My Family Recipe

The Simple Pasta Recipe That Broke the Silence Between My Sister & Me

A tale of two sisters.

January 29, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


When I was 23, my sister Mary Alice moved from New York to Texas, her husband Ben’s home state. We were all a little shaken by the dispersion of our tribe; my family tended to stay within easy driving distance of our childhood home in the Catskills. But to make the best of it, we decided to turn the move into a sibling summer road trip—my sister and I driving in her old Hyundai, and my brother, Jake, and Ben following close behind in a U-Haul.

Mary, the elder sibling and de facto leader, navigated, and we were fine to let her, trusting she would take us on a well-curated route. We planned to drive south and west, stopping in Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans along the way, with a quick visit to Graceland.

I’ve always liked the ebb and flow of conversations that happen during car rides. Sometimes, Mary and I chatted for hours, discussing life goals, gas station pickles, and any topic in between. Then we’d pass through long stretches where we hardly said a word, listening to entire albums from her CD collection or just comfortably enjoying the silence. I’d look out the window and try to acquaint myself with the changing landscape as we drove deeper into the belly of our country—the farmland of Tennessee, the seemingly endless green fields of Mississippi.

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“I’m glad you and your sister are speaking again, and it isn’t surprising that a birthday and food brought you back together. Those are two of the best things in the world. Great writing, by the way. ”
— Natalie
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Northeasterners in a foreign land, we purposefully ate our way through local fare: slow-smoked ribs and peach cobbler; etouffé and spicy gumbo; warm beignets and chicory coffee.

As we neared the Louisiana-Texas state line, I found a lunch spot called Deb’s Kitchen using our TomTom GPS. We pulled into a mini mall parking lot and hungrily rushed into the small cafe. My confidence wilted as an unfamiliar aroma violated my nostrils. The daily special was chitterlings, announced a small blackboard. I followed the others to the counter.

“How do you prepare the chitterlings?” asked Ben. We watched the server spoon the stewy innards onto a metal lunch tray, then flanked them with sides of pigs feet and cornbread.

“Well,” he said, pausing with a smile. “To start, we literally boil the sh— out of ’em.”

“Looks delicious,” said Ben, our resident Southerner.

It was early in the afternoon, and I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous. When my turn came, I followed my sister’s lead and ordered beans, greens, and cornbread. As more customers piled into Deb’s, we ate the contents of our trays, the boys savoring their carnivorous selections, and set back out on the road.

With our trusty Hyundai and a stash of Tums, I could have kept on at that pace all summer. But after five nights and six days, we arrived in Dallas, and it was time for Jake and I to fly home.

I felt like a mom dropping my already-homesick child at summer camp. Through tears and long, tight hugs, we said our goodbyes and left Mary in her new apartment on the south side of Dallas.

The distance did little to hurt our sisterly bond. Typically, we’d call or text daily, sometimes maintaining long streams of texts throughout the day. No topics were off-limits. Between us, TMI was laughable.

No matter the subject, I always heeded my sister’s advice. If there was an album she recommended, I’d listen to the songs until I memorized them all. She advised me to read authors like Ken Kesey and Joan Didion, and by the final pages they were my favorites, too. When Mary urged me to break it off with a certain banker, whose charm had temporarily blinded me to his slightly sociopathic tendencies, I did just as she said—then thanked her for giving me the gumption to do so.

Food was no different. I wasn’t sure where it came from, but I was sure that my sister had an innately elevated sense of taste. She had the ability to zero in on recipes and restaurants that were truly good—even when other people overlooked them.

Mary loved Prune, a beloved Lower East Side eatery, before it was the Prune from chef and New York Times bestselling author Gabrielle Hamilton. She showed me the delight of slow-roasting a simple tomato, doused in olive oil and crunchy salt; the importance of freezing dough for scones overnight; the never-fail impressiveness of a timeless dish done really well, like her roasted pork loin with crispy new potatoes. Her personal cuisine had hints of somewhere along the Mediterranean, coaxing the maximum flavor from a few carefully chosen ingredients, but never committed to one particular region. It was as satisfying as it was romantic.

