March 24, 2020 – Though it had been decades since I’d seen her, the other day my Grandma Vecchione showed up in my kitchen when I was making gravy—that’s what Italians call spaghetti sauce. It’s her recipe, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by her visit.
She always had a cackle-y laugh, was nearly as wide as she was tall, wore funny-looking shoes that tied on the side. In her kitchen, she made food that had the best of smells and the best of flavors—not only her gravy but fried zucchini flowers, roasted meats, pickled cauliflower, and when we were really lucky, zeppole for dessert.
As a little girl, I spent hours watching her cook, beginning when I needed to perch on a chair to stir the gravy. She never actually instructed me in how to cook Italian; it was enough to stand at her elbow. To get ready for Sunday supper, which was a big family affair, she had to make the pasta using the squat hand-crank machine that I now have. She’d lay towels on her big bed, place the spaghetti on top till it dried and could be wrapped up and stored.
When she showed up in my kitchen the other day, I was cooking the food of my people in an effort to feed not only physical hunger but spiritual hunger, in an attempt to lift myself out of the despair many of us are feeling.
“You!” she shouted, “Don’t you know by now, you gotta use more than a few cloves of garlic! What’d you think, that you’re gonna run out?” Well, actually, since the implementation of Shelter in Place and having to dwell in the unknown, since life has become more confusing than ever, yes, subconsciously, I was worried I’d run out, not just of olive oil and garlic but out of everything predictable. However, ignoring my grandma’s instruction, was to risk her oh, so Italian fury, especially when she was right. In went more garlic.
This grandmother of mine—as perhaps your grandmother—lived through hard times. During the Depression, Rose, for that is her name, made a single garlic clove last an entire week. She’d rub the bottom of the pan before putting in the cow lung to make soup. That was all the meat they could afford to buy. “You know what eating cow lung is like?” asked my father. “It’s tasteless shoe leather but, at least, it gives your teeth something to do.”
It’s not difficult to make my grandmother’s gravy. You put a generous splash of olive oil in the pan and brown the meat—pork chops, spicy Italian sausage, ground beef, add garlic, let it get nearly golden, add tomatoes—fresh, canned, whatever you’ve got, oregano, basil, some crushed red pepper, salt. You let this cook at a low simmer for 7 – 8 hours. If the tomatoes aren’t sweet enough and the sauce is a bit bitter, add a touch of balsamic and a sprinkle of sugar. The flavors need to marry in order for the alchemy to occur, for the tomatoes to become more than themselves as they blend with the meat, garlic and spices.
Whatever your ingredients are for the dish you need to cook, you bring them together in ways you have developed or learned or as your ancestors did for eons. My grandmother wasn’t the one to develop her gravy recipe. She learned it from her mother and her grandmother. This proves our longevity, tenacity, our very human desire to do for others, to make do when we must, and to endure.
You know the gravy is nearly ready when the scent of it draws you to it with a spoon in hand. I’ll tell you, it’s the smell of not just my grandmother’s kitchen but of her whole house that lets me know it’s ready to eat. By then you will have momentarily forgotten your regular life is on pause. This is the joy of sheltering, the privilege of it. That’s when you cook the pasta. Then grate some Romano pecorino on top. Serve it to whomever you’re with, even if that is only your dear self.
This time I filled a jar for my friends Cynthia and Dick—he just got a new hip. I drove it over along the deserted streets to help him get better a little quicker. The next day, Dick wrote that Cynthia had brought the pasta “steaming and liberally sprinkled with freshly grated Romano, and I got my first direct blast of that complex and nurturing aura. Oh, heaven!”
I’m happy that meal nurtured them, but in gifting it, particularly because of our trying times, I reached beyond my fear and doing so was gifted back. I felt useful in a way I need to feel. If we can’t invite friends over, we can at least feed some of them, thereby reaching across the illusion of separation to the place where we are together loving each other as always.
These times will not crush us like a can of crushed tomatoes. They will make us stronger and more loving, if we let wonder, faith and creativity take over the fear. For each and every one of us to be here, our ancestors had to not just survive but to thrive and to take care of themselves and each other.
Now get yourself some tomatoes and more garlic than you can imagine, whatever meat you choose, or no meat at all, a big splash of olive oil, dried or fresh basil and oregano, salt, some crushed red, and pasta. Bring my grandma and me to your table and all those who have come before you. We’ll eat together, toast with a glass of un-fancy red table wine. “Salute! Here’s to your indominable spirit, to your vivacity and generosity.” Hard as they are, we were made for these times.