Essay

Grief, With a Side of Baked Ziti

After unexpectedly losing her mother, one writer uses a beloved meal to connect the past to the present—and negotiate the future.

March 13, 2021
Photo by James Ransom. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Kate Buckens.

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.


They say everyone has their own love language, their unique way of showing people that they care. For my mom, that language was, unmistakably, food.

Growing up, she taught me that gooey brownies were the best way to cheer someone up; that you didn’t dare go to a friend’s house without a cake in hand; that you should always have an extra loaf of crusty Italian bread on hand, “just in case”; and that adding cheese to most things can make life’s problems suddenly feel a whole lot more manageable.

My mom’s signature recipe was her sauce: A third-generation Italian, she had learned very early in life how to make my great-grandmother Nannie’s classic bolognese recipe. Every Sunday of my childhood was designated Sauce Day, a multi-hour event that kicked off midmorning—complete with the rituals of stirring and tasting, never measuring, trusting your wooden spoon to let you know when there was enough of an ingredient, and when this rich meat sauce was done and ready to be paired with pasta. Despite our being a family of just three, this exceptional Sunday sauce was designed to serve 10, and any leftovers were meticulously packed up and frozen, usually in the Chinese takeout containers my parents washed and saved specifically for that purpose.

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When I left home to go to college one state away, my mom started driving up to visit, with a big red and white cooler seatbelted into the back seat of her red-wine-colored sedan, transporting the most precious of cargo: frozen containers of her sauce, made especially for me. From her perspective, this was nonnegotiable—it was her responsibility to make sure I always had some on hand, just in case I got homesick. Five hours by car and six slightly defrosted containers later, she would arrive, double-parking outside my dorm, telling me how much she’d missed me. And later, when she’d head back home, the sauce would remain, tucked away in my freezer for all those days when she wasn’t around.

The writer with her mother. Photo by Joelle Zarcone

This tradition continued for more than 15 years, well after I graduated college. When I moved cross-country and a cooler in a car would no longer cut it, she’d arrive at my doorstep with her trusty pot and wooden spoon, setting up shop in my apartment to make enough sauce to last until her next visit.

That sauce was the key ingredient of my favorite dinner—Italian baked ziti. This was the meal my mom made to celebrate special occasions, including my birthday. If there wasn’t any freezer sauce available, she’d make a fresh batch, always calling out from the kitchen as she was slicing the mozzarella. Her thick New York accent would travel across the house, letting me know there was extra cheese available to dunk into the simmering sauce on the stove, you know, just in case I wanted some. (I always did.) It didn’t matter how old I was, she still used that baked ziti to remind me how happy she was that I was around.

It was also the meal my mom made the first time my now husband visited my parents’ house, and the dinner she always made the day I’d arrive home for the holidays. If we were together, it was worth a celebration, and her love spilled into every meal she touched.

If there wasn’t any freezer sauce available, she’d make a fresh batch, always calling out from the kitchen as she was slicing the mozzarella. Her thick New York accent would travel across the house, letting me know there was extra cheese available to dunk into the simmering sauce on the stove, you know, just in case I wanted some. I always did.

In March of last year, shortly after the pandemic had begun to take hold in the United States, my mom was diagnosed with stage II cancer. It caught us by complete surprise, as cancer is apt to do. While the chemotherapy didn’t, thankfully, wreck her the way it does many, it caused her to lose her hair and—perhaps most unfortunately from her perspective—her appetite. Nothing tasted quite right anymore, and the exhaustion caused by her treatments left her eating applesauce and Jell-O more often than the Italian recipes she’d made for 60 years.

Midsummer, she experienced a complication from chemo that we’d never anticipated, nor even known was possible: stubborn blood clots that traveled up to her lungs, making it difficult for her to breathe. When she first went into the hospital, she would detail each of her meals for me during our frequent phone calls, especially tickled when the head cook stopped by to ask how she was enjoying the food. She was impressed to see the pride he had in his food service—it felt similar to how she felt about the meals she cooked for her own family.

We thought she’d be in and out of hospital, but within 10 days of being there, her situation took a turn for the worse. Shortly after midnight on a Friday in July, she became unable to catch her breath and was put on a ventilator. Two days later and one month before my birthday, as I stood at her bedside rubbing her legs under the piles of blankets and sobbing through layers of cloth face masks, my mom—my best friend—left me forever.

