Travel

My Time-Traveling Bowl of Spaghetti & Meat Sauce

On the transporting powers of a simple dish my mother made every week of my childhood.

July 17, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

It always starts the same. I slick the bottom of my biggest enameled cast iron pot with a glug of olive oil then, thwap! I plop in a brick of fatty ground beef or pork, reveling in the crackling applause as its edges start to caramelize. I sprinkle the browned meat with salt before scooping it out and tipping in a heap of diced onions, their familiar sizzle and aroma wrapping me in a warm embrace.

From there, the meat sauce I’ve cooked faithfully throughout my adulthood can take up a hundred tiny variations before I toss it with pasta and shove comforting heaps of it in my face. Most often, it involves plenty of chopped garlic, pureed tomatoes, a handful of torn herbs, and maybe a splash of last night’s red wine.

But now that a pandemic has largely confined me within the walls of my Chicago apartment, with nary a dinner reservation or far-flung trip on the horizon, meat sauce, in its endless comfy guises, carries a weightier load—of transporting me somewhere else until I reach the bottom of the bowl.

Maybe instead I build a rich ragù from a base of minced celery, carrots, onion, and garlic and a trio of pork, beef, and lean veal. It's tinged with wine and a wad of rust-colored tomato paste, then slowly stewed for hours until each element melds and concentrates into a burnished paste.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“The ground beef was delivered by a local cattle farmer weekly. BUT! My Noni had a secret ingredient she would not share that made the neighbours drool as the aromas wafted from her windows. It is now my secret. ”
— Bobbie
Comment

Thinning it with starchy pasta water and tossing a few modest spoonfuls with al dente rigatoni and a velvety drizzle of olive oil takes me to the airy, serene dining rooms of Chicago’s finer-dining Italian restaurants, where the elegant handmade pastas glisten with just enough sauce to coat each noodle.

Then again, if I spoon a thick layer of that same meaty paste over a plate of oil-glossed spaghetti noodles, I’m teleported to the candlelit dining room with frescoed walls of Italian Village, my favorite century-old, Italian-American eatery in Chicago, where I’ve ordered the same $16 spaghetti with (extra) meat sauce since age seven.

Meat sauce, in its endless comfy guises, carries a weightier load—of transporting me somewhere else until I reach the bottom of the bowl.

If, perhaps, I make a batch using just ground pork with its sausagey essence, and up the tomato quota, sprinkle in dried fennel, and drop in a cinnamon stick, I am suddenly whisked to a long, wood communal table opposite a bustling, pint-sized Chicago food stall called Thattu, which slings soothing curries from the south Indian state of Kerala. My spicy facsimile almost channels Thattu’s warming winter stew known as pork peralan, with hunks of tender pork in cumin-scented tomato curry—whose reddish oil slick stains my fingers as I scoop it up with lacey appam, a tangy fermented rice crepe.

From time to time, I’ll instead form the ground beef into fat meatballs studded with minced garlic and bread crumbs, and brown them before plunking them into an herby red gravy equally scented with garlic. On those special days, my meatballs and gravy take me far beyond the confines of my hometown, to the swampy Louisiana town of Westwego that dips down along the Mississippi River coastline just south of New Orleans.

There, a creaking, 74-year-old roadhouse called Mosca’s comforts me with fat Gulf oysters broiled beneath thick, golden bread crumb roofs, and piles of spaghetti with tender meatballs doused in that same garlicky red sauce. Even after I leave, I can still smell the aroma of garlic sizzling in oil, hanging thick in the humid air above Highway 90.

Rarer still, I procure a couple of pork or beef bones from the butcher and make stock to lay the foundation for the mother of all meat sauces: Bolognese. I render pancetta and fatty ground beef with mirepoix in a decadent bath of sizzling butter before adding tomato puree and a few cupfuls of my homemade stock. After hours of weakly bubbling, the mixture gets stained orange with whole milk then showered with grated Parmesan.

The buttery, rich sauce clings to the eggy pappardelle ribbons I twirl around my fork, while meanwhile I flit to lovely Bologna, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. After a winter’s afternoon wending through the old town beneath its many arched porticos bathed in slanting, golden light, my companions and I stumble upon a little trattoria down a narrow street. In the slim dining room lined with shelves full of wine bottles, we pass around a shallow bowl of gramigna Bolognese, which is mostly hidden beneath an avalanche of shaved Parmesan.


Lately though, as the long sequestered weeks wear on, I’ve been longing for a return trip to a very specific meat sauce. It's the sauce that stirred in me a lifelong appetite for this dish, which my mom made every week when I was a kid.

