Sunday, February 7, 2010

Love, Betrayal, Spaghetti Sauce

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. She and my stepdad came to eat a Char’s Birthday Dinner. And afterwards, Mom retold some food stories about her immigrant grandparents, who arrived at an Italian-American community in Northern Minnesota around the 1910s–1920s.

Mom told how her nonno, her grandfather, was famous for being the best winemaker in town. How her nonna would grind pork, beef, and spinach together to fill ravioli. How Nonna didn’t teach her own daughter, my grandmother, to put wine in the tomato sauce. How Grandma found out one day because Nonno was watching her make a sauce in her own kitchen and asked, “Where’s the vino?

To this I say: a) What the hell?! and b) Thank goodness.

Now, it’s family lore that Grandma and her own mother were not close. In fact, they were downright uncomfortable around each other. Grandma’s father had died when she was small, and Nonna had remarried. There was a large blended family of Grandma’s sibling, half-siblings, and stepsiblings to help the two keep their distance from each other. But even so, what the hell was Nonna thinking, keeping the wine a secret? Did she see her firstborn child as a painful reminder? A disappointment? A rival? What could have been more powerful than the responsibility to teach her daughter to cook? What could motivate a culinary betrayal of this caliber?

Whatever it was, thank goodness Nonno wasn’t clued in to the scheme. And thank goodness he was the sort to poke his nose into the cooking pots. Because if he hadn’t, would Grandma ever have learned the trick? Would Mom have found out? Would I?

Today I am cooking up a pot of the family sauce. My home is filled with the smell of wine and tomatoes, a familiar perfume that saturates my memories of growing up in my mother’s house. This sauce is, to me, the most important relic of a world that will disappear forever someday when Mom’s memory of it fades away. But since she never made any secrets about how to cook this recipe, our heritage will maybe linger on the stove for a few more generations.

Nonna’s Sugo
Nonna made this with round steak or chicken, according to Mom, who makes it with ground beef or meatballs. I am making it with mushrooms today.

The carrot fixes it so you don’t have to put sugar in the sauce. My brother and I used to fight over the carrot, so Mom got smart and started putting in two.

2 T butter
3-4 big fat cloves of garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb Something (beef, chicken, sliced mushrooms—whatever you want, I guess)
3 pints tomato purée
2 oz or more of tomato paste
2 c fruity red wine
2-3 t dried oregano
2-3 t dried basil or marjoram
1 big, thick carrot, peeled

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Sauté the garlic and onions until translucent. Add the Something and sauté until browned, if meat, or tender, if mushrooms.

Add the rest of the ingredients and stir well. Let the sauce come up to a bubble, then turn down to a low simmer. Cover loosely or leave uncovered. Cook for hours and hours and hours until the carrot starts to melt into the sauce. For best results, you should drag this out all day long until the carrot completely dissolves. But if you are in a big hurry, I guess you could simmer for just three hours. The sauce should be a deep, rich red and reduced in volume by a third to a half. Add salt to taste.

Use a spoon to find every last piece of carrot. Make sure they are evenly divisible by the number of people who will be mad if they don’t get some. If no one is looking, eat the odd carrot piece quickly before anyone finds out. Careful, it’s hot.

Serve over pasta. Mangiamo!


  1. I am Norwegian, so I didn't know you were supposed to add wine, because my people mostly focus on doing bad things to fish. And I don't drink, so I don't know what a fruity wine is (I thought they were all fruity, because, y'know, grapes). What kind of wine is that? If I go to Trader Joe's and say, "I need a fruity wine," will they know what I mean?

    The carrot-instead-of-sugar trick is brilliant.

  2. Hey, Kerry--

    I don't know about Trader Joe's, but any wine shop worth the powder to blow it to hell will know.

    Fortunately, our cheap wines--our Chiantis, our Sangioveses, our two-buck Chucks--tend to be our fruity ones. Wines made for the casual wine drinker often have a florid description on the back of the bottle. You want something that brags about "full fruit," not just "notes of cherry, blackberry, currants, and butternut squash."

  3. I learned about the carrot trick from Sean, the chef. It really is amazing the difference it makes. And his family is from farm country Oklahoma. Not sure where he got it from.

    I wish I had know Nanno from this story!

  4. Is this Amy Boland who graduated from Princeton HS in Cincinnati, OH? Andy Utz

  5. Hey, Deb - I wish it, too. Before she left this world, Nonna got to hold brand new little baby me. There are pictures. But of course I don't remember.

    Andy, sorry man. I'm from Minnesota.


Thanks for your comments - nothing scatological, please. If you wouldn't bring it in the kitchen, please don't say it here.