It took weeks for the shock to wear off, and I clung to the tangible pieces of my mom I still had left: an old sweatshirt, her favorite ring, her notebook of recipes (a black and white composition book, weathered and stained with use). And that one last container of her sauce, tucked deep into my freezer back home, saved from the last time she’d come to visit.

One evening in the fall, three months after she left us, I defrosted it. As I served my dad and husband that warm California evening, I began to cry. It felt like she’d died all over again; her sauce had been such a real reminder of her unending love and care, and now it was finally, truly gone.

I had resisted making her sauce for years, even before she got sick, because I felt like it could never taste the same. I also didn’t have a real recipe to go off of; while she’d given me the baked ziti recipe a long time ago, there was no entry in her notebook for the sauce. All I had was the list of ingredients (saved from the last time she’d made me a grocery list), and my memory of the verbal instructions she called out as she cooked. With my freezer empty, though, I decided it was time.

One evening in the fall, three months after she left us, I defrosted it. As I served my dad and husband that warm California evening, I began to cry. It felt like she’d died all over again; her sauce had been such a real reminder of her unending love and care, and now it was finally, truly gone.

I spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of November poring over old text message conversations and emails about cooking that I’d received from her throughout the years, and racked my brain to recall kitchen scenes from my childhood to remember the order in which she poured things into the pot. It took two Sundays worth of trial and error over the stove to finally piece the recipe together. That second Sunday, I knew from the moment I smelled the sauce simmering in my kitchen that it was a success—it smelled just like my mom’s.

That week, I made a big tray of baked ziti to celebrate my mom’s life, using her recipe, which is now mine, too. It was just for my husband and me, but I made enough to serve a much larger table, because that’s what my mom would’ve done. And when it came time to slice the mozzarella, I looked around my quiet kitchen and called out to no one in particular that we could now dunk it in the simmering sauce if we wanted. I did.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mimi
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    judi bailey
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    tattooedwitch73
  • cibocibo
    cibocibo
Writer/editor in SoCal. Always hungry.

37 Comments

Mimi April 7, 2021
Thank you so much for sharing your mother's memory and her recipe. I too am extremely close to my mother. I made this dish in honor of your mom and said a prayer over it for our Easter dinner. Everyone in my family loved it! I sent some Sunday Sauce home with my parents who enjoyed it so much. Praying that your heart is filled with joy in knowing how many smiles this recipe has made. Blessings.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. April 8, 2021
I’m so glad your family enjoyed it. Thank you so much for letting me know, and for the prayer — I appreciate it.
 
Judy W. March 28, 2021
Thank you for this, not so much the recipe but sharing your love for your mom. I also lost my mom recently and her hand written recipes are the only heirloom I need.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 29, 2021
Thank you, and I’m so sorry for your loss.
 
judi B. March 20, 2021
Hello and big thankyou to Lisa from Australia.
Appreciate your guidance , hope you are enjoying your move.
Best regards Judi
 
tattooedwitch73 March 20, 2021
Sitting here reading the story of your family traditions, reminds me so much of the time I spent with my grandma growing up & learning her way of cooking. Later on living in a blended household with her and my aunt...having my grandma show me more of her special recipes. And like your mom, we never cooked for just the 5 of us in the house, it was always for a small army. My grandma's dish that she passed on to me was her vegetable soup...like your sauce, it was an all day adventure. Now when I make it for me and my fiancé, I still end up in the giant stock pot. I cooked this soup and others during the lockdown to help out my neighbors who are shut-ins, because that is how my grandma taught me, you help take care of your neighbors.
I am so very sorry on the loss of your mom, I understand because it has been 17yrs since my grandma passed and it only seems like yesterday, typing this with tears in my eyes...
So I wish you and yours, much peace & love...
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 20, 2021
Your comment brought tears to my eyes -- thank you so much for sharing your memories with me.
 
cibocibo March 18, 2021
Joelle - I am truly sorry for your loss. As soon as I saw baked ziti on the F52 I immediately clicked to read because my family shares the similar sentiments and memories around the same dish. The part where you wrote about how your mother would call from the kitchen while slicing the mozzarella hit home from me and took me right back to childhood memories with my grandmother. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story and tribute to your mother with us
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 19, 2021
Thank you for reading it, and I love that you have a similar memory!
 
judi B. March 17, 2021
Thank you so much for your beautiful story and recipe. I live in Australia and we dont have the brand Hunts...for the tomato sauce is it a paste or ? trying to replica the products here...i think there is some very good gourmet crushed tomato Italian brands here. Look forward to following you.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 17, 2021
Thank you so much! So the cans of tomato sauce are small cans that contain liquid and literally labeled “tomato sauce” on them... there is also tomato paste in the recipe, but that’s separate ingredient (and we didn’t have a brand preference). No problem if you can’t find Hunt’s (that’s just the brand my mom always stuck to) but just try to choose a brand that you know has good quality tomatoes, because it makes a real taste difference. (Sorry if that’s not very helpful!)
 
