Dorothea & Her Granddaughters - Easter, 1977
The year was 1967. There I was, a young bride, the daughter of a woman whose culinary skills as described by my sister would ‘choke a maggot,’ attempting to please the palate of a man whose mother concocted such meals as Stuffed Artichokes, Steak a la Pizziaola, Paella, and Mussels Marinara, meals I had never heard of, let alone eaten.
I can still remember my very first cookbook, in which I took great pride of possession, the Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook. Each day, I would come home from work and peruse its pages, looking for something exotic to prepare for my husband. I will never forget how he raved about a meatloaf that I had made from that cookbook, Meatloaf Tanta Clementina. I was so proud of myself that I made it every week, for many weeks! Although my husband never complained about the lack of variety, as I am sure that he wanted to encourage my efforts, he never hesitated to jump at the chance to have dinner at his parents’ house.
My mother-in-law, Dorothea, like all doting Italian mothers, began to suspect that I could use a little help in the kitchen and decided to share her much-coveted recipe for ‘Sauce’, it was never called ‘Gravy’. I often asked her to simply write down its steps and measurements, but in the true fashion of an accomplished cook, she rarely, if ever, measured anything.
It was easier for her to enter my tiny kitchen and waltz me through the steps. I intentionally use the word waltz, because working side by side with ‘mom’ was truly a culinary dance. Her melodic voice and gentle manner guided me through each step, leading to the final culmination of a sauce that, if it were to be put to music, would end with a huge crescendo and the audience jumping to their feet with applause.
I was honored that my mother-in-law shared her sacred recipe with me, a neophyte in the kitchen, but I am certain that she did it out of concern for her son’s well-being. Prior to our wedding she had experienced a meal at my mom’s house, and was, I am certain, quickly able to assess the limitations of my culinary expertise. Baking had been my mother’s forte, so she always had deferred to my then recently deceased father for the more substantive aspects of family meals.
I had to practically swear a vow of Omertà that my lips would be sealed to any and all who requested her recipe. Her main fear was that some huge company would snatch it up, produce and market it and she would lose out on the royalties. Now, several years after her death, and with her son emerging as The Literate Chef, I believe that she would be honored to be a part of his enterprise, thus I unseal my lips in good faith.
Over the years, as my culinary skills have grown, I have ventured to slightly alter her sauce, but its essence remains unchanged. San Marzano Tomatoes, sugar, lots of sausage and garlic, as well as numerous ingredients added to prime chopped meat to make soft, delectable meatballs, are just some of the many ingredients that make her sauce outstanding.
This sauce is indeed time-consuming to prepare, but in my opinion it is worth every effort. The recipe produces enough for several meals so I often break it down and freeze it in smaller batches for spur of the moment meals for my family and friends.
Our four-year old granddaughter, who is extremely selective about her food (actually I think she lives on air), loves Grammy’s Meatballs. That, in and of itself, makes Dorothea’s Homemade Italian Sauce worth the preparation time and effort.