When I was a kid, my mother, sister, and I would often drive over to my Nana and Puppa’s house for Sunday dinner. They lived just one town over from us, at 225 School Street (which everyone fondly referred to as “two and a quarter”). On special occasions, my Nana would make her famous spaghetti sauce and meatballs, a recipe regarded with near-spiritual reverence in my family.
These Sunday dinners were so ritualistic that the memories are firmly imprinted in my mind. While we waited for dinner to be ready, Nana would give my older sister and me a few dollars to go down to “the Joe store.” I never knew the real name of the store, but the man who worked there was named Joe, so the name stuck. We usually drank Pepsi at Nana’s house, but with spaghetti and meatballs she always served orange tonic. Danielle and I would race to the Joe store for the orange tonic, eager to get back quickly so we didn’t miss the opportunity to dip a slice of buttered Italian bread when Nana lifted the stockpot lid to check on the still-cooking sauce.
When dinner was ready, Nana would go to the bottom of the stairs, dishtowel in hand and hands on hips, and holler upstairs to my grandfather—“Patsyyyy!”—until he puttered downstairs to join us. On any given weekend, there would be a rotating cast of family members crowded around the dining room table—my mom, any number of her four sisters and two brothers, various spouses and significant others, maybe a few cousins. The smell of sauce was heavenly, and the chaos at the dinner table was familiar and comforting. Everyone talking over each other, telling stories, bickering. Passing the butter dish back and forth and back and forth. (My family loves their butter—always Land-O-Lakes, sweet cream, salted.) Lots of laughter. Being young, I’d giggle at jokes I didn’t quite understand, catching onto the grownups’ amusement. These are some of the most vivid memories of my childhood.
NEVER TRUST A SKINNY CHEF
Despite my fond memories of the rowdy, delicious family dinners of my youth, I didn’t find myself in the kitchen very often as I grew up and moved out on my own. I could whip up the more basic staples of my childhood—Kraft macaroni and cheese (mixed to perfection with Hood milk and the ubiquitous Land-O-Lakes butter), Potato Buds, Gorton’s Fish Sticks—but didn’t venture far beyond that.
Fast forward to 2009, when I found myself in a tiny apartment in Cleveland, falling in love with Nick over a bowl of mashed potatoes. He didn’t make them the way Nana did—simple, with potatoes, milk, butter, salt—and I watched warily as he stirred in sour cream and garlic powder, taste-testing as he blended. He handed me a potato-laden beater, which I skeptically licked. He was right: it was delicious, and these fancy new mashed potatoes put my Potato Buds to shame.
Soon Nick and I were spending every weekend together, often visiting the farmer’s market in the afternoon and cooking elaborate meals at night. Rather, Nick cooked while I watched (and ate). I didn’t contribute all that much to our early gastronomic escapades, other than the wine and an occasional dessert (from a boxed mix, of course). I tried pork and tacos and sushi for the first time, and was fascinated to learn that you could buy peas and green beans that did not come from a can. My father, who fervently hoped I would not become romantically entangled with a Midwesterner, begrudgingly referred to Nick only as “that guy” for the first six or so months of our relationship. When I told Dad that I was headed to “that guy’s” apartment for a dinner of Cornish game hens, he huffed, “Well! That sounds… extravagant.” Despite Nick’s coaxing, the stubborn hens refused to cook all the way through, red juice flowing out each time he poked a knife in to check their progress. It didn’t matter—we drank the wine and gorged on the flourless chocolate cake Nick made for dessert. We braised forty-garlic chicken and pan-seared veal chops stuffed with fontina cheese. On our one-year anniversary, Nick carefully recreated the meal I had ordered on our first date: heavy cream steeped with rosemary, tossed with goat cheese and shredded roasted chicken, heaped over ziti. (Incidentally, I packed on a good twenty or so pounds during this time.)
TOO MANY COOKS IN THE KITCHEN
Nick didn’t mind my lack of culinary prowess. He called me his sous-chef, and tasked me with slicing and dicing, or preparing the salad, while he created the main event. Eventually, though, I grew tired of sitting on the sidelines in the kitchen and decided it was time to learn a few recipes of my own. I got off to a slow start: I sheepishly ordered a pizza for Nick and me after an attempt to make macaroni and cheese from scratch went awry; my roommate narrowly saved me from chopping off a finger as I rather violently attacked my first head of garlic. More than once, I brought home thyme when I needed rosemary, or mint when I needed cilantro.