Lia S. March 18, 2021
Hi Judi I am also in Australia (Just moved up the coast from Sydney). I checked out Hunts online and my guess is a good quality passata would work (Mutti is my favourite brand). I am Italian of background, my mum was a brilliant cook and she used passata and tom paste in her pasta sauce - it was divine! All the best!
 
Carol W. March 17, 2021
Tears in eyes, lump in throat. My daughter is now 23 and living on her own, but still nearby. I am constantly plying her with treats, soups, bread from my kitchen. More for me than for her because it’s my way of holding her close. You wrote your mother’s deep love for you into that story so beautifully. My heart goes out to you.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 17, 2021
Thank you for sharing that... keep bringing her food — she’ll surely always remember those gestures and moments, as I do.
 
Megan March 15, 2021
I just texted the link to this article to my Mom. Your remembrance made me tearful and mirrors my fondest memories of my mother, affectionately dubbed "The Food Pusher" by my husband :)
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 15, 2021
My mom and my great-grandma were both known as a “food pusher” too (in a good way). :) Thanks for reading!
 
Stout March 15, 2021
I didn't expect to be standing in the kitchen crying but here I am. What a beautiful mom and a beautiful story. I am so sorry for your loss. I will definitely be making her recipe. Thank you for sharing it.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 15, 2021
Thank you so much!
 
Liz S. March 15, 2021
I am so very sorry for your loss, but this is a beautiful memory - memorial to your beloved Mom. I know there will be difficult days as well as wonderful memories and I wish you the best as you negotiate the path of grief ... which is NOT linear. Sharing your story ... it is helpful to me (a recent loss in my life) as well as I am looking forward to trying the recipe. I am so happy that you found your success with a beloved recipe.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 15, 2021
Thank you! You’re right, it’s very much not linear. I’m so sorry for your loss as well.
 
Carl C. March 15, 2021
What a beautiful tribute to your mom. I'm so, so sorry for your loss.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 15, 2021
Thank you!
 
Lia S. March 14, 2021
I am sitting here bawling my eyes out as I read your beautiful story. I am also of Italian heritage and lost my mum 12 years ago to cancer. I have a similar story to your pasta sauce - terrified it would never be the same and would disappoint the family. It took time but one day, the aroma was perfect and I knew I had arrived! Thank you from Australia for your beautiful story - it made my day!
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 15, 2021
Thank you so much for sharing that, though I’m so sorry you lost your mom to cancer as well.

Thanks for reading!
 
Harriet March 14, 2021
Your beautiful story of how your Mother showed her love for you, especially through her lovingly prepared meals, was heartwarming and very uplifting. Thank you so much for sharing it during these difficult times.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 14, 2021
Thank you so much for reading it!
 
Joseph G. March 14, 2021
What style of ricotta do you prefer?
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 14, 2021
I always use the whole milk kind, in a tub — that’s what my mom and grandma always used. (It’s best for flavor, but you could also use part-skim instead.)
 
witloof March 13, 2021
Your words brought tears to my eyes. How lucky you were to have such a lovely, loving mother.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 13, 2021
Thank you so much, and yes -- I feel like the luckiest to have had her while I did.
 
Wes March 13, 2021
I’m sorry for your loss.....
Your story inspires me to pass on the same kind of love to my family that you mother embodied. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 13, 2021
Thank you so much! I know my mom would appreciate that too!.
 
Arati M. March 13, 2021
Your lovely mama sounds much like mine—and this beautiful, heartbreaking essay makes me want to find ways to treasure every day with her even more than ever... So sorry for your loss, Joelle—humbled that you shared your story with us. Thinking of you, your dad, and family.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 13, 2021
Thank you so much! I know my mom would have been SO delighted to see her recipes here.
 
Monica E. March 13, 2021
What a beautiful piece. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing a little bit of you Mom's love with us.
 
Author Comment
Joelle Z. March 13, 2021
Thank you!
 
My F. April 11, 2021
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