I was sixteen years old when my mother called from work and asked me to put the raw ground beef from the refrigerator into the pot of sauce she had simmering on the stove. It was late spring of my junior year of high school, and I had thus far proven myself somewhat proficient in the kitchen. I had mastered chocolate chip cookies, pasta, and scrambled eggs with cheese, and had been making my own lunches for school for years. I had sometimes helped to cook Sunday dinner by performing menial chopping or mixing tasks for her and my Italian grandmother—who I called Nani—up until a year or so ago when Nani's cancer made cooking impossible. Or maybe it was earlier, when high school, friends, and sports became a more enticing option.
I had grown up with huge feasts of marinara sauce, baked ziti, meatballs, pot roasts, fried burdock, and a bounty of other traditional Italian pasta and meat dishes. Nearly every Sunday of my childhood, my mother, father, and I arrived early to my Nani and Papa's house and I watched my mother and grandmother turn heads of garlic and cans of crushed tomatoes into fragrant, beautiful and edible artwork; to be quickly consumed by the extended family which included my mother's two brothers and their wives and children. During this weekly ritual when I was a child, I often sat at the small kitchen table reading or listening unless I chose to ask to help. When my cousins arrived, we would tromp through the creek that bordered their house, or play games in the large back room. Never would I be required to labor at Nani's house like my mother had when she was my age.
Nani had always prided herself that even during the lean years when she and my grandfather were starting their own business, she was not too proud to work two or three jobs to keep food on the table and their new venture afloat. It was during those years that my mother had taken on cooking for her brothers and her father. Only on weekends, and then later in my childhood when the family business was booming, did Nani return to the kitchen. Now, firmly entrenched in the middle class, neither my grandmother nor my mother wanted my generation to have to toil as theirs did.
This arrangement suited me fine. I was free to play with my cousins while at Nani and Papa's house. We would all return, sweaty and laughing, to the hot, narrow kitchen and Nani's warm embrace. My mother still stood by the stove, following Nani's instructions as she had for the past forty years.
It was not until three months after Nani died that my mother once again began cooking the Italian dishes that Nani had taught her to prepare. And it was only then that I realized how much I had missed that familiar smell of tomatoes and onions and garlic simmering under a sheen of olive oil. So when my mother asked me that afternoon to add the ground beef to the sauce, I am certain that she thought it a simple request, as if Nani had called a generation earlier and asked my sixteen year old mother to do the same. I am sure she assumed that I would know to brown it first rather than dump the bloody meat into the sauce while still raw.
She assumed wrong. When my mother returned home and saw the pink flesh swimming in the tomato sauce among the Italian herbs, she looked at me incredulously, and then with sadness at her nearly ruined sauce.
“I didn't know!” I protested. “I just put it in like you told me.” A simple, direct order as Nani might have given. Perhaps, too, did my mother err unknowingly in the past, her gaffe discovered only upon Nani's return home.
“For someone so smart, I am amazed at some of the…incredible things you do.” She wanted to say “foolish,” maybe, or “stupid,” but she would never use those words with me. I watched my mother turn up the gas on the stove in an effort to poach the meat in the tomato broth and felt guilty at my outburst and mistake. Had I not seen my mother and grandmother conjure sauce from these same ingredients countless times? How could I not remember those many Sundays at Nani's kitchen table, only a few years ago? Only now do I recognize as well my mother's own pain from the realization that she had shown me so much less than she thought, and perhaps also that I had remembered so little.
It was true, until then she had never taught me to cook like Nani had taught her. I sometimes tried easy recipes or asked questions, but rarely had the information taken the form of an official lesson. My mother always said that she would not hand over a household of chores to me like Nani had done to her, relying on my mother to clean the house and cook for the family while Nani worked past the dinner hour. Sure, I had to pitch in with housework at home, but the cleaning woman who came every other week had done most of the real scrubbing and my parents shared the daily meal preparation. Even when my parents had divorced did my stepfather often cook and clean and my father continue to be equal partners in managing his household which I also frequented.
At that moment, however, something in me awoke. I had always loved food and appreciated good cooking, but I never gave much thought to the specifics of how a dish metamorphosed from separate ingredients to singular masterpiece. I always believed that I would figure it out the moment a specific meal was needed—perhaps years from then while gazing at a recipe two hours before company was due to arrive. But the fact that my mother asked me to perform something that was second nature to her, yet completely foreign to me, caused me concern. What else did I not know that she knew?
