A love letter to a very un-Italian sauce and the woman who invented it.
Growing up, my mom cooked most nights. She cooked much like her mother did: recipes forged in the fires of postwar frugality, molded by the modern convenience of easy-to-prepare packaged goods. By the 1980s, America–and my family–had embraced an astonishing array of foods that allowed one to “cook” while doing almost none of the actual cooking: Hamburger Helper, Toaster Strudel, Totino’s Pizza Rolls, Hot Pockets, Swanson Pot Pies, and something named, in a stroke of marketing genius, “Chicken Tonight.”
We were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants but not wealthy or pedigreed enough to be WASPs. We weren’t Italian or Irish. We were from the south, but my mom never made biscuits or fried chicken or pecan pie. We just ate like middle class white people, because that’s what we were.
My favorite dinner as a kid was spaghetti.
My mom would start by putting the smallest possible amount of Wesson canola oil in an electric skillet, then she’d add lean ground beef and absolutely no seasoning. Once the beef was fully browned–because she believed it was dangerous to cook raw meat and vegetables at the same time–she tossed in diced onions and green bell peppers. Once the vegetables had softened a bit, she would squeeze in about a half a bottle of Hunt’s tomato ketchup–(a chorus of gasps as we cut to the audience, their mouths agape)–then a much smaller squirt of store-brand yellow mustard and a small cup of tap water. She would let it simmer together while she boiled a box of Mueller’s angel hair pasta. We spooned the sweet sauce over sticky mounds of noodles and garnished each pasta pile with Kraft “parmesan” cheese, the green can rattling like a broken instrument as we shook it to break up the clumps.
We ate that for dinner once a week, and it never once crossed my mind that there was any other way to make spaghetti.
My mom cooked spaghetti this way because that’s the way her mother cooked it. I have some of my grandmother’s aprons, and I like to think about her wearing them as a young wife, proud to come home from her job as a factory bookkeeper and cook dinner for her husband while her young daughter–my mother–clung to her knees. A working woman.
My family is from Western North Carolina. In 2019, that part of the country looks a lot like most of the country: hollow storefronts gaping at Main Streets devoid of pedestrians; hosiery mills and furniture factories — where my grandparents once earned a working class living — are shuttered, haunted by ghosts. Malls pump air conditioning into mostly-empty stores, like desperate first responders performing CPR on patients whose faces are already blue. Everyone still smokes cigarettes, but no one talks about the meth and the pills.
No one cares if their pasta is al dente. They’re just trying not to die or go broke staying alive.
I have not overcooked pasta in roughly a decade. I stand over the pot, inhaling the heady perfume of the boiling water, the starch from the noodles making it filmy and rich. I start by heavily salting my pasta water, because that is what I was told to do. I went to Italy and learned that dried pasta is totally fine; most Italians buy a box of Barilla and get on with it. From about the 7-minute mark on, I lift scalding hot noodles from the pot with tongs, biting into one to test its doneness. I do that until the noodles have a heft and a chew but not a crunch.
With a glass measuring cup, I scoop out some pasta cooking water and set it aside, knowing that I will later use this miraculously elastic liquid to “marry” the pasta to the sauce. Every time I do this, I think about how far I’ve come, how much I now know.
I left home for college and met people who were incredulous that I’d never been skiing and abjectly horrified that I didn’t have a passport. I tried sushi and discovered wine. I spent $45 on a Von Dutch t-shirt because I wanted to have a t-shirt that cost $45. I watched food TV and read a lot of magazines and decided I would become someone who traveled and cooked and tried things.
I heard once that Michelangelo didn’t believe he created his sculptures; he believed he “freed” them from the marble. I dreamed up a personality and then set it free from its hunk of rock, smoothing out the edges and polishing its curves. Then I put it on a plane to New York.
When I visit my grandparents, they apologize for their “simple country food”: packaged cold cuts, white bread and Duke’s mayonnaise and American cheese. Sun Drop and Cheerwine in plastic bottles that nobody bothers to recycle.
“We can’t afford all that fancy food like you eat in New York,” my grandfather says to me. I demur, then drown my guilt in another helping of Food Lion brand wavy potato chips and French onion dip. We have a saying in the South: “gettin’ above your raisin’.” Hanging in the hot, humid air is a sense that ambition and material success are a source of shame.
My mother’s mother, Marilyn, inventor of the spaghetti recipe to which I owe most of my 5 feet 9 inches, died at 59 having never been to Italy. She never even flew on a plane. I wonder what she would think of al dente pasta cooked in water as salty as the sea and marinara simmered all day with garlic and a rind of $25 aged Parmigiano.
I wish she were still here to tell me it needs more ketchup.
MY SPAGHETTI WITH MARINARA
1 lb. good quality dried spaghetti
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 28-oz. can San Marzano tomatoes and all the juices
1 large sprig fresh basil, plus more fresh leaves for garnishing
1 rind from Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano for serving
More extra virgin olive oil for serving
- Heat a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. When it’s really hot, add a nice hefty glug of olive oil and let that get hot, too.
- Add the onions and season with a big pinch of salt. Stirring frequently, sweat them until they’re translucent, then add the garlic and cook for another minute or two. When you can smell the garlic, reduce heat to medium and add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you add them to the pot. Swish out the can with a little water and add that tomatoey water to the pot, too.
- Throw in the Parmigiano rind and the basil sprig. Add another good pinch of salt, reduce heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and simmer for a minimum of an hour, and preferably for a really long time. Periodically stir, scraping any bits that have accumulated on the bottom of the pot. Add a little water as needed if it gets too dry.
- Bring a big pot of water to a boil and add more salt to the water than you want to, then add another pinch just to be sure. Add your pasta to the water, stirring with tongs to keep it separated. Scoop about a cup of the pasta cooking water out of the pot and have it ready nearby.
- Cook for two minutes less than the package directions tell you to, and start tasting the noodles. You want them to retain a pleasant bite but not be crunchy in the middle. You may be uncomfortable with how underdone they are, but they’re going to keep cooking.
- Use tongs to remove the Parmigiano rind and basil spring from the pot.
- Turn the heat under your sauce back up to medium high. Using tongs, transfer the mostly-cooked spaghetti directly from their cooking water to the sauce, stirring vigorously. Add the reserved pasta water and keep stirring. You want to add enough pasta so that the sauce coats every noodle but not so much that the noodles are swimming in it.
- Use tongs to make nests of spaghetti in shallow bowls. Top with torn fresh basil and grated Parm. Drizzle each serving with a little olive oil. Appreciate how rich life is and eat it while it’s hot.