evolves. More than requiring a recipe, the sauce has a prescription, a procedure. You add a little of this or that until it is right. You could only know what’s right by having sat at the table and eaten it. No words on a page can convey this sauce. It is made until it tastes right.
The word tradition is from the Latin past participle of tradere, to hand over, deliver, entrust. Sauce is tradition – something that is passed from generation to generation, handed down unwritten. Transmitted orally. A practice long observed. An inherited pattern of action. It is also ritual: a repeated act leading to the same conclusion each time.
Place a cast iron pan on the stove. Pour in olive oil, until the pan’s black bottom is a glassy pool, your memory of black ice on a pond.
Iron flavored our food and the way we saw the world.
Tony Mack, my grandpa, was a man of iron. It sang in his blood as he took apart steam locomotives in Pennsylvania’s Erie Railroad shops and welded the behemoths back together again. Whenever Tony had a problem to solve, he created its solution in iron: sturdy, meant to last through generations.
Everything about Grandpa was big: his chest, his hands, his sense of patriarchy, and his garden. Tony was a Gardener, because for him a garden could only exist with a capital G. When Tony brought his mother and five siblings over from Italy to set up their home in America, the garden was the center of his world. Half of Tony’s four-city-lot yard was garden. A cement wall separated and terraced his garden knee-high above the rest of the property. Separated into four quadrants by brick walkways; tomatoes, peppers, and beans reigned supreme. The garden spilled over into the yard. Gladiolas and orange poppies stood as brightly-colored sentinels all along the wall. Pear and peach trees filled in empty spaces, and trellised across the back porch, Concord grapevines bore huge blue fruits and equally huge bees in late summer.
Grandpa commanded his sons to help him dig, set seedlings into soil and water. He commanded the plants to grow, fruit to ripen, and the women of the household, (my mother included) to cook and can the tomatoes. I believe he commanded the tomatoes, once peeled, packed, and floating in jars, to stay preserved until his family needed them for sauce.
Empty clear glass Ball jars of canned tomatoes, as much as will fit in the pan, and ploop! splash them into the oil.
Here’s what I remember.
On weekly visits to my grandparents’ home in the growing season, Grandpa kneels on his garden path and holds out his arms to me. “Here, Kaithie!” he calls to me, mixing up my name, Cathy, with that of my mama, Katy, his elder daughter. I am swept up into his embrace, enveloped in the scent of cigars as he presses his bristly face against mine. Hand in hand, we follow the bricks to see how the world has changed in seven days.
I am lost in the sensuousness. Blossoms of roses and peonies. Grandpa holding me and a peony as big as my face. Fuzzy, flat bean pods and greenish peaches. Starry yellow tomato flowers and swelling globes. Sturdy tomato vines covered in coal ashes, sprawled across yellowed newspapers. Poppy-colored ripening tomatoes: big, juicy, and seedy.
In the basement of the big house, canning jars fill the shelves of the small room. Peaches from other summers float in syrup, their golden flesh muted by the blue glass of the canning jars next to hundreds of jars of canned tomatoes. Crushed grapes ferment in wine crocks, which earlier held fermenting dandelion flowers. Everything is orderly and productive. Everything is in its place, full of arrival in America and fruitfulness at last.
I hold a paper bag as Grandpa fills it with curly garden lettuce for my mother. I stroke the smooth tomato skins. I want some of Grandpa’s power – the skill – and will – to make things grow.
Around the time the last steam locomotives were transformed into scrap iron in the 1950’s, my grandpa Tony retired. When he lost his legs to gangrene (no one knew why), he directed his sons from his wheelchair to build supports and handrails for him on the porch and throughout the house with iron and to keep the gardens going.
When he passed, Grandma stopped wearing flowered dresses and began to wear black – every day – as was required of her. The garden half of the huge property sat fallow. Color drained from both house and garden. Then, my uncle who inherited the property and lived in the upstairs flat transformed the garden to lawn, later removing the brick paths. Grandma had no say, but she didn’t mind the changes. No more gardening meant no more canning; less work for her and my aunt who still lived with her.
Over time, my uncle took away grape trellises and cut down the fruit trees. In the years following Grandpa’s death, his son made the yard visibly American while the canning jars sat empty in the basement room built just for them.
