Monday, November 1, 2010

Meat Sauce Memories

[Ed. Note: While I am not going to use any last names, there is no point in trying to conceal Tyson's identity by calling him 'T' since so many of my high school friends now read my blog. I'd ask that any comments (which, of course, are welcomed) not give his full name.]

It was unlike any other spaghetti and meat sauce I had ever eaten. My first memory of having it was at my friend Tyson's house during my freshman year of high school. Four of us sat down at the antiquated 1950's dinette set positioned at the west end of the kitchen, situated between two windows that overlooked the sloping yard and steep road which jutted off a major state route. The small table had room enough for exactly four adults: Tyson, myself, and his mom and dad.

Our meal that first night consisted of an assortment of salad greens, peperoncini and dressing from the cold little plastic bottles straight from the fridge, white bread with spreadable margarine, nearly as plastic as the tub it came in, and the pièce de résistance: a plate of spaghetti that had been tossed and topped with Tyson's mom's homemade meat sauce. As the honored guest, I had been served first, but upon hearing the little voices in my head that sounded remarkably like my own mother, I declined to take silverware in hand until everyone had been served and was properly seated at the table.

Tyson's mom had developed her own version of this Italian-American classic and it quickly grew to not only appeal to her husband, but Tyson as well. By the time I showed up on the scene, it had achieved an almost epicurean prêt-à-porter status, alterations to the recipe no longer required to achieve sauce perfection. Preparation of the sauce had begun hours earlier, an elixir of ingredients brought forth from fridge and pantry, slowly simmered for what seemed to be an eternity, giving the house an amazing smell of tomatoes and beef. It was the kind of smell that could bring hungry men from every corner of the house, regardless of how remote, appetites stimulated and mouths watering so thoroughly that Pavlov himself would have been impressed.

Well before my life as a dedicated foodie began, this meal already resonated with my sense of doing it slow, doing it right, and doing it from scratch. Even if the rest of the meal consisted of pre-bagged salad greens, commercial salad dressings, grated Parmesan cheese in the green can, spongy white bread with a two week shelf life and all of the nutritional equivalent of a couple of teaspoons of refined white sugar, and boxed dried spaghetti, at least the meat sauce was made from scratch with love. And that was enough.

As I twirled the pasta on my fork for that first time, capturing little bits of tomato sauce, onions and nuggets of ground beef, I lifted it skyward and was immediately faced with the dilemma of what to do with the errant strands of pasta still hanging out of my mouth once I had cleaned my fork. Fortunately, a gentle and silent slurp was all that was required to rectify the problem as I made sure to discreetly retrieve every bit of sauce lingering on my lips from the pasta I had cleaned only a moment before. I chewed slowly, patiently allowing plenty of time for the savory and sweet sauce to coat my tongue, releasing every flavorful compound it had to offer. Twenty-four years later, if I stop to take a moment and close my eyes, I can vividly taste that first bite of pasta and sauce on my tongue and it still makes me salivate.

This wasn't to say that my own mother's meat sauce wasn't good. In fact, it was one of the few dishes in which she took pride in the fact that it was made from scratch. Many years after the fact, she divulged to me the story of a man she had once dated for whom this effort was completely lost. Having been in the relationship for quite some time, he had never told her of his perverse dislike of onions. Deciding that she would cook dinner for the two of them one night, she pulled out the tried and true recipe my grandmother had given her. The ingredients that went into the stock pot were the usual suspects: garlic, onion, ground meat, tomato paste, tomato sauce, and dried herbs. Simmered slowly for hours, the sauce reduced and the sugars caramelized to a deep earthy red. Pleased with the results, she ladled the thickened sauce atop a plate of cooked pasta and served it to her date, eagerly anticipating at least a minimal amount of recognition for the effort she had put into the dinner.

Upon taking his first bite, he discovered the terrible secret in the sauce: the abhorrent allium. In a move that would resonate strongly towards the future longevity of their relationship, he decided that the best way of conveying his opinion to her on the onion issue was to simply pick up the plate and turn the entire contents over onto the table, plate now teetering on top of this epicurean abomination. Of course, my mother was stunned that someone could show such unconscionable behavior to anyone, let alone someone for whom he purportedly cared. While that incident alone wasn't enough for her to see the light (which she eventually did), it certainly set the tone for what was coming ahead. Fortunately, once they split, she could finally remove the Scarlet "O" with which he had branded her since that fateful plate of pasta.

