My Family Recipe

The Sunday Sauce I Watched Mom Make 900 Times, but Didn’t Learn Until She Was Gone

On grief and cooking.

August  6, 2019
Photo by James Ransom. Food Stylist: Olivia Mack McCool. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

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.


It was probably too soon to be making her most frequently cooked dish. My mother, Dorothy, had only been dead a few weeks. Even though I made a few of her other recipes since then without incident, somehow this one tripped me up.

Though, you couldn’t really call Sunday sauce her signature dish. In fact, if pressed to name a signature dish of hers, I'd have to say it was pie. I’d been there many times when the slightly mysterious, particular look came over her face, her eyes drifting up to the right (where apparently we all look for our best ideas), just before she’d say out loud, “I think I’ll make a pie”—the way other people might say, “I think I’ll go for a walk.” Then, with amazingly little effort, seeming not even to measure anything, in mere moments, a dough would be assembled, rolled out, and fitted into a shell ready for filling. She could do this without looking (like Jacques Pépin dicing an onion with a 12-inch chef’s knife while eyeing the camera and never once nicking a finger). It was in her bones.

But if Sunday sauce wasn’t her signature dish, then it was clearly the thing she made most. Without fail, every Sunday, it appeared on the table around 1 p.m. We all expected it; we all enjoyed it. No one would have ever dared to say, “Sauce again?” (even if they thought it). This was tradition, and we stuck to it.

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Top Comment:
“Lovely story, Gary and it reminds me of my Grandpa's gravy. Throughout my life I tried to ask him for the recipe, but he always said, "I don't have a recipe". Then, he got sick, and one Sunday it was time to make gravy and he needed help. I had been staying with my Grandparents to help care for my Grandpa, drive him to his chemo appts, take my Gram food shopping, help out around the house. I was so excited to finally learn how to make Grandpa's gravy. He tired easily, and often had to sit at the kitchen table, and just direct me around the kitchen. That gravy was in his soul, in his bones - like your Mom. He described what the meat should look like as it browned in the pot, how the tomato paste should look as it mixed with the fat. When it was time to add the spices, he held his hand out and poured in the amount and dumped it in the pot. It was one of the best days I've ever had. My Grandpa passed away just two weeks later. I realized then that I needed to learn to make his gravy in that way, at that time, so that I could see how it was so ingrained in who he was. That gravy held memories of his own Grandmother, Sunday dinners with the family and other experiences that only food can provide. Now, when I make my Grandfather's gravy, every time I measure out the spices in my palm, I see his hands. I feel his love, his memories, that day. I miss him terribly to the point that it hurts, but he's around me always. ”
— fatdrunkandfancy
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My assumption is that my sainted grandmother on my late father’s side taught her how to make this. I can’t ask her any longer, so I can add this to the growing list of questions I never thought to pose while she was living. Grandma Anna died long before I was born, on my father’s birthday. Everyone always spoke of her so lovingly, praised her cooking, and hailed her gentle spirit. I’m sure this recipe emanated from her. It's likely that my mother, growing up in a huge, nominally Protestant, English/German, 10-sibling household, had never even encountered red sauce.

'The Italian Cookbook,' first published 1956.

Like converting to Catholicism, I’m also sure that making sauce was an early requirement of her union with my father, Enrico (who, like all of his first-generation siblings with beautiful, polysyllabic Italian names, adopted a shorter American one, Hank, for ease). I still have the paperback, saddle-stitched book of Italian recipes that was my mother’s go-to after my grandmother was gone. The Italian Cookbook, by Melanie De Proft (and the Staff Home Economists of the Culinary Arts Institute in Chicago), is now not only missing its cover, but a few other pages as well. It is faded, spotted, every corner worn down with age and use, and I almost never look at it. But I do adore the 1950s spot-color illustrations, the almost useless black and white photos and the dazzling centerfold (one side only!) of blown-out, technicolor photos of finished dishes.

I mostly love that it was hers. From looking over the sauce recipe in that book, however, I can tell that this is not where she started—and so it must have come from my grandmother.

14-year-old Enrico "Hank" Schiro and his mother, Anna, 1942.
12-year-old Gary and his mother, Dorothy, making Christmas cookies, c. 1973.

Hindsight being always 20/20—and often deeply bitter—I can’t believe that while she was making this dish, which must have, by my calculations, been made in my presence at least 936 times, it never once occurred to me to watch and learn. I did, many years later, have her talk me through it over the phone. I made notes: The ingredient list was straightforward and short, and there were no real tricks or major hurdles. I’ve had great success with it over the years, but ah, but there’s the rub: The short ingredient list can be quite deceiving.