Take a clove of garlic. And another, and another, and with the side of a broad cutlery blade, smash them once or twice. Peel back the emptied papers, lift the mash, ceremoniously cast it into the pan.
Years after my grandparents are gone, I walk the huge yard with my mother’s sister, Carmella. Like Mama, Carmella doesn’t like gardening. That was only for the men in the family.
“Here – you want some of this?” Carmella leans over the cement compost trough in the corner of the yard. She hands me tiny cloves of garlic – the family’s garlic she threw away long ago.
“I can’t kill it!” she says with a laugh. “I keep digging it up, and it keeps coming back. ” Then she scowls. “It’s no good. Look how small it is.” She holds out a garlic bulb, the whole thing no bigger than my thumb, though it is divided into twelve cloves. Neglect and overcrowding has diminished the bulb’s size.
I nod and place the tiny cloves into a brown paper penny-candy bag. “I don’t know how to grow it,” Carmella admits. “When do you plant it?”
“Fall,” I tell her.
Add another clove.
Each October in Wisconsin where now I live, I plant my family’s garlic. Because garlic is grown from cloves, without flowers or seeds or new combinations of genetic material, my garlic is a clone of Grandpa’s – a direct connection to him and his gardens. Though he’s been gone almost 50 years, my garlic is the same kind Tony grew.
I separate and plant twelve cloves from each bulb, each one growing into a new bulb the following year. Within a few years after my visit with my aunt, my crop increases to over three hundred bulbs, each as large as a child’s fist and rich with flavor. I produce enough to sell and have plenty to give to friends who agree to keep them going as insurance for me. All they need is space and proper care.
Take a blue Ball jar filled with last summer’s dried basils named Sweet, Anise, Cinnamon, Genovese. Pull their curled leaves between your two palms. Above the pan, rub and scatter bits like dark green ashes.
The voices of the women in my mama’s family ring in my head.
“I would never buy sauce in a jar. Who would do that?”
“That’s not sauce! It don’t taste right.”
“They think being Italian come out of a jar?”
“Convenience, Pffuh,” they scoff and all together wave a hand in the air as if swatting a fly.
I think about this as I walk to a grocery store to look at jars of sauce. An Italian-American co-worker told me about a new kind of sauce that you can buy at the grocery stores. “A sauce for each of the nine regions of Italy.”
“You’ll be able to find the region your family is from,” he told me.” Look at the ingredients and find the kind that has your family’s – then you’ll know.”
I think about the flavors and the shapes of the herbs floating in the sauce of my childhood. Some small leaves – thyme. Needles and thin strands – rosemary. Dill. And fennel seed – that’s what’s missing from mostly everyone’s sauce. And mint. We always put mint into the cheese mixture for ravioli.
I don’t need to look at any jars after all. I turn around and go home.
Add thyme, rosemary, dill, and mint. Take fennel seeds. Roll them in your palm. When their fragrance makes a bubble of scent, drop them into the pan.
When everyone in Grandpa’s house stopped canning, Mama processed bushel baskets of her father’s tomatoes in her own kitchen for a while. Later, when the tomatoes were gone, Mama succumbed to store-bought stewed tomatoes mixed with tomato paste. Yet she prepared those tomatoes in the traditional way, grinding them with the Foley sifter to separate the seeds and bitter skin from the pulp which she caught in a pan. The sound of the metal blade scraping against the perforated bottom of the sifter meant that Mama was readying the tomatoes for sauce.
Take a wooden spoon as long as your forearm, one that knows only garlic and will not give up its memory until widowed and standing at the grave. Dip the spoon into the pan, a paddle in the Red Sea. Turn off heat.
When I was a girl, Mama harvested and ate dandelion greens from the lawn nearly every day in the growing season, yet she refused to put her hands in garden soil. In her own household, she was determined to keep her family from tearing up the yard to plant food.
Every day Mama tossed coffee grounds, vegetable peels, and grass clippings in a high-walled corner of our yard, creating what we didn’t recognize as gorgeous compost, bringing the worms up in such high numbers the soil writhed. It was a perfect place for a garden.
Turn on heat. Stir for a long time humming a sweet tune. Let the sauce simmer.
But Mama wanted none of it. None. When Dad put a trowel into that corner to plant pumpkin seeds for me to learn about growing things, Mama frowned. When prickly, tubular vines crept out of the corner onto the grass, she scowled, and only my dad could sometimes keep her from severing stalks with the push mower.
