…and a few tangential musings.
No secret, I unabashedly adore Italian cuisine – I can’t wait to eat my way through to Italy again one day. Also, I have already pre-planned my earthly exit to include a week-long rager of olive oil, garlic, cheese and pasta. Wine will be served. And while I freely admit to having only trace amounts of what might include Italian DNA, I’m going to wade into dangerous territory and talk about Sunday sauce. Or gravy. Or ragù. The exact nomenclature is up for debate from Brooklyn to Fort Lee, but down here in the land of cokes, y’alls and fixin’s, I’m sticking with sauce.
“…I didn’t have an Italian grandmother with a secret family recipe to pass down.”
Me, In Defense of Marginally Sexy Food, 2.1.2022
Genetics notwithstanding, I do know a few things to be true. Sunday sauce is neither a fussy recipe nor a bright, delicate weeknight supper. It has zero co-dependency on fresh herbs or butter or even a well-timed splash of white wine. Cooking this sauce is a communal experience that borders on a forced march, but with delicious rewards and jovial company (in the end.) Most importantly it cannot be simply thrown together after work – it is never unplanned, accidental or last-minute. Rather, it is a serious commitment, flavored almost exclusively with various cuts of beef and pork which are simmered for hours…and hours.
You should know going in that this dish is defined by three non-negotiable elements: meat, time and family. As the chef, you too need to be hearty and robust on every level to keep up. Our kitchen became a little rowdy and raucous, which is part of the whole affair. If you want to make it vegetarian, it’s not really a Sunday sauce. If you are in a hurry, it’s not Sunday sauce. If you want to be alone, fuggedaboutit. Just make something else.
There is no singular right way or magic recipe, but I quickly found that there is also no shortage of self-righteous guidelines or ridiculously high expectations. The sauce is ritual and so tightly woven into Italian-American culture that even madigans like me crave the experience. Honestly I have been planning on making it ever since I collected my favorite movies clips about food:
Then last week Sous Chef and I discussed having a meat-a-thon, and since we had grown tired of the mixed grill approach, Sunday sauce fit the bill. I had been researching recipes and chose the three above to help us along, but per usual, providence or happenstance or whatever chimed in. BF Stanley Tucci made my sauce in London on his Sunday night show. Stanley, we have to stop meeting like this, people will talk. Maybe I’m hyper-focused or maybe I’m just plain lucky, but these kinds of happy little coincidences happen a lot these days.
I love finding patterns and I love finding context. So there’s this thing called frequency illusion or the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It occurs when you learn or encounter something totally brand new and then it improbably, almost obnoxiously, seems to pop up everywhere. It’s like a glitch in the Matrix – it could be a word, a taste or a color. Really, anything. Because this occurrence has a name and because that name uses the terms illusion and phenomenon, I guess few of my happy moments, such as the idea of Sunday sauce ramming itself into my consciousness, are actually divine or cosmic. But then this kind of stuff happens:
The point is, all of this silliness is a glaring reminder that we should pay more attention to the details and nuances around us. Frequency illusion is indeed a uniquely pleasing phenomenon, even if for only the fleeting moment when our brains put it all together. It makes the most boring days more fun, the fun days more meaningful and the challenging days more rewarding. Even if I can only pretend the universe is talking directly to me, I’ll take that over cold silence any day. We’ve had a crappy couple of years, and it ain’t over yet, so why not create your own serendipity and karma?
Luck is only part of the equation when recreating a hallowed tradition, so we did some old-fashioned research for this project. Sous Chef often noticed a litany of complaints (masquerading as suggestions) in the recipe comments section. They ranged from pointless substitutions to “my mother never did it that way” and wavered between whiny and superior. In all fairness, human nature makes us want to constantly customize, improve and refine. I’m all for going off-script, but some things in life just need to stand alone. They beg the phrase “it is what it is.” In Japanese it comes off a bit more depressing, shigata ga nai meaning it cannot be helped. In this case “helped” doesn’t mean improved upon, but rather changed. Perhaps not everything has to be fixed. At worse, the idea of leaving well-enough alone could be interpreted as defeatist or inflexible. Maybe a gentle dose of pragmatism softens the blow.
This is one of the more difficult and wholly underrated lessons in life: some things are simply immovable despite our best efforts or intentions, like the sun rising, the march of time or making the Sunday sauce. Acceptance is not always a loss any more than change is always a win. Isn’t there always room for more, something new? Must everything be corrective? Subtractive instead of additive? Just a thought.
Once again I successfully strayed slightly out of my lane and we all gorged ourselves on thick, savory pasta and sauce. Monday night never had it so good. Sous Chef made a small caprese salad to cushion the blow while Food Taster announced it was the best he’s ever had. That’s saying something – the boy lives on pasta and Parmesan cheese. This meaty indulgence absolutely cannot be a weekly or even monthly event for us, but like my brisket it will be ceremoniously resurrected several times a year, probably whenever Sous Chef comes home. So never enough.
a final thought: I simply couldn’t post this at my usual 8:00am on Wednesday – as a mother, former educator and living, breathing human being I’m deeply shaken by the latest school shootings. Again. Yesterday morning the weekly New York Times Cooking email was sitting in my inbox. My first thought was outage at the title, “Cooking and Grief.” How could they possibly intrude on this horror? But last night I finally read it and here is my takeaway:
Food plays a central role in our reaction to tragedy, to death and grieving. It’s why casseroles appear on the doorsteps and countertops of those experiencing it, why we feel the urge to roast chickens or assemble lasagnas when the news is grim. Food is comfort of a sort, and fuel as well, for anger and sorrow alike. We cook to provide for those we love and for ourselves. In the activity itself we strive to find relief, strength, resolve.Sam Sifton, NYT Cooking, 5.25.22
I agree with it all in theory, but don’t feel any better having read it. But I’m pretty sure that was never the intention. We shouldn’t feel better.
- The cuts of meat are up for grabs but a blend of at least two types of beef and pork seems standard. Meatballs, sausages, ribs, shoulder and even braciole have been thrown around. Chef’s choice really.
- Pasta is also negotiable, but we used imported and bronze cut penne because I didn’t have rigatoni and couldn’t go back to the store a third time in one day. I was laughed at last time it happened. By the cashier, not my family.
- Salt the pasta water generously. Do it.
- Take the al dente part seriously! The pasta continues to cook (DO NOT RINSE IN COLD WATER.) Save a little starchy water if you need to dilute the sauce and pasta mixture at the end.
- I used a large enameled Dutch oven and was happy – considerably less messy than I anticipated.
- If the recipe calls for 2-3 hours on the stove I’d double it and let that sauce cook at a lazy simmer for 5-6 hours.
- I did pull out the meats before serving and toss the pasta in the plain sauce. Everything was then put back together and plated. This is not how I grew up. Apparently WASPs ladle the meat sauce on top of the noodles.