She always began hers the same way, too. “Start with chopped onion in butter then 80 percent ground beef,” she writes, not 30 seconds after I texted requesting the method. Her version, born in Sudbury, Massachusetts some time in the mid ‘80s, always included a can of Hunt’s tomato sauce, a few teaspoons of garlic powder, and a sprinkling each of dried basil and oregano—its sweet peppery and minty notes recall the jarred Pregos and Ragús of so many American childhoods.

Midway through my first bite, I’m suddenly four years old, with sauce on my face and splattered like polka dots all over the front of my one-piece bathing suit. I’ve just taken a break from swimming in the plastic wading pool in the backyard to eat spaghetti with Mom’s meat sauce on a sagging paper plate, as the August sun dips behind the tops of the towering oak trees.

I haven’t really traveled anywhere yet, but the world feels wide open. And all the joy I need sits before me, waiting to be twirled onto my fork.


Pasta with Mom-Daughter Hybrid Meat Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Serves 3

Ingredients

  • Olive oil, as needed
  • 1 pound 80% lean ground beef
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 medium yellow onion, small diced
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 fat cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • One 28-ounce can strained or crushed tomatoes
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method

  1. Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high with a few teaspoons of olive oil. When oil slides easily around the pan, plop in ground beef. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until caramelized and no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn off heat, and stir in oregano, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Transfer beef to a plate, and set aside.

  2. Wipe out any moisture from pot, turn heat back on medium, and add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Tip in the chopped onions, a large pinch of salt and the red pepper flakes; sauté, stirring occasionally until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and sauté for another minute. Add browned beef, stir in tomato paste, and cook for 2-3 minutes, until mixture turns rust-colored. Add tomatoes and another pinch of salt. Add water about ¼ the way up the tomato can, swirl it around, and add that to the sauce, too, scraping any brown bits off the bottom with a wooden spoon. Bring heat up to medium high, cover pot and let sauce come to a boil. Turn heat down to simmering (a steady bubble), and cook, partially covered, for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. During final minutes of cooking, swirl in butter, check seasoning, and adjust with salt and pepper.

  3. When sauce is nearly done, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. With a measuring cup, steal ⅓ or so cup of starchy pasta water. With tongs add cooked pasta to meat sauce, tossing feverishly until well coated. Thin with pasta water if needed. Cut the heat, add half the basil and Parmesan, and toss again. Plate, and garnish with remaining basil and cheese.

Is there a dish you cook that helps transport you all over the world? Let us know in the comments.

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bobbie
    Bobbie
  • alexisfromtexas
    alexisfromtexas
  • Rebecca Melancon
    Rebecca Melancon
  • goatini
    goatini
  • Madeline Shea
    Madeline Shea
Comment
Maggie Hennessy

Written by: Maggie Hennessy

14 Comments

Bobbie July 26, 2020
I learned how to prepare my Noni's sauce in her farmhouse kitchen on the wood stove 60 years ago. Nothing was "canned". Tomatoes were from her enormous garden as was her garlic, oregano, and all the essential herbs. The ground beef was delivered by a local cattle farmer weekly. BUT! My Noni had a secret ingredient she would not share that made the neighbours drool as the aromas wafted from her windows. It is now my secret.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 27, 2020
Noni's sauce sounds like pure heaven! I can almost taste it. And you always need to hang onto at least one secret. :)
 
Chef J. July 28, 2020
What fun is a new recipe if the writer doesn't include the secret ingredient?
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 28, 2020
I haven't withheld any secrets here!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 28, 2020
But I support keeping certain things for you and yours in the kitchen.
 
Bobbie July 28, 2020
It stimulates experiment in your kitchen! You'd be amazed when a "secret ingredient" in a dish offers the challenge to exude bragging rights and who knows where that can lead?!
 
alexisfromtexas July 26, 2020
I'm missing Italian Village so much. It's only across the river, but seems so much futher away....
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 27, 2020
It is a true hug of a restaurant! And it's always there for you. <3
 
Rebecca M. July 26, 2020
What a lovely piece of writing. I grew up in NOLA and it's such a delight to encounter writing that talks about food like this. Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 27, 2020
Rebecca, I can't thank you enough for these kind words! I can't really imagine a better city to grow up in--so rich. Thank you for reading. <3
 
goatini July 22, 2020
You have made my (isolated) morning with your memory of Mosca's. A great NOLA night way back in the day was dinner at Mosca's, and then a good show at Ole Man Rivers. I am pleased to find such good food writing here.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 22, 2020
Oh, Mosca's! There's no place like it, you know/ I'm beyond thrilled that this stirred up some lovely memories for you, and thank you for the kind words. They mean so much.
 
Madeline S. July 20, 2020
Great story, brings up some amazing memories!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 22, 2020
Thanks and love you, Mommy.