I love old cookbooks and have collected a number of them from used bookstores and rummage sales. But, like mom’s dog-eared paperback, they are not enormously useful due to their brevity. Often they'd contain just a list of ingredients and leave everything else up to the reader to figure out, the assumption being that of course you already know how to cook. By working my way through a few of these old recipes, I came to deeply appreciate that cooking does evolve, techniques do improve, and emerging food science has clarified innumerable kitchen mysteries. One of the most inedible things I’ve ever baked was a gingerbread cookie from the 1870s. It was so hard, you’d think it was invented by an evil, greedy dentist. Who needs the briefly worded paperback from the '50s when you have the eloquence and insight of writers like Marcella Hazan?

The dazzling centerfold from 'The Italian Cookbook.'

It seemed a safe bet, then, that Sunday morning after my mother's death, when I decided to make a pot of her sauce. I had, by this point in my life, made it many, many times. Not nearly weekly, as she had, but enough times to the point where I was naively confident that I had this one down. That morning, as all of the comforting Sunday morning smells started to fill the house, things went south—fast. Ironically, it was the meatballs that took me down.

Here's the thing: I may not make sauce all that often, but meatballs are pretty heavily in rotation around here. It used to be meatloaf, until I realized that my favorite part of meatloaf was the crusty edge and I could maximize that ratio and cut down the cooking time by switching to meatballs. Beef, turkey, pork, and lamb meatballs have all been a staple of my make-ahead arsenal for years. If I have a big batch of meatballs in the fridge, then I know that I have at least two dinners and a few lunches sorted.

Until recently I was working a six-days-a-week, stressful job that gobbled up all of my time. If I didn’t do a bunch of Sunday cooking to prepare for the week it was a disaster. My husband and I live in a rural community, the nearest grocery store is 15 minutes away, there is no takeout to fall back on, and the only restaurant nearby is a dud. So, meatballs went into the repertoire along with a roasted chicken and a big pot of rice. I always felt that if I had those three things, some vegetables, and a bag of onions, I could get through a week of meals assembled quickly enough that we wouldn’t find ourselves, hours after we got home, needing to go straight to bed after eating.

That ill-fated morning, I’m not even sure what it was I did wrong or differently. Even with all my experience, every single meatball stuck to the bottom of the pan and burned. I tried lowering the heat. I tried tipping in more olive oil. I deglazed with wine and dumped out the burnt bits. Nothing seemed to unravel my singed path to misery. I stood there, pan smoking, oil spattering, wondering: Why am I messing this up? What did I miss? How can I not know how to do this by now?

And then that moment occurred, which every person who has ever lost a loved one might understand: I thought I should call Dorothy for advice, until I realized I couldn’t. Ever again. That’s when I started to cry. Was I just too sad to be cooking? Still grieving, perhaps, or missing a thing I never realized I was missing until it was too late? I felt like the dumbest human on earth. How could I have stood around 936 times when she was making this dish and not once pay attention? I beat myself up about it at that stove. But ever the patient helpmate, always willing to jump in when I’m in over my head, my husband Bob started Googling “meatball tips,” and while I sobbed on my stool next to the stove at 10:30 a.m., he yelled out suggestions from the other side of the kitchen:

  • “This guy here says drop them in simmering water and poach them for a few minutes before frying so they stay intact and round.”
  • “This one says do the whole thing on a sheet pan.”
  • “Roll them in flour before you fry them.”

All of these, I know, are perfectly reasonable approaches, and some I have even tried in other contexts, but what stung that morning is that she never did any of those things. She never had to poach, bread, or bake them: They went straight into the pan, came out crispy and moist, and if you were lucky (or she wasn’t looking), you could occasionally snag one and pop it in your mouth while she finished the rest of the batch. As you chewed inconspicuously, she’d sear the sausages, and then the onions and garlic, deglazing the pan with wine, and all that lovely pork and beef fat and the tomatoes would come together and the sauce would be well on its way.

In truth, I may never have made her recipe to start with. She would have never mixed ground turkey with beef, as I did. Veal or pork, maybe, but not turkey. And I can’t remember if she soaked her breadcrumbs in milk, but this seemed to me a good way to get more moisture inside and I almost always did, though that morning I might have overdone it and it may have been why they stuck so badly to the pan. When she gave me the recipe, I know from my notes that she told me to use "ground chuck," but in my circles, beef is rarely labeled this way anymore, instead listing only the percentage of fat as a guide: 80/20, 85/15, 90/10 (chuck is actually the middle one here).