In the few months since Nani died I had yet to realized all of the reasons that I would miss her or regret the things I never thought to ask when she could still answer, first in her tired whisper, and then, with her cancer-ravaged voice box removed, in flowing cursive on the back of an envelope. I realized as I watched my mother season her sputtering pot of sauce that of course Nani must have actively taught my mother how to cook. Nani may have been in charge during those Sundays of my childhood when they bustled around the kitchen adding spices or stirring pots, but my mother certainly knew what she was doing. Neither of them ever looked at a recipe, or even so much as measured out a tablespoon or half cup of any ingredient.
Perhaps that moment of clarity extended beyond food, or at least a kernel of my newfound understanding did. I would be leaving for college soon and I did not know how to cook this Italian staple of meat sauce that was simmering on my mother's stove. In fact I did not know how to make barely any of the things I loved to eat; things that I consumed around Nani and Papa's dining room table for years. How would I know how to cook these dishes without asking my mother?
“So,” I said looking up from the schoolbook where I had been staring without comprehension while feigning indifference, “how do you make your sauce?”
Perhaps all that my mother wanted was for me to ask. She explained that she first chopped onions and garlic and sautéed them in olive oil. She showed me the large-sized cans of crushed and diced tomatoes that she kept stocked in her cupboards and explained which kind of tomato paste she preferred. I tasted the sauce with her, the meat now browning nicely, as she decided whether the flavor was adequate. I studied as she threw in a dash of dried oregano and a handful of sugar.
“Your Nani would always sweeten up her sauce,” she confided. “She said my Nana taught her that because the tomatoes here were never as good as the ones from Sicily.”
The smell that rose from the stove reminded me of the perfume that had hit me as I entered Nani's kitchen every Sunday of the first dozen years of my life. I was amazed that it took me so long to be part of this cooking ritual, and not just sitting on the sidelines waiting to eat.
“I'm going to go clean up a bit. Why don't you cook the pasta and we'll have dinner when it's done,” my mother said and then left me alone.
My stepfather returned from work as I was draining the pasta. “Smells good,” he said and then disappeared into his workroom in the basement. If he raised an eyebrow at my presence in the kitchen, I did not notice.
When the three of us sat down to dinner, my mother announced that I had made dinner and she “just helped.” Spaghetti and meat sauce never tasted so good.
The lessons came slowly over the next few months. On a rare free evening when I did not have a soccer game and my mother was not teaching aerobics, she would ask me to help her make one of the dishes that Nani used to prepare for Sunday dinner.
One day it was meatballs, and I learned that the most moist and flavorful balls were comprised of ground beef, sausage, and pork. I cracked the egg into the bowl and my mother added a few handfuls of breadcrumbs.
“How much breadcrumbs?” I asked.
My mother scrunched her face in thought. She had always eyeballed it, like Nani had done. “It depends on how much meat and what kinds you are using. You'll know when it is enough.”
“How will I know?” Now that I was taking control of my cooking lessons, I wanted specifics.
“You'll learn to know by tasting. It takes time.” I was not satisfied with her answer, and vowed to look up a recipe for exact measurements. But later, as I compared one cookbook to another, I saw that their measurements varied as well. I swore that I would pay more attention the next time that my mother cooked meatballs. I wanted to get it right.
For the first family birthday party after Nani's death, her brothers and their families arrived at my mother's house tentatively, unsure of how painful the differences would be at this new venue. I do not know if my mother was also nervous as she showed me how to make manicotti stuffed with a ricotta, onion, parsley, and Parmesan, which would later be smothered in the sauce made from the recipe I was beginning to learn by heart. She paused once, trying to remember if Nani had added olive oil to the filling. Then my mother plowed on. There was no recipe to follow. She just had to taste it to know if it was right.
“I think there's something missing,” she said and handed me a spoonful of the ricotta mixture. “What do you think?”
What did I know? I had never before tasted this filling in its raw state. It tasted good—like cheese and salt and spices. “I think it's good.” My mother nodded and began stuffing the long, cylindrical shells.
“It smells like Nani's house,” my cousin announced as he entered my mom's large open kitchen and dining room, so unlike the close quarters of Nani's galley kitchen. Everyone might have paused for a moment at that bold invocation.
“That is the best compliment I have ever gotten,” my mother answered, breaking the silence. Voices rose again and laughter rang out. I pulled the garlic bread out of the oven—a dish I had made by myself with just a few directions from my mother.
“Suzi made this,” my mother announced, and the family dug in without question. Next she pulled out the pan of bubbling manicotti, the extra bowls of pasta and sauce, and a green salad and placed them all on the dining room table. They were passed around as conversation continued without comment on the food.
If anyone thought that my mother's manicotti was not as good as Nani's, no one told her. Perhaps it was just as good, but different. Surely there may have been something missing, but this was the new recipe. This was what we had to work with. There was no right or wrong. You had to just learn to adjust according to whatever you were cooking. It was going to take time.