I’m making Mom’s spaghetti sauce and meatballs for Sunday Dinner. Mom grew up in an Italian-American household, but she and her siblings were encouraged to be more American than Italian, despite a father who’d come from Bari as a young man. Homemade sauce was one of just a few dishes she’d eaten growing up that she made for her own family. We called it sauce, not gravy or marinara. We weren’t that Italian. She had revised her parents’ recipe, using store-bought tomatoes instead of home grown, and she’d let me help her from the time I could stand on a kitchen chair and stir. I open the cans, and begin.
I stir water into the tomato paste I’ve scooped from the first can, smoothing until the lumps are gone. Pour in tomato sauce and another can of water. Mom used to add whole tomatoes pressed through a sieve, since she didn’t like chunks of tomatoes in the sauce. I use puree, but I remember the fun of squishing those slippery tomatoes. Sometimes my inadvertent squirts would warrant a scolding, but for the most part cooking with Mom was fun, and she was typically in a good mood in the kitchen.
I loved cooking with Mom on Sundays. She relaxed, and told stories, and let me get my hands into the food. Once the tomatoes were all stirred together in the pan, she’d let me sprinkle in the oregano and garlic, basil, salt and pepper. “Cover the top,” she’d instruct, and my nose would fill with the sharp smells of spices as I dumped them across the top of the sauce.
Then it was time to make meatballs. I was the one who’d walked to the butcher on Saturday, a note tucked into my hand with the money, so I knew it was ‘two pounds of ground round’ we were using. Egg, parsley, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper. She’d moisten a heel of bread in cold water, then let me crumble it into the meat.
Stopping to light a cigarette, she’d say, “Don’t squeeze,” as I mixed the meat mixture with my hands. Watching with one hand on a hip, the other holding a Kool Super Long to her lips, she’d inhale, pause, exhale a stream of smoke over my head. She’d bring a frying pan to the table, to line with the balls once we formed them. A sprinkle of salt in the bottom of the pan, cigarette stubbed out in the ashtray, and then it was time to roll. We’d each pinch off some meat and flatten it a bit in our hands, then rotate our hands in circles with the meat in between. I remember watching the way her hands moved, and wishing I could make meatballs as quickly and uniformly as she did.
I still hear her instructions as I gather my ingredients now. I moisten and crumble the bread, form balls of meat, trying not to squeeze too much. My hands look like hers did, rolling quick circles, dropping each meatball on the pan. She used to fry the meatballs before transferring them to the sauce, but I brown them in the oven instead. I make dozens, expecting all my kids for dinner.
The sauce simmers for hours. While I go about my Sunday chores, the aroma follows me outside. Drifts through open windows as I work in the yard. The spicy smells emanating from my kitchen are the smells Mom and I created, all those years ago in her kitchen. I picture the kitchen chair and the big saucepan simmering, while garlic and oregano waft out. I see Mom in her housecoat, smoking and smiling.
Back inside I put on water to boil, make a salad, warm some bread in the oven. Then I call my family to the table. All my kids are here for dinner.
Although Mom’s not, I pass on to them what she passed on to me. The taste of the dish that I put on the table reminds us of who we all are.