That morning, thanks to my rural locale, I was using locally raised, grass-fed, organic ground beef, and I have no idea what the fat ratio was. Even though this is another question I now can’t ask her, I am 100 percent certain that my mother never purchased organic beef in her life. She wouldn’t have seen the point. Did I get the ratio of crumbs right, or the right amount of grated Parmesan? I’m notorious for eyeballing things. Does it matter that it was Romano instead? Also, my eggs were on the big side; was that the problem?

Once I calmed down, I realized one very important thing: I could always try again tomorrow, or next week, or next month. That’s where Mom had the leg up. Come rain or shine, she made that sauce every Sunday—and this, my friends, is how you get to the culinary Carnegie Hall: practice.

Without fail, every Sunday, it appeared on the table around 1 p.m. We all expected it; we all enjoyed it. No one would have ever dared to say, “Sauce again?” (even if they thought it). This was tradition, and we stuck to it.

The griefballs weren’t a complete disaster: Some of them could be salvaged, and simmering in tomato sauce for four hours can mellow any number of blunders. Not surprisingly, several of them fell apart in the sauce, but that is hardly a tragedy; they just made a different kind of meat sauce than I intended. Que sera. It was not bad at all served atop some Ronzoni rotelle, which I try to always have on hand.

I’ve seen a few recipes that suggest you should never cook sauce as long as we do. But the first time out, I nailed this dish and it tasted exactly like hers. And that I do remember: She left the pot simmering on the stove, very low, for hours and hours and hours, and the flavors caramelized and intensified and perfumed the whole house.

You don’t have to do what I do. Figure out how you like it, and make it that way. Taste as you go. Better yet, if you grew up with a Sunday sauce like I did, and if you can, go ask your mother.

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53 Comments

AntoniaJames October 2, 2019
Gary, my mother "collected" (bought at the old Safeway in Fairfax, VA every so often) about 20 cookbooks from the same series / publisher. I'd recognize those drawings and photos anywhere. (The New Orleans edition is particularly good, by the way.)

Ah, food and grief. https://food52.com/blog/7313-essays-the-perfect-gift

Years before my mother passed away, I was asked to contribute family favorite recipes to our children's pre-school cookbook (a fundraiser for The Lake School in Oakland). I took the time then to pull together all of the holiday cookies we enjoyed so much when I was growing up. My mother was a recipe user who typed up and maintained great records of all kinds, including her recipes. Over the years, whenever I went home, I copied the recipes of hers that I liked the most (or got bibliographic citations - we were big on those in our family). I suppose this is a bit different from, and presents an easier use case than, the mother or father who doesn't use recipes at all.

Either way, the lesson is the same - get the information while you can! I will always remember with great fondness the hours I spent at my mother's kitchen table, as an adult with kids of my own, going through those family favorite recipes, talking about them with Mother as she was cooking dinner for her visiting adult children and her grandchildren. I continue to make those holiday favorites every December for all of my siblings, and my nieces and nephew, and my father, who all look forward to, and appreciate those special treats. ;o)
 
TomH October 2, 2019
Gary, great article. Now, to have some of that sauce! Hmmm.
 
Amanda R. September 30, 2019
OMG you made me miss my mama....*sniffle*...she used to make these cookies "galletas", no idea how she made them, it kills me to this day. My son absolutely loved them. I cannot recreate them, I have no way to know or no one to ask. Sound advice everyone, if your mama or daddy or loved one is around ask them now!! write it down!!! xoxox
 
Beth September 30, 2019
Google galleta cookies, there are a zillion recipes for them.
 
Kat September 30, 2019
A zillion recipes, yes, but probably none that tastes like what her mother made. That is the point she was making.
 
lisa_sergi September 30, 2019
Omg: "griefballs." Thank you for a perfect (and perfectly-told) story.
 
Mara R. September 30, 2019
OK, the story is great but that's the most over-manipulated, over-styled, food photo ever. It would take me hours to fuss with all that spaghetti in order to hide the ends. Is it now required to not show the ends of spaghetti strands? I didn't get the memo...
 
Kathy H. September 30, 2019
Your comment regarding the food photo made me curious so I took a close look. I see several spaghetti ends so I'm a bit confused as to why you would post that. I'm sure we all agree that the spaghetti looks delicious, I would love to stick my fork directly into it!
 
