Food is a medium soaked in tradition, constantly evolving, and highly personal. The most personal foods are comfort foods, and most of us have a specific food we turn to when we need to feel grounded. For me, that comfort food is a simple red sauce, and my mom regularly stocks my freezer when she visits with slices of homemade lasagna slathered with the stuff so she’ll know I won’t go hungry. She never wanted me to live 1800 miles away from her, and leaving me with her homemade dinners after she boards a plane and flies home serves as a sort of comfort for her, too. She knows there’s nothing like a simple red sauce made with love. Many nights have come and gone where I’ve reached for a piece of that lasagna, curled up on the couch, and forgot about my problems, at least for the 10–15 minutes it takes me to consume the meal.
There was always a simple red sauce in my house growing up. My mom would make a batch regularly to freeze and defrost for pasta when she wasn’t in the mood to cook after working long hours, and my grandparents and great aunts would regularly stop by with a Tupperware container filled with their own supply. The sauce has a comfortably familiar aroma that lingers in a kitchen for days, most likely due to the excess of garlic used in the process, and filling my own kitchen with the scent has made me feel more connected with my ancestry, my family, and myself.
Family recipes are the most sacred heirlooms we have and should be treated as such. The carelessness that they can be lost to has implications much harder to justify than simply dropping a piece of jewelry down a drain or accidentally donating a box of photographs to Goodwill. These recipes often live exclusively in the minds of those preparing them, perfected through years of trial and error. When you take a look into those minds in order to learn the cooking methods for yourself, you’ll likely be met with colorful stories of the early days of your current family line. If you never ask, you let the recipes and these invaluable anecdotes die with the physical being of the person who’s brain housed them.
When my grandfather died it 2008, it felt like we lost the head of our family. Fond memories were shared, and it was then that I realized how much food and recipes serve as a common ground for my family to come together over. We would lament at the loss of his cooking and his contributions to the spread at the family table, and it was often stated that no one cooked quite the way he did. Some of his recipes have been preserved and tweaked by other family members to perfect their versions, and others were simply lost because they’d never been written down. To this day, I have not tasted a simple red sauce with an identical flavor profile to my grandfathers.
Family recipes from our ancestor’s country of origin are growing increasingly rare as more generations are born between those who made the journey decades ago, but until earlier this year I hadn’t felt compelled to master my own version of the sauce.
Two years ago, my mother was diagnosed with skin cancer. Being an intensely strong-willed woman, she never gave me the full details. I only knew that it was “rare” and “maybe the bad kind.” She had surgery to get the growth removed and made a full recovery, but earlier this year we were told it may have returned. While my mother is alive and healthy today, it was at this point that I felt forced to face the idea of her mortality. Understanding that my mom won’t always be here made me acutely aware of all of the things I would miss about her if she were gone. Among those things are that impenetrably strong will I mentioned, her desire to live simply despite the kinds of means she has, and her ability to enchant anyone with a homemade meal.
Since her health scare, I’d been thinking that it was time for me to master my simple red sauce based on our family recipe. When I needed to bring a dish to a small gathering of friends earlier in the quarantine, it felt like the perfect time to give it a go. At the time, I hadn’t mastered cooking so much as a piece of toast to spread with avocado and a sprinkle of salt. I had made attempts at preparing various foods, and those attempts led me to believe that cooking required some sort of special natural ability that I simply didn’t possess, so I was fairly certain that the sauce was going to be a failure on a larger (and messier) scale than ever before.
To get me through my first time making a simple red sauce from scratch, I FaceTimed my mom to walk me through the process. What I expected was an exact formula of cooking times and temperatures, carefully measured ingredients, and a step by step process that would walk me into a passable tasting dish. What I got, however, was totally different.
I peeled my garlic and onions and asked how finely they had to be chopped. She replied, “not too big, but not too small either.” I asked how much of each I should use. She replied, “not too much, but make sure you use enough.” I asked, “so two, three cloves of garlic?” She replied, “maybe, or one or four.” My commitment to the structure of cooking forged from years of assuming that my failures came strictly from not following a recipe correctly melted away and I tried to intuitively navigate the addition of the ingredients to the sauce. In a simple red sauce recipe, there are no measurements. You simply use what you feel is enough. Perhaps this is why nobody gets it quite right the first time, but everybody gets it right eventually.
When I tackle something new, my outlook tends to stay in the all-or-nothing realm. If I don’t see the benefits of my efforts reaped immediately, I give up and move on to something new. Tackling something that can’t be rushed, such as a simple red sauce, allows me to slow down and think about every step I’m taking and what that means for the overall outcome. Once I had added my ingredients, I lowered the burner’s heat to a simmer and threw in a bunch of basil, and let the masterpiece create itself for the next 1–2 hours.
When I removed the lid to the pot and lifted the spoon to my mouth, what I tasted was not a masterpiece. It was fine, and maybe even good if you’re not the artist, but I immediately tasted the ways I could do better. To do better would require painstaking attention to detail. I would need to chop my garlic and onions finer, add perhaps another 3–4 cloves of garlic, and throw in a larger bunch of basil. Perhaps this speaks to my taste for extravagance, but the next time I made a sauce I spent an extra 20 minutes mincing garlic until it was practically a paste. I simmered the sauce longer to let the flavor of basil seep into it. The second time I made a simple red sauce, I was shocked at what I could create. By the third time, I felt like one of the great sauce makers of our time.
You don’t become a great anything by following a set of carefully laid out instructions. People become great when they see the way their craft is done and understand how to make their own version of it different than what’s come before in a way that pleases the masses. I’m not a great chef- so far, the simple red sauce and a few things to put it on are all I’ve managed to master. However, in order to achieve that mastery, I had to let go of the notion that my shortcomings in the kitchen could be credited to my lack of ability to follow directions. I had to embrace the idea that my own decisions might lead me in the direction of something truly spectacular. Those who came before us gave us so many ways in which things work and work well, but the true gift my ancestors have given me is a recipe that simply can’t live on paper. It can only live in the minds of those who put it to use because you’ll never make the same sauce twice.
I had always tasted variations in the sauces made by my mom, aunts, grandfather, and anyone else who ever brought a dish to a holiday dinner in my family. I never knew quite why, because all of the recipes had originated from the same place. It was only when I made it for myself that I understood the truly intuitive process that sauce making is. My mother’s sauce has significantly less garlic than mine, and she always thought my grandfather’s sauce was too sweet. The edits and tweaks made along the way are a true reflection of each individual who’s tried their hand at the process.
Learning how to make a simple red sauce teaches you more than how to make dinner- it taught me patience, attention to detail, and that sometimes the best way to tell someone you love them is to feed them. It also taught me that sometimes, even though you trust those closest to you, you have to trust yourself first. I haven’t seen my mother since she walked me through the process on a FaceTime call, but I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of my version. In the meantime, I’ll be making a big batch of a simple red sauce, putting on The Sopranos, and thinking back nostalgically on the times when viewing the episodes after dinner was a family affair. I’ll always find comfort in those memories, and decades from now I hope to find comfort in the memories I’ve created with new friends and chosen family around a hot tray of lasagna.
Recipe for A Simple Red Sauce:
1 can of tomatoes, diced, or whatever you prefer
1 can of tomato paste
1 yellow onion, but probably not the whole thing
1 head of garlic, from which to peel out as many cloves as you see necessary
Spices, whichever ones you want, to taste
A bunch of basil