But even as much as I enjoyed my own mother's meat sauce, it was still never as good as the version that Tyson's mom could replicate time and again. I had somewhat happily allowed myself to be brought under the fold by Tyson's family. I don't know that they ever knew what went on in my house, but I spent many a weekend night sleeping over at Tyson's, playing video games, watching movies, and generally just trying to avoid the unpleasantness of being around my father as much as possible. And the nights that we had spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner were always cherished by me. In all those years, I never once thought to ask her how she made it. I guess the folly of youth is the assumption that she would always be around to make it for us whenever we wanted it.

The last time I remember eating the sauce was when I lived in Columbus, somewhere around 2003. It was before Tyson's dad got sick and I had told Tyson that I would be coming up to Wadsworth and wanted to see him, his wife and two little boys along with his mom and dad. I don't know if I asked or if his mom volunteered, but the gastronomic siren's song of her spaghetti and meat sauce was enough to not only bring me two hours away from Columbus, but also spend a nice chunk of change on a hotel room in Wadsworth so that I could spend the night, thus maximizing my time with the family and the subsequent dinner.

With the addition of Tyson's wife and two little boys, the number of dinner guests had nearly doubled since those times in high school, but we still managed to squeeze into that little dinette table that should've only sat four. To be fair, space issues were the last thing that I was concerned with that night. As the pasta plates were brought to the table, I inhaled deeply, reconstructing the flavor of the sauce in my mind well before tasting it. I never realized that this one meal, this final meal, would be the last time I would not only dine with both of Tyson's parents, but also the final plate of the pasta and sauce I would ever taste again.

After finishing our meal, cameras were brought out and I managed to get a snapshot of all of us, including the new additions to Tyson's young family. I occasionally bring that photograph up on my computer when I'm feeling nostalgic and the moment I see it, various sense memories almost instantly get triggered and I find myself standing in that kitchen watching his mom stirring that pot of sauce, smelling those heavenly scents and tasting the sauce all over again.

By the time I evolved into my present day self, it seemed that my window of opportunity for learning the recipe had closed. While Tyson gleefully reported that his mother did eventually teach his wife the secret to making the sauce, I wished I had hung around the kitchen just a little more and watched his mom personally. I felt like I could've done something to not only preserve her tradition, but share a truly tasty part of my own childhood with others out there looking for a good recipe. After two decades of intense friendship, gradually Tyson and I began to lead separate lives. Inevitably, we grew apart to the point where it now appears that both of us have now moved on, each on our own path to happiness.

Whatever the outcome, I just want him to know that he and his family were there for me at a critical point in my life when I really needed it. And even something as simple as offering a homecooked meal in a setting with a modicum of stability had such an impact on me that I can still remember it twenty-four years after first experiencing it. I suppose that through the lens of nostalgia, everything good in our past only gets better, if not a little blurred around the edges. If that is the case, I am eager and willing to remember the way things used to be ... before life got complicated.


DianeS said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing the story with us.

Nancy Heller said...

Tom - that was a beautifully written post. I can so relate to that - all of the times my sister and grandmother cooked - I always had a book to read. If I had only a clue at that time how much food and cooking would come to mean to me, and how much I was missing!

Tino said...

@DianeS and @Nancy Heller: Thanks so much for the kind words. While some of my posts just sort of tumble out of my fingers into the keyboard, this one was definitely a labor of love. I wanted to make sure I got it right.

Bibberche said...

I read your comment on CK, and I am so glad I did. Your writing awoke some wonderful memories and cemented the fact that nothing connects us to our emotions and past as well as food. I was immersed in your recollections, felling as if a part of me was sitting along four of you in Tyson's home.
Great writing!
BTW, we lived in NE Ohio for ten years before we moved to SoCal in 2008. I cannot say that I wish I were in Cleveland right now, but we miss living there:(
Greetings from rain drenched California!
Lana (

Related Posts with Thumbnails