Parrish N. September 30, 2019
Ha. So do i!
 
Mara R. September 30, 2019
Next time you make spaghetti and place it in the serving container just notice how all the ends appear. This photo has been fussed with forks twirling gobs of pasta until ends are hidden and all plates have perfect little mounds of strands without ends - except for maybe 3 ends total. Food stylists often do this which you will see in other pasta photos on Food52 but this particular one went so far in hiding ends that I couldn't help but notice. They must think the pasta looks more attractive fussed with like this and apparently they are correct since the 2 commenters are more than ready to stick a fork in it. I will join them since I'm not commenting on the food itself, which looks delicious. I'm just commenting on the food styling itself which jumped out at me with its unnatural appearance of seemingly 'endless' strands.
 
Destiny September 29, 2019
I loved this article even though it made me cry. I've learned the same lessons the hard way. I miss the recipes my grandmother made. It breaks my heart that I can't ask her, and that I'll never taste those things again.
 
Barbara &. September 29, 2019
I too enjoyed this wonderful piece of history! I am Polish American and hardly had Spaghetti and Meatballs until I met my future husband. His Mother taught me how to cook Italian dishes (mostly over the phone). Her recipe is very similar to your Mom's except she used red wine. My Mother-in-law didn't measure anything, so the first time I made her Sauce I had my teenage cousins over to lunch. When I asked their opinion they said it was too sweet! I used a quarter cup of sugar!! Well, after calling Mom she told me she only uses about a tablespoon for her recipe. Since then I have perfected her wonderful recipe and received the greatest compliment from my brother-in-law. He said "your sauce is exactly like Mom's." I couldn't have been prouder. It is a shame when a loved one passes and it's too late to ask for their input as to favorite recipes. I was so used to my Mother bringing Golombki (stuffed cabbage) to our house that when she passed suddenly I had no idea how to make them. Luckily, my aunt showed me and my cousins how to cook this Polish dish and our families now enjoy them. Gary, your story brought back so many memories of both Mothers. Thank you for sharing! May you enjoy many wonderful years cooking this special lady's Sauce and enjoying it with family and friends. The Mom's are watching over all of us -- very Special Angels!!
 
Joan September 29, 2019
Thanks for sharing your story and giving us a peek into your heart. Your mom would be proud! My Brookkyn-born 1st generation Italian mom was an absolute wiz in the kitchen, never following a recipe. Growing up I watched as much as I could and when I moved away and begged for some recipes from her, I would only get a verbal version that I had to write down myself. I think in some ways it was her attempt to make me keep in touch, and like you, even now after her passing over 10 years ago, I get a tug on my heart when I realize I can't call her. But, the interesting part of this was that she always left out an ingredient or two! When I pointed it out to her, she would just attribute it to being forgetful. I would smile and never press her but I think she was just a little proud that I would figure out how to make her signature dishes anyway. Thanks Gary, for reminding me of this and making me smile!
 
Christina September 29, 2019
Thanks for sharing your story. Funny how so many households share this on Sundays.
 
Darby September 29, 2019
I get it. I too tried to recreate recipes of comforting foods that like the people who made them, I assumed would always be there. My Dad’s (not a drop of Italian in him that I know of) Red Sauce, my Grandmother’s midwestern sausage noodle casserole (midwesterners love a good melding of flavor). When I realized the finality of the loss was when I tried to cook the foods that I equated with their love. The recipe was lost forever, by thankfully the love is always with me. I made what I could remember and then added my own to it as I am sure they did too. I could “feel” them watching and nodding in approval. Love teaches.
 
Beth September 29, 2019
What a wonderful story, thank you for sharing your memories. My dad was a "meat and potatoes" man so we seldom had pasta of any kind. I remember my mother, who was a good cook but not of the Italian variety, making something she called marzetti but that's the only noodly thing I remember and I don't have her recipe. But my German mother-in-law had some wonderful recipes that thankfully she wrote down. Her English wasn't the best but I can usually figure out what she meant. My daughter has most of her recipes now and we all have precious memories of visiting and enjoying her cooking.
 
Mary A. September 29, 2019
Hate to add to heartache but chuck is 80/20.
 
