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Well sauced

(article, Nancy Rommelmann)

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Sauce. 

What does that word bring to mind? Booze, sometimes. Or a three-ingredients-only, each-grown-within-100-miles, long-simmered affair.

Maybe, like many of us, you see a glass jar, perhaps graced with a portrait of Paul Newman. Personally, I like his marinara sauce.

That I don’t often buy Mr. Newman’s sauce has nothing to do with being a food snob and everything to do with preferring my own, a tomato sauce with “chop meat” (as hamburger was called in New York when I was a kid) that I learned from my mother, who learned it from her mother. Or maybe my father’s mother, which makes more sense, my father’s mother being from the northern Italian city of Bobbio. Whichever the case, the sauce never had a name more than “sauce.” 

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo: © Culinate" caption="Sauce like Nana used to make."]

Maybe this is an Italian thing, or a New York Italian thing; whenever I hear Tony Soprano refer to “sauce,” I know he’s not talking about carbonara but ragù, or red sauce with meat, maybe a little sauseeg. The kind of sauce you buy in a jar, except that you make this sauce from scratch. Which sounds like a waste of time — until you taste it.

With all that American cooks have learned about the foods of the world, about seasonal and regional and unassailably virgin oils, why would we revert to a recipe based on Hunt’s canned tomato sauce and dried oregano that (in my mother’s case) has been in the pantry since the Reagan administration? We can’t, after all, dine on nostalgia — a point I recently learned upon biting into an “I loved these when I was 15!” Hostess Fruit Pie and finding it about as delicious as cherry-flavored NyQuil. 

I’ve decided that the answer must be this: There are dozens of brands of jarred tomato sauce not just because they’re convenient but because we like them. Even when a jarred sauce is bad, we kind of like it, while a well-made one is like a greatest-hits of flavors: salty, tangy, a little sweet, a little spice. 

While I once did have a friend’s mother plop a plate of plain spaghetti in front of me and hand me a bottle of ketchup — an event that even as an 8-year-old I knew was dead wrong — I did not as a child eat jarred sauce. Instead, every month my mother made two gallons of sauce, which she’d ladle into stained-from-the-last-batch-of-sauce Tupperware and stick in the freezer, thus assuring there was always something to eat, something we kids could thaw for ourselves. When I was 10, she taught me how to make the sauce.

[%image hunts width=175 float=right caption="The secret ingredient."]

“Don’t stir too much,” she said, standing over my shoulder, showing me how not to break up the meat, browning in the bottom of a large heavy Le Creuset pot, which already contained sautéed onion. “Turn the flame low, lower,” she instructed, because the sauce needed to simmer for three hours. Always, three hours.

It’s an easy recipe. By the time I was in high school, I had mastered it; as I got older, I made it often, on the assumption that one was supposed to have it on hand. As the years went by, my pasta-sauce repertoire grew to include homemade pesto, and a rough chop of Roma tomatoes and fresh basil quickly swished in a pan of hot butter, and a mélange of sun-dried tomatoes, pancetta, garlic confit, and ricotta salata. The people I love, they eat all these things; they’re happy to be fed. And yet, the question I most often get, the one delivered with dewy eyes and expectant expressions, is, “Do you have any of your mom’s sauce?”

The reasons why this sauce is so appreciated long eluded me. It does not rely on fresh ingredients; there are no special techniques. What it does require is a little time, a little tending. It’s made in big batches because you never know when you’re going to need to feed people, and it keeps in the freezer forever. It’s soothing and it’s there in a pinch. It is, I suppose, everything we expect of a good recipe, and for that matter, a good mother.

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I have been feeding said sauce to my own daughter since her infancy. Now 17 and thus constantly hungry, she’s accustomed to pulling a container out of the freezer at will, something she does so often and for so many friends that, recently, the unthinkable happened: there was no sauce left to thaw. “I guess it’s time you learn to make it yourself,” I told her.  

So I showed her how to chop the onions (“not too small”) and how to use the cup of her hand rather than measuring spoons for the dried herbs. “Lower,” I said, as I watched her turn down the flame in order for the sauce to simmer. Three hours later, we were eating pasta.

“You make a nice sauce,” I told her.

“Yes,” she said. “Nana’s sauce.”

p(bio). Nancy Rommelmann lives in Portland, Oregon. Her writing appears in the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, Portland Monthly, and Bon Appétit, among other publications.


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