She put her heart and soul into every dish.
When I was growing up, my mother, of Italian descent, served up swoon-worthy meals for my sister, my brother and I. And, our always appreciative father.
Her pasta sauce, often referred to as “Sunday gravy,” was a masterpiece in and of itself.
Often made with tomatoes from my father’s garden, the sauce was redolent with basil, garlic, parmesan — and enough meat to satisfy a lumber camp.
Neckbones, pork, and/or beef. The best meatballs I’ve ever had, to this day. Tender. Savory. With an almost indescribably luscious “mouth feel.” And, Italian sausage. Marone! (Insert hand gesture here.)
The meat simmered in the sauce for hours, filling our home with its heady aroma, so that, by the time we sat down for dinner, we were ravenous.
One of my favorite memories is of sitting at the kitchen table, watching Mom make her sauce. Without fail, I got the “cook’s treat,” either a meatball or a neck bone, of which I sucked at greedily, getting every last bit of the meat and marrow.
She’d watch me, waiting for my approving “Mmmmmm,” which was my standard response. How could it be anything else? I was sampling ambrosia.
Without a doubt, spaghetti, linguine or any pasta smothered in my mother’s sauce was one of my all-time favorite meals. As I write this, I can almost taste the freshly grated parmesan. Sharp. Pungent. With a salty, Umami-like tang.
I would share the recipe here, but my mother told my sister, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t want it divulged to anyone but family members, and we respect that.
And then, there was my mother’s special way with calve’s liver. Yes, liver. Mom worked her magic on that, as well. She had a trick of soaking the organ meat in milk, to take that gamey, funky taste out, and it worked. Fried with onions, it was sublime. I wonder how she’d feel knowing this is a dish I could never imagine eating, today.
And, don’t get me started on her Chicken Vesuvio, a distinctly Chicago dish. Chicken sautéed with wine, olive oil, and a boatload of garlic. As good as any of the Windy City’s Italian restaurants.
We weren’t rich, by any means. But, between my mother’s cooking and my dad’s prowess with the grill, we ate like royalty. Steak. Chicken. Pork chops. And, that incredible pasta sauce. How blessed were we? Did we realize it then? When I watched my mother cook, I like to think I did.
Sunday mornings were my Jewish dad’s bailiwick: Lox, bagels, smoked sable, knishes, and other Kosher delights, and all from Kaufman’s Bakery & Delicatessen in Skokie, Illinois, which is still going strong. That was THE place and on weekends, Dad took his place in line. But, that’s a story for another time.
I no longer eat red meat. But, that doesn’t stop me from the frequent longings I feel for my mother’s food. My mother’s kitchen. If only I could “sample” her meatballs, just once more. If only I could tell her that they were “the best yet.” Just once more.
© Sherry McGuinn, 2020. All Rights Reserved.
Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications. Sherry’s manager is currently pitching her newest screenplay, a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story.