Janet L. September 29, 2019
I look forward to my email from Food52 every Sunday. Today’s treat was reading your story and seeing the pictures of “The Italian Cookbook” #6. I still have the one from my Mom along with two others, Hungarian #14, and German and Viennese #20. They were part of a series that were available from the Shop Rite Supermarket in the 50’s for 32 cents each! I often read through them and recall the meals we had when I was growing up in a family of 7, as I come upon the pages with past cooking stains! When I was about 12, my Mom, who had gone back to work, would leave one of the books open to the recipe she wanted me to get started for dinner when I would get home from school. Some pages still have her notes and changes she made. Thanks for stirring up those memories.
 
Diane K. September 29, 2019
You must be from Jersey - Shop-Rite gave you away
 
Author Comment
Gary S. September 29, 2019
Thanks for the Shop-Rite tip off! That may have been where she got hers. I did find some of the other books in the series as I was researching but haven’t seen any in person yet. I’ll keep an eye out...
 
ellemmdee September 29, 2019
Such a lovely tribute. She’s right there on your shoulder, encouraging you every step of the way, so be sad, be happy, and cook away to keep her with you. Incidentally, the greatest compliment I received from my husband was that he liked my sauce better than his mother’s! She didn’t teach me how to make it. My Italian secretary shared her secret which was to brown Italian sweet sausage (out of the casing) in a dutch oven, add good canned tomatoes and other sauce ingredients. Bring to simmer. Assemble the meatballs using good quality, but not overly lean meat, and drop them into the simmering sauce. Works like a charm, flavors the sauce and no frying to struggle with at all.
 
Diane K. September 29, 2019
What a sweet story, I loved watching Mom cook, we are Polish-American & I make a mean "Gawumpkie" (sp.) stuffed cabbage - no specific amount of ingredients, just eyeball it. Mom also made sauce similar to yours, simmered for hours. I can never fry the meatballs right, so I bake them in the oven, thank-you for your story
 
Theodora C. September 29, 2019
Your story is so very sweet and heartfelt. I too grew up with Italian grandparents and food has always been a big component of our lives. My grandparents came from NY to Florida to stay for two months every winter and I would wake up to the smell of garlic every Sunday. It is a treasured memory. We called it gravy when we were kids and it somehow migrated to being g called sauce. I was fortunate that my grandmother took me aside before I went away to college and told me I was going to need to know how to cook a few things. She taught me her Sunday gravy. I’m from a family of six kids and we all know how to cook grandma’s sauce. I do believe it’s in our blood. I was watching a cooking show recently and this stuck with me, “Cuisine reflects what we have inside of us. It’s the story of our lives”. It’s a lovely thought. Thank you for sharing your story.
 
Jade D. September 29, 2019
This was beautiful and made me cry. This is exactly how I learned to make my dad’s sauce and meatballs. I used to love helping him and now it’s a recipe committed to memory. I laughed out loud over the reference to using chuck as the beef of choice because that is EXACTLY what my dad told me. Your recipe feels very close to home. Thank you for sharing.
 
wendie M. September 29, 2019
Funny, I’ve just woken up and my first thought was, “I want spaghetti and meatballs for dinner.” Was feeling s little disjointed and knew this supper would nourish and ground me. Opened my email, read your story, and fell in love with you and your loving tribute. Channeling my great grandmother, her son and my own mother, I’m on my way to the kitchen:)
 
Kimberley H. September 29, 2019
Happy Sunday morning, Gary. What a nice piece! I am planning to make my Sunday sauce, too, just like my Italian grandma, in whose house I was raised. She made her sauce with meatballs or some other meat almost every Sunday! Once in a blue moon she would make a squid sauce. Both of my mother’s parents were of Sicilian ancestry, from the Aeolian Islands just north of Sicily. My father’s parents were born in Italy, near Lake Como. It was like a little message from Heaven to see your story! We miss them and yet they are somehow right here with us. My grandfather was born in 1900, my grandmother in 1906. So, I did want to say that when they learned to cook these recipes, there was no non-organic beef! All the food was organic! I am definitely into getting back to the highest quality food and the old ways of eating. As a naturopathic physician for many years, I of course do encourage organic foods and the variety of fresh meats, fruits, veggies, cheese, nuts, and olive oil, of course! It is truly a gift to have this as an inherent part of ourselves from watching the love and attention put into the food day after day. It stays with us. Thank you so much for your lovely article.
 
Joanne G. September 29, 2019
I learned a lot from this book. I bought it at Fante's at the Italian Market in South Philadelphia in 1972. It was my italian cooking bible for quite awhile. once my Mother in Law passed away, I was at a loss. She taught me everything about italian cooking, but she never wrote anything down, So this book became by everyday bible. I still have it.