Then turn off heat. Sprinkle salt in a spiral with incantations.
For me, seeds were miracles. From the stiff white shell of a pumpkin seed, from the flat green nut inside the shell, came a neon-green dichotomous mouth that opened and spewed leaves. The leaves grew large and hairy. Tendrils, like springs, sprouted from the vines and grabbed onto grass stems to pull the vines forward and outward. When the orange flowers opened, Mama relented. She cooked one of her family’s traditional foods: pumpkin blossoms dipped in batter and fried.
Now in Wisconsin, fifteen-hundred miles from where I was born, I am about a million miles from a good Italian grocery store. I miss the strange foods Mama raised me on: greasy olives scooped from a barrel packed in a carton to carry home from church. Or the long, brown leathery carob pods she called “shoeshells,” which we ate as we walked the streets, spitting out the inedible M&M-like brown seeds. We snacked on salted, dried “cheechers” – garbanzo beans – and fava beans scooped from a barrel like candy. We purchased dried chestnuts for boiling into sweet treats, and goat and sheep cheeses, spicy and creamy. I miss the larger palette of my childhood – the wooden-floored stores with barrels of Italian foods, the old men with their gardens sprouted from seeds carried across an ocean.
But my sauce has the right kind of tomatoes, grown in my garden and canned. I know they must be acidic and juicy. These tomatoes require a long simmer to concentrate the essence.
Turn on the heat. Simmer the sauce until orange and thick. No puréed carrots may be added for color or ballast. Sauce is orange from time and iron.
Mama inadvertently planted seeds of rebellion in my childhood by banning gardens just as surely as she planted my need to un-cross my legs, and give up bras and Bobby socks in order to find a new place for myself as an American woman. For me, gardening was a demonstration of fearlessness to take on what had been traditionally male roles in my family. I wanted dirt in my fingernails. I had no interest in manicures or make-up. I craved work in the outdoors, and my hands craved soil. I was destined to farm.
Add more salt, more oil, and place the lid partly askew.
I wonder what Grandpa would’ve thought of all of this. Would he be appalled that I’m unlikely to honor the dead by wearing black all the days of my life, that I don’t even have my husband’s last name – or would he share a secret with me about growing tomatoes?
Take a mill filled with black peppercorns. Grind and sprinkle it in.
I search out Jessica Theiroux’s film, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, about a grandmother named Carluccia in the Calabria region of Italy to share with my daughter.
“You have to see this,” I tell her.
The film shows a woman wearing a housecoat, turned down stockings, and a headscarf. She plucks greens from the ground outside her garden. She washes the them in a spring-fed trough, and brings them to her fireplace indoors. Then she cooks beans in a clay pot all day, adding a little bit of this or that she brings in from outdoors. It looks familiar though I do not have a fireplace nor a clay pot.
My daughter looks up at me. “Mama, that’s what you do!” she says.
Add a drizzle of lemon juice to bring out brightness.
Each spring in Wisconsin, my daughter and I raise tomatoes and basil seedlings in trays, and set them outdoors when all danger of frost is past. We prop tomato vines all summer and harvest basil for drying. In fall, we set cloves of garlic into the soil, then set up the canner and glass jars for preserving the tomatoes. Each day before and after school, my daughter tends the goats while my husband makes cheese. On weekends together, we cook sauce in the cast iron pan. We farm and put up our food, and then we distill our work into the sauce for our meal.
Slip white cubes of homemade goat cheese into the sauce. Let them float; let them soften like butter.
Sauce is obligation: a contract and duty, a service for which one is indebted to another – and, for my family, sauce is canon: a composition in which voices begin one after the other, successively taking up the same subject.
Tradition, ritual, obligation, canon.
I received my Italian heritage through gardens and the men who tended them. Through kitchens where women cooked sauce. Through walks chewing on carob pods. I have accomplished what I set out to do: raise food like the passionate gardeners in my family – the men – and put food by like the women. Through magic kitchen alchemy, I recreate the sauce they carefully tended.
My daughter knows each part of the process by heart.
Serve the sauce over pasta along with memories of Mama and Italian grocery stores, coal ash, poppies, peaches and Grandpa.
LISTEN TO AN AUDIO VERSION OF THIS ESSAY. (courtesy WDRT Pageturner Radio)