Season to Try
Tackling homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs without a recipe means relying on memories — and yourself.
M y first taste of homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs was at my grandmother’s house in Niagara Falls. We drove across New York State to visit her a few times a year, and she always spent one entire afternoon of our four-day visit in her tiny black and red kitchen, listening to Italian opera on a little radio while her legendary sauce simmered on the stove.
It truly was legendary, too. She’d worked as the cook in a convent years before, and I’ve no doubt those nuns found God in the flavors on their plates. Unfortunately, my grandmother was also secretive and stubborn. She never shared her recipes, and when she died, her sauce and meatballs became palpable, almost painful memories.
Though I had that example of cooking prowess in my extended family, my parents were more utilitarian in their culinary endeavors. After working long days, their evening objective was not to awe and delight, it was to get us kids fed. They did not experiment with new ingredients or pore over cookbooks. Thus, I grew up knowing intimately the flavors of Hamburger Helper Lasagna and Rice-a-Roni. They mostly relied on canned or frozen veggies and canned fruit. I was in college the first time I tried a real peach. I remember with embarrassment not knowing whether I was supposed to peel it first or eat the fuzzy skin.
The fact that I never learned cooking skills didn’t really bother me as a young adult. My college roommates and I made do with the usual suspects – tacos, ramen, tuna on toast – and felt domestic. I never fussed with herbs or spices unless they came in a prepared packet.
And then I met the man I would marry, and on our first real date he made me homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs. He had grown up with a mother who’s a wonderful cook, and she’d passed down her skills to her children. He knew his way around a sauce pot, and I was floored that this guy could make my taste buds sing the way they had at my Nonna’s table so many years ago.
For the next 17 years, he was the primary cook in our home, and I loved it. Don’t get me wrong, I eventually learned – begrudgingly, apologetically – how to chop (I still can’t dice) vegetables, and how the most common herbs smell and taste. I can follow a recipe like a pro, though I still don’t have any sort of “signature dish” I can count on impressing with at parties and potlucks. I’m the guest who offers to bring the brownies (from a box) or the wine (also from a box) (just kidding). It’s not because I’m lazy— it’s because I’m terrified of bringing something homemade that’s a total flop.
But my personal chef and I split four years ago, which means it had been that long since I’d spent a Sunday afternoon with the intoxicating smells of garlic and basil wafting through my house as sauce bubbled and meatballs sizzled on the stove. I missed it so much, yet I always thought of it as something that was no longer accessible to me, another loss chalked up to divorce.
And then one Sunday not long ago, I had a thought: What if I just tried to make my own? For people who feel happy in the kitchen, this idea is obvious, basic; for me it felt revelatory and daunting. I’d held onto an old grocery list from years before when I’d gone to the store one Sunday morning for all the things he needed to make sauce and meatballs that afternoon. So I had a list of ingredients, along with years’ worth of memories watching him cook. But preparing a dish from scratch with only a hint of a recipe to follow was the most dangerous thing I’d done in the kitchen since feeding a toddler who liked to jump out of his high chair when I turned my head. That had ended in near-disaster more than a few times. How would this go?
I was giddy and determined the day I decided to find out. I bought everything on that food-stained list, proud of myself when I got to the liquor store and recognized the exact label of the Chianti he often used.
Opera music isn’t my thing, so I opted for a classic jazz station on Spotify and got to work mincing garlic and browning hot Italian sausage in the biggest pot I had, which I’d previously only used to boil corn on the cob.
Inhaling the sweet scent of fresh basil gave me enough of a high to get everything simmering in the sauce pot, and then it was time to tackle the meatballs. I took a deep breath and a huge bowl and began, guessing at amounts of bread crumbs and basil and parsley, adding one egg and then another. It took me ages to dice a quarter of an onion, hoping I’d cut the veggies small enough to cook through inside their cocoon of ground meat and herbs.
I was happy to not have an audience for any of it, yet I was also proud of myself. Gingerly turning the meatballs in the pan, I was struck by how food – preparing it, eating it, sharing it – is and should be an active experience, not passive. Sure, it was easier to follow the directions on a box of rice pilaf, adding nothing more than water, a tablespoon of butter and a “flavor packet,” returning in 20 minutes to find a side dish ready to serve. But kneading those sticky, pungent ingredients between my own fingers felt much more satisfying, even when I was still unsure how it would all taste.
I fear the phrase “season to taste,” and I knew I’d have to face that fear when making sauce. After three hours of simmering, I gave the sauce a stir and took a hesitant lick from my spoon. It was too … something. Anxiety rose up in my chest. It’s too … what? I thought, straining to figure out what was missing. Because I’d never really learned to balance, blend or even recognize distinct, fresh flavors, I had a hard time knowing what was needed. After another sample or two, my best guess was that it tasted too acidic, so I added a palm of sugar, then a little more. I stirred again, sprinkled in some powdered garlic, replaced the lid and walked away from the stove, my confidence singed.
When I returned for another tentative sip an hour later, I was floored. I’d done it! It was marvelous. And it was my own.
That night my younger son gave my meatballs a “900” on a scale of 1 to 10, and my older son finished every bite of his bowl of pasta ladled with my sauce. I imagined my grandmother smiling at me from some great kitchen in the sky. Maybe it wasn’t stubbornness that kept her from sharing her recipe. Maybe she wanted to pass on something else.
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