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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“I was lucky enough to have a friend whose mother made the most amazing Sunday sauce and I was often there to enjoy it. Funny thing is that she just found me online and called me to offer her condolences when my father passed, I am going to email her now and see if she will share her recipe. I still remember the intoxicating smell wafting into the playroom as we waited to eat. ”
— zoemetro U.
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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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Writer, consultant, cook, Francophile.

15 Comments

Beth P. August 11, 2019
One thing I an tell you right away is grass fed beef does not usually have enough fat to make good meatballs!
 
joyo August 9, 2019
thank you for your story. I remember waiting for my Nonni to finish frying the meatballs because she always cooked the last one a little longer for me to eat. Yum. As the meatballs cooked she would scoop it out with some of the oil and put it into the sauce. She would also put pork country style ribs in the sauce. I would never do this because I am always worried about fat. It was delcicious though.
 
Nikki August 9, 2019
This is a lovely story, and it reminded me, after creating an epic failure of a meal for guests while stressed about our puppy (who was at the vet with serious injuries) that I realized I shouldn't cook when I am upset, because nothing comes out right. Remember 'Like Water for Chocolate' and how her emotions transferred to the food!
 
Eric K. August 9, 2019
I feel this way every time I go home. I hate to say it, but my mom looks visibly older each visit, and it breaks my heart. These recipes are what matter, for sure, but what I appreciate about your piece is that you've put into words the reality of this world: No one gets to say goodbye or to write down their mother's recipes before it's too late. That's kind of the point, the way I see it. Where the meaning lies, at least for me, is the process of trying to recreate a taste memory. There's nothing more authentic (and accurate) than one's taste memory.
 
fatdrunkandfancy August 8, 2019
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.
 
joyo August 9, 2019
I made an account just so I could comment about your beautiful story. Thank you for posting.
 
Jennifer B. August 16, 2019
That is the sweetest story of your grandpa. Bless him and bless you for appreciating him and carrying on the tradition. Makes me tear up.
 
Donna F. August 7, 2019
My mother had the same cook book she got in school and many of her best Italian recipes cane from there and her grandmother, an Italian immigrant. I live it. Its a proceed treasure. My sister has been trying to get it for years but that's not gonna happen! My mom passed away in 2004 and I miss her and her cooking every day.
 
Linda August 7, 2019
Have you tried looking on eBay for a copy for your sister.
 
Ange C. August 7, 2019
Beautiful story Gary! I love how you were shirtless in the pic with your Mom making Christmas cookies – just like my 12-year-old son (who doesn't pay attention when I'm cooking either).
 
Jayeno August 6, 2019
I watched a few more times, but had the luxury of making it with her towards the end of her (short) life; it was one of the most wonderful things she ever taught me about cooking. I wish I had paid greater attention to her baking. Too late, but I got the gravy down pat. My friends don’t get the difference between a gravy and a sauce....MEAT baby meat
 
Dana E. August 6, 2019
One thing I love about sauce and being Italian-American - everyone does it differently so there's always a new version to try. Never made sauce with white wine (only red). I'm excited to try this out. Thanks Gary for sharing your recipe and the story of your mom!
 
Linda August 6, 2019
I have that very same cookbook. I don’t think I’ve ever made any of the recipes
But I enjoy reading my many cookbooks for ideas. I too am Italian who had a mother who was a excellent cook and made the best apple pies. I learned to cook all of our family recipes by observing my mom in the kitchen. Nothing was really written down.. It has been a challenge writing recipes for my children to follow but I’ve done my best and our traditions will be passed on to future generations.
 
zoemetro U. August 6, 2019
Thank you for such a touching story. I was lucky enough to have a friend whose mother made the most amazing Sunday sauce and I was often there to enjoy it. Funny thing is that she just found me online and called me to offer her condolences when my father passed, I am going to email her now and see if she will share her recipe. I still remember the intoxicating smell wafting into the playroom as we waited to eat.
 
Kitchamajig August 6, 2019
What a lovely story. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Now I want to call my mom and, of course, make some sauce.