Though I was the one who would eventually work in kitchens and write about food, I always felt that Mary instilled in me her food sensibility. And when she or I discovered a recipe that became a staple, we’d always share it with each other.

For my sister, one of those recipes was pappardelle with garlic, anchovies, butter, olive oil, and lemon. It was her take on bagna cauda, which I later learned, is an Italian dish from the Piedmont region. Italian for “hot bath,” it’s typically served as a dipping sauce, ideal for dredging veggies and bread.

At the time, I didn’t know the magic of cooking with anchovies. To me, they were smelly little sea creatures that some masochists added to perfectly good pizza. I couldn’t understand their appeal.

“Trust me,” my sister assured, “They dissolve into the sauce, and add a nice umami flavor.”

One evening, in my long, narrow Brooklyn kitchen, I tried preparing it myself. Wincing as I pulled open the yellow tin of anchovies, being extra careful not to spill their fishy oil, I did just as Mary instructed. I began with four anchovy fillets, stirring them into the melted butter and olive oil, then zealously smashing their tiny fishy spines with the back of a wooden spoon. I imagined one of those dainty bones getting caught in my throat, then silently cursed my sister for convincing me to cook something both foul and dangerous.

I forged on, adding a squeeze of lemon juice and a splash of pasta water, and kept stirring. “Here goes nothing,” I said to no one, blowing on a spoonful of sauce then slowly venturing a taste.

She was right. The anchovies lent a very inoffensive touch of salty complexity to an already delicious combination.

On her next visit to New York, Mary prepared the dish for our mom, who became an instant fan, too. My mom was a solid cook in her own right, but was more successful with her tried-and-true hits, like lasagna and leg of lamb. When it came to new recipes, she tended to skim over the details and just throw it in the pot.

A few months later, my sister called me from Texas. “She said it came out funny,” Mary told me. Apparently, our mom had tried to recreate my sister’s pasta recipe on her own.

“Like funny how?” I asked, holding the phone in the crick of my neck while cleaning my apartment.

“She said it didn't taste the same as when I made it,” Mary went on, and I eagerly waited for the big reveal.

“So I asked Mom how many anchovies she used, and she said, ‘Anchovies? I thought you said sardines!’”

We both burst into laughter.

“That’s a good one,” I sighed, wiping a tear from my eye.

When we spoke, no one was safe from our critical sister eyes.

As time passed, I flew to Dallas a couple times a year to visit Mary. She and her family would come to New York, too. Even when I lived abroad in Spain, with a teaching fellowship in Madrid or a cooking internship in Bilbao, we always met back home. Plus, my moves were always a concrete amount of time––six months or one year. So it never felt like we’d be far apart for long.

And then I met my future husband, Guillaume. Mary, of course, was maid of honor at our wedding.

For the first year of our marriage, Guillaume and I lived quite contentedly in Brooklyn. But when we got the itch to start a family, factors like affordable health and child care became real considerations. We started looking at other places to settle, including Guillaume’s hometown: Paris. Our lease was ending soon, and we figured there was no point in waiting: We were moving to Paris.

Guillaume and I flew to Texas to visit Mary and her family one last time before the move. When we arrived to their house in East Dallas, Bill Evans was crooning from the record player and a large pot of water (“salty as the sea,” as my sister would say) was boiling on the stove. Mary had invited a bunch of friends for dinner, and we were just in time.

“Whatcha’ cooking?” I asked, lifting a pan lid to release a steamy waft of garlic.

“Just the uze,” said Mary. “I thought pasta would be good for the group.”

We gathered around a long wooden table and served ourselves from a huge bowl of spaghetti with Mary’s bagna cauda sauce, eating every bite until our plates were left with puddles of oil. While someone uncorked another bottle of red, we dragged hunks of bread across our plates, sopping up every last drop.

We lingered over dessert plates of flourless dark chocolate cake, and I told Mary’s friends about our plans for Europe, all the while trying not to think about the looming reality: This would be the last home-cooked meal with my sister for a while.

