For our first installment of Hungry Hearts, series author Antonia Richmond shares the history behind her mother's comforting and consistent spaghetti sauce.
I was born with a strand of spaghetti in my mouth.
Ok, not really. But I did begin eating pasta as a baby. Not as a toddler or a kid — as a just-starting-to-eat-solid-food baby. As my mother told it, I would suck down spaghetti or mostaciolli into my little mouth while my parents watched me breathlessly, sighing with relief each time it cleared my windpipes.
“You’d suck it down”— she made a sharp inhaling sound with her mouth — “and then we’d hold our breaths, waiting for you to swallow! And then you’d want more.” She’d laugh every time she told this story, which she usually told in conjunction with the stories of how she made all of my food as a child. “None of that baby food crap for you,” she’d say, full of pride.
My mother was married to an Italian-American man (my father) and therefore had to please the palate of someone who’d grown up with an Italian-American mother who was an excellent cook. My grandmother, a steadfast pizza and pasta enthusiast, taught my mother how to make the simple, sausage-laden tomato sauce that my mother referred to as “motor oil” due to the amount of fat that floated to the top after it’s hours-long simmer on the stove.
This sauce became a constant in the somewhat tumultuous environment of my youth. We weren’t one of those families who cherished their moments around the table or who made it a point to create rituals around eating. The passage of time doesn’t make me nostalgic for family dinners, because the members and circumstances of my family changed so much in the first ten years (and then beyond) of my life there wasn’t enough time for many consistencies to form.
What was consistent, though, was the sauce. There might be only two people at the table (down from eight…down from four…), and the tables themselves would change, but the sauce remained the same. It was the first meal I learned how to cook on my own and the meal that I requested most when I went back home.
My mother died eighteen months ago after a long and brutal illness. My experience of this loss has felt at times like something is ripping me in two while simultaneously swallowing me whole. More than anything, though, it has forced me to have to figure out ways to conjure her now that her corporeal existence is gone. I have a small vial of her perfume; I have some of her clothes; I have photos and letters and emails. I haven’t been able to listen to the voicemails yet. And I have this sauce. It’s fatty and rich, somewhat bitter, extremely comforting, and saltier now, with the addition of tears.
Serves 4-6, enough for 1lb of spaghetti with a bit of leftover sauce
2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes
1 lb sweet Italian sausage, links or bulk
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Add olive oil to coat the bottom of a large skillet and bring to medium heat.
Add sausage meat (if using links, squeeze meat out of casings in 1-inch balls) and cook until browned.
Lift out of skillet using a slotted spoon and reserve.
Using your hands or a food processor, crush the tomatoes and add to a large saucepan.
Add sausage, oregano, garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste.
Bring sauce to a simmer and cook for around an hour, until sauce is reduced and there is a nice sheen of oil at the top.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add spaghetti.
Cook according to package directions and drain.
Serve sauce on top of hot spaghetti, preferably with Kraft parmesan cheese from the green can.