Red sauce may have run in her grandmother's blood, but every member of the family would come to know the recipe by heart (even if the size of a "pinch" of this and a "dash" of that differed depending on who was making it)...
Smells—in this case, of garlic and oregano—and tastes conjure memories in a most primal way, and can transport us right back to our childhood kitchens. As such, they are excellent jumping-off points for writing or talking about your memories and crafting them into a story for generations to come (not to mention, the kids will be thrilled to have those cherished recipes actually written down).
In this second contribution in our series, A Taste of the Past, a family passes down the secrets to their own version of spaghetti and meatballs, never writing down a recipe, but always cooking with love and remembrance. Join me in raising a glass (red wine, of course) in honor of Kaitlin Ahern's shared food memory. Cin cin!
A Taste of the Past
Mom's Spaghetti & Meatballs
By Kaitlin Ahern
I have few memories from childhood more vivid than watching my mother cook dinner. The sight of her standing at the stove in our small kitchen, wooden spoon in one hand and glass of wine in the other, creating a meal for our family of four, is easier to conjure than what I had for breakfast yesterday. And although she passed away when I was barely 17, I’m lucky enough to know many of her recipes by heart.
Mom was the dinner-maker in our household, a task she loved or lamented, usually depending on how stressful the workday had been. She was happiest to cook on weekends, when the hustle of work, sports practice, and homework died down and she could take her time with a meal. That’s when she’d make spaghetti and meatballs—a staple she made so often that she could have made it in her sleep; now I can, too.
I think she loved that meal so much because the two key ingredients tied back to her roots. It all started, of course, with the sauce. Mom’s mom, my grandmother Veronica, was 100 percent Italian; red sauce ran in her blood. When I picture our kitchen from my childhood, I see a pot of sauce simmering on the stove, filling the downstairs with the delicious scents of garlic and Italian spices. The mixture of crushed tomatoes, onion, garlic, basil (fresh from the garden when we could get it), oregano, olive oil, and salt would cook slowly for several hours, covered except when one of us peeked open the lid to scoop up a taste with a piece of crusty bread. The recipe was never written down, to my knowledge, but each member of our family knew it by heart—although the size of the “pinch” or “dash” of this and that was different depending on who was making it.
The other ingredient was ground beef for the meatballs. Our family has always made all-beef meatballs, despite the Italian tradition to mix beef and pork. The preference was really born out of convenience—Mom’s dad was a beef farmer, and he passed that passion down to his oldest son, who still supplies our growing family with grass-fed steak, ground beef, and stew meat. Mom would combine the pound or so of Uncle Marty’s beef with one egg, a splash of milk, parsley, and just enough breadcrumbs to hold it all together, but she always let the flavor of the meat be the star—a small way of showing how proud she was of her big brother’s hard work. After browning the meatballs in olive oil, she’d cover them with the sauce and let them simmer away for an hour or so, or until we were ready to eat. Leftover sauce (if there was any) was tossed in the fridge and saved for Friday night, when Dad would make pizza.
Mom never went as far as making her own spaghetti, so that part of the meal came from a box. But she’d always make a big salad tossed in a homemade Italian dressing with olive oil, vinegar, garlic salt, and dried basil and oregano.
I didn’t fully realize the gift my mother had given me by teaching me her recipes until I moved out of my childhood home. Her spaghetti sauce comforted me when I was far from home studying in London, and I basically lived on salads with her homemade dressing when I was just starting out in New York City after college and could afford little else.
I miss her terribly. But when I’m in the kitchen, tunes cranked up, simmering a pot of red sauce on the stove and making meatballs with Uncle Marty’s grass-fed beef, a glass of wine in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, I know she’s there with me, as present as the smell of garlic in the air and the recipe in my heart.
Kaitlin Ahern is a writer and editor who grew up riding horses and now rides the New York City subway. She enjoys running, traveling, cooking, and all things animals, because you know what they say about taking the girl out of the country. You can follow her on Instagram.