At some point during the visit, after a couple rounds of Texas-sized margaritas, Mary and I had an argument. It was the kind of alcohol-bolstered disagreement between siblings that usually gets smoothed over with time and some gentle ribbing. But I was leaving Texas the next day—and the country in a couple weeks. There was no space for our fight to move through its full life cycle.

Though my sister and I more or less made up, something was off between us after I left. Feelings were still bruised. And I was too busy with the move to give it my full attention.

Mary and I have a deep sense of loyalty that demands total allegiance. And because it hurt too much to pretend we could be anything less, a Cold War settled over us. By the time Guillaume and I boarded a plane from JFK, with one-way tickets to CDG, my sister and I stopped speaking entirely.

We didn’t speak all summer. I thought about calling her, but then I never did. Why doesn’t she call me? I’d think to myself. Chances are, she was thinking the same. The chill extended to the first couple months of fall.

When people asked about my sister, knowing how close we were, a sad lump would rise in my throat.

“Good, I think,” I’d answer. “I’m not sure. We’re not really talking these days.” Through glassy eyes, I’d try to pretend that it didn’t wound me to feign indifference to my relationship with my sister.

There were so many things I wanted to share––especially after I found out I was expecting. From revelations about pregnancy, like nausea and itchy nipples, to the simple, quotidian updates, like questionable Instagram posts that needed careful dissecting.

After six months of being away, I finally visited my mom in the Catskills for Thanksgiving. My sister was spending the holidays with her in-laws in Texas. When my mom watched me eat in the kitchen, and swooped up my plate the moment I took a last bite, I couldn’t help feeling the urge to call my sister to vent. But I didn’t—instead, I kept our mom’s neurotic cleanliness to myself, hoping that one day, the ice would thaw.

And then it did. In December, our brother paid a visit to my sister on her birthday. Pained that I couldn’t be there with my sibling crew, I sent her a happy birthday message. Suddenly, she opened up to me. Or maybe it was me who had opened up to her. Maybe our brother had mentioned how upset I was about the rift. It didn’t matter. I was thankful to be on speaking terms again.

We never talked about why we had stopped speaking. Instead, we picked up more or less where we’d left off.

It might not be the healthiest way to resolve issues. But sometimes, it’s how we do. And it’s part of the larger recipe that makes my family. If we lay the ingredients out on the table, we might not enjoy each of them, all the time. But when they’re combined into one dish, it’s perfect—because it’s my family, and I happen to be very partial to it. I wouldn’t swap a single ingredient.

Her personal cuisine had hints of somewhere along the Mediterranean, coaxing the maximum flavor from a few carefully chosen ingredients, but never committed to one particular region. It was as satisfying as it was romantic.

We're seven hours apart, Paris to Dallas, so we chat mostly over WhatsApp now. One time I asked her, “What’s that recipe you used to make, with the anchovies and pasta?” Throughout my pregnancy, pasta has moved to the base of my food pyramid, so I was looking for recipes to widen my repertoire.

“Bagna cauda pasta,” she said. “Usually I serve it with arugula, but if I use radicchio I’ll do a fried egg, too.” I imagined the flavor combination of bitter radicchio and rich egg yolk. “Lately though, I’ve been serving it with thin-sliced steak.” I thought about the juicy, pink steak, seared on the edges, with salty, starchy pasta.

Half an hour later, as it was nearing 11 p.m. my time, we got off the phone. She texted me her bagna cauda pasta recipe, with a follow-up note, “Send me any recipes that you’ve loved lately."

And I was unspeakably happy to reply that I would.

Recently, I prepared my sister’s recipe for Guillaume and me at our apartment in Paris. I thought back on my first attempt, years earlier. I was in a new kitchen now, in a new country, married, with child and wise to the magic of cooking with anchovies.

I added five or six tiny fillets to the sauce, and smashed them with the back of my wooden spatula.

So much had changed.

I poured the fresh lemon juice into the pan and continued stirring. Then I blew on a spoonful and tasted the sauce.

And yet my sister’s recipe was as good as ever.

