The cool evenings of fall always bring out my desire for lingering in the kitchen, after a summer of quickly-prepped meals to avoid the heat. Recently, I decided to have spaghetti, and as I cooked up a batch for dinner, memories of my mother and her creative cooking came to mind.
Creative, not in how she cooked, but how she stretched what she cooked.
For example, I was an adult before I poured the tomato sauce over my spaghetti noodles. Why? Well, when I was a child, there was no such thing as spaghetti marinara or spaghetti and meatballs. It was spaghetti, period. We did not have a separate bowl of sauce passed around the table, with a ladle to dip and pour onto a plate of noodles.
For a family of six children and two adults, hungry after a day of minimal eating, a separate bowl of tomato sauce was not going to make it around the table. This dinner would have to stretch fully around the table, with the possibility of being tomorrow’s dinner as well.
So, instead of the dip and pour, Mom did the pour and mix. That was her spaghetti: a massive amount of noodles lightly coated with bits of ground beef and tomato sauce.
She made her own sauce. There were no ready-made jars of convenience for her, and she wasn’t a purist. She just couldn’t afford it. Her recipe was canned tomato sauce with handfuls of salt, pepper, and oregano. She would throw in a chopped onion if she had one to spare.
The ground beef Mom bought was high in fat and packaged in multi-pound rolls. A good amount of that fat would remain in the pan after she cooked the meat. Sometimes she drained the fat, and sometimes I would see it floating on the surface of the sauce. Maybe it depended upon how tired she was that day. Or perhaps she’d leave it in knowing we were going to need that extra fat because tomorrow would be a lean day.
Any child who was near the kitchen while Mom prepped the meal received the honor of throwing a noodle up to the ceiling. If the noodle stuck, Mom knew the boiling could end.
After the sauce had simmered and seasoned to her liking, Mom would pour it onto the noodles in a large pot and stir. Dinner was ready. Dad would drop spoonfuls of the meal onto our plates, and everyone would have an equal and uniform amount of food to eat. There would be no arguments about someone having too much sauce or not enough. Everyone got the same bland, light orange spaghetti. We could see and taste the meat and sauce just enough to know that it was “spaghetti” and not just boiled noodles.
Before we would dig in, Dad would choose one of us to “bless the food.” We would recite the same blessing, night after night, year after year:
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything.
[Side Note: I never had the opportunity to ask my parents about that last line of the blessing — “Jesus wept.” Why we included those two words, I do not know. When I was an adult and became a Christian, I discovered that “Jesus wept” is actually in the Bible and is its shortest verse (John 11:35, ESV).]
Though I cannot remember when it happened, I have to believe that some confusion must have set in when I sat down to my first pour-over-sauce spaghetti meal: What am I supposed to do with this? Do I put the noodles here and the sauce there? Do I dip the noodles in the sauce? Did the cook run out of time and forget to mix them up? Okay, calm down, Darla. Just wait and watch. Oh! Pour the sauce over the noodles! That’s a great idea. Who came up with that??
No matter how delicious the meal is, though, I am never as happy eating a sauce-and-pasta meal as I am when I’m eating Mom’s spaghetti. It’s the memory that goes along with preparing and eating the meal: Mom doing what she had to do to feed her six kids.
To this day, I use her simple recipe when I make spaghetti sauce. Sometimes I add olives and onion, and I use the highest quality ground beef or turkey. Leftovers? I mix the sauce and noodles just like Mom used to do, and the spaghetti tastes only a little bit better than it did when Mom served it to her hungry family. Yet, I love eating it that way. I love thinking about how God did bless her efforts, as she tried to maintain her family’s sustenance with the little we had: Her six children are all alive and well today.
(Cover Image: Jordano’s Supermarket, our local family-owned business where Mom would shop in the 1960’s)