Attempting to share in the kitchen duties initially led to a bit of friction between Nick and me. I took offense when Nick teased me about my meat-and-instant-potatoes and white bread background. (Literal white bread. Wonder Bread, to be exact.) I felt oddly defensive of the Potato Buds of my childhood, but doctored them up with garlic powder and pepper when I knew Nick wasn’t looking. In return, I recoiled at Nick’s favorite dish, which I initially mistook for a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes. “What is that?” I cried, upon closer inspection. Nick was crestfallen. Apparently, this was risotto, one of his favorite dishes, which I had never heard of before, and which I just could not choke down, on account of the texture.
One of our earliest major fights began in the kitchen. My roommate was moving away, and I had decided to bake a cake for the going-away party. Unfortunately, I had the batter half prepared before I realized that the measuring cup was already packed away in the U-Haul. “We’ll have to throw the batter away and grab a cake at the store,” Nick sighed. “What? Why would we throw it away?” I said. “I’ll just estimate how much oil we need.” “You can’t just estimate,” Nick insisted. “It’s baking. It needs to be precise.” This argument quickly blew out of proportion and into a shouting match. (I estimated the oil and made the cake anyway. It turned out fine, if slightly moister than intended. There’s no such thing as too-moist cake, after all.)
THE SECRET SAUCE
Slowly but surely, I began to learn my way around the kitchen, but I still hadn’t tackled my own personal holy grail of culinary achievement: Nana’s spaghetti sauce and meatballs. Though Nana passed away long before Nick and I started dating, he had the pleasure of sampling the famed spaghetti and meatball recipe when we were living with my mother, and she carried on the tradition of the big Sunday dinner. One of the more challenging incidents during our time cohabiting with Mom occurred when she cooked up a large batch of Nana’s spaghetti and meatballs on a Sunday night, leaving the leftovers in the fridge when she headed to work that Monday morning. While the exact sum of meatballs remaining remains hotly contested, what is undisputed is that Nick stayed home by himself that day, and Mom hurried home from work—eager for her dinner of leftover meatballs—to find a solitary meatball waiting in her casserole dish. The ensuing drama is still solemnly referred to within the family as “Meatball-gate.”
Now here I am in the Caribbean with my new husband, longing for a taste of home, and cooking a batch of Nana’s spaghetti sauce and meatballs myself seems like a rite of passage. On a particularly homesick week, I call my mom and ask her to send me the recipe and a box of Bell’s seasoning, which I cannot find locally. When it arrives, I rip open the Priority Mail envelope eagerly. The package is beat to hell and a good amount of the seasoning is loose in the envelope, rather than in the box (the hazards of island mail), but there’s plenty left for a batch or two of Nana’s sauce. (The recipe specifically calls for “a little.”)
When Sunday rolls around, I set up my ingredients and get to work. Nana’s directions are ultra-precise and vague all at once. I’m specifically instructed to “stir with a wooden spoon.” But when it comes to the long list of herbs and spices—garlic salt, onion salt, oregano, parsley flakes, basil—the directions merely tell me to “shake in” each ingredient. Perplexed, I call my mom for clarification, and learn that I am to shake in enough so there’s a thin layer of each spice on top of the sauce, then stir. Nick watches, amused (if somewhat skeptical) as I sprinkle Worcestershire sauce and Italian dressing into the mix and set the sauce to simmering.
Next up are the meatballs, a delicious blend of meat, egg, breading, spices. Nick offers to do the mixing, but I shake my head. No, I feel like getting my hands dirty. I dig my hands into the bowl and begin to knead, just as I had watched my Nana and my mom do over the years. I let him help me form the meat into tiny spheres and brown each one on the stove top (warranting another call to Mom: “How brown are they supposed to be before they go into the sauce?”), before plopping each one into the stockpot to finish cooking.
Before long, the apartment is filled with an aroma so familiar that I tear up almost immediately. If I close my eyes, I could swear I am back at two and a quarter School Street. I spend the afternoon stirring the sauce occasionally, swatting Nick away as he tries to dip a slice of Italian bread into the sauce for a taste.
When the pasta is done, I pour ceremonial glasses of orange tonic for Nick and me, and we sit down to dinner. We eat quietly, and I look over at the framed photo of Nana that I’ve carried with me from state to state, apartment to apartment. She’s been gone nearly a decade now, and Puppa gone much longer than that. It’s still hard for me to believe that Nick never met them. I know how much Nana and Puppa would have loved Nick, not because I am biased and think everyone would love my husband, but because if I had to choose one word to describe Nick, it would be genuine. (Puppa, in particular, had no patience for pretentious or self-important people—or, in his own words, “pompous asses.”) In a small way, recreating this meal feels like introducing Nick to them in the only way I am able. We just might make it a Sunday tradition.