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23 Comments

Mo February 15, 2019
Hello 🙋🏽‍♀️ <br />I made this for my husband last night for Valentines Day dinner. Added some mitake mushrooms to the sauce, just because i love mushrooms and whenever i can i ADD! Lol. The hubby said this pasta was so delicious he swear he has had it in a restaurant in San Francisco! DELISH!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. February 15, 2019
Hey Mo! Ooooh that sounds delish - big fan of mushrooms, too. Glad your honey liked it :-)
 
Noah A. February 6, 2019
Really enjoyed reading this. ❤️ Tonya and I want
 
Noah A. February 6, 2019
to travel to Paris. Would love to see you both (the three of you by the time we make it there)
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. February 6, 2019
Thankssss bruva! <3
 
Ashley R. February 4, 2019
Really enjoyed reading this! I can’t wait to give the recipe a try!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. February 5, 2019
Thank you! Hope it comes out delish :)
 
Casablancacooks February 1, 2019
Hi Caitlin. I loved reading your story. Beautifully written. I'm determined to try that pasta now...anchovies and all. Thanks for sharing that.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. February 1, 2019
Thank you so much! Hope you love the pasta, too :-)
 
Bella95 January 31, 2019
This sounds great. I'm not much of a fan of salty food but l absolutely LOVE anchovies. Thank you for sharing this, I suspect it will join aglio, olio peperoncino as a favourite lazy meal. Loved reading about you and your sister's shared love of food too.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. February 1, 2019
Thanks, Bella! I'm going to investigate this aglio olio peperencino combo for a pasta night soon :-)
 
Bella95 February 4, 2019
My tips for A,O and P perfection are; Put garlic and peperoncino in cold EVOO bring the heat up gently until the garlic just starts to become golden. The moment it starts to colour, turn off the heat. As soon as the pasta water becomes starchy add a few tablespoons to the garlic oil, turn the heat back on and simmer gently til the water 'disappears'. Serve with a generous amount of freshly chopped parsley (or arugula for a nice variation) and parmesan. You can also add toasted or fried breadcrumbs as a garnish for a nice crunchy twist if liked. Enjoy. (:
 
Todd H. January 31, 2019
I just read this on my train ride home and besides it being incredibly well written it made me smile. It also sparked a memory deeply ingrained in my mind of your mom vaccuuming super early on a saturday morning with your dad and Jake yelling at her to stop :)<br />Hope all well. Congrats and good luck with everything.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. January 31, 2019
Thanksss Todd, that's so sweet and hilarious re: vacuuming. It hasn't stopped, just gotten earlier :p
 
Melanie January 30, 2019
Great dish, but please, metric or imperial, pick a system and stick with it.
 
Natalie January 29, 2019
Beautiful story, mixing family dynamics and tasty food. I’m glad you and your sister are speaking again, and it isn’t surprising that a birthday and food brought you back together. Those are two of the best things in the world. Great writing, by the way.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. January 30, 2019
Thank you, Natalie!
 
cookie27 January 29, 2019
so... when do you add the anchovies? or am i missing something here..?
 
Bella95 January 31, 2019
Step 3 says. "Once garlic is golden, add anchovy fillets and smash using a flat wooden spatula. " Reading other comments, l think this step may have been omitted earlier.
 
cookie27 January 31, 2019
thanks bella, i must have copied out the recipe too early! <br />made it (with a splash of white wine) and it tasted great.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. February 1, 2019
Oooh I'll try with a little splash next time, too. Thanks, Cookie!
 
HalfPint January 29, 2019
This reminds of me and my third eldest sister. We were joined at the culinary hip. N was the one that fueled my culinary adventures because she loved finding and eating good food as much as I did. We were inseparable until she got married and was immediately expecting her first born. It was the end of an era and I was so sad. There was no falling out or argument. I just knew that our days of wandering in search of that special little place or market were history. It hurt because she was my ally in all things that was food and it felt like I lost her. In the years that followed, I made the effort to stay in touch and when her little one was old enough, we took her along with us. She takes after her mother in both looks and palate, so we became the 3 Amigos. It wasn't what it was in those early years, but our relationship still remains close for which is am very grateful.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. January 30, 2019
That's so sweet re: 3 amigos. The dynamic between siblings is always evolving, for better or worse. I'm glad yours has come around again, too. <3