“You make the sauce today”, said my mother: A Memoir

Actually what she said was Oggi lo fai tu il sugo.  What? Is she mad? I thought, appalled. Okay, let me clarify a little known fact for you, dear readers.  If you assumed that I grew up watching my mother cook, precariously standing on a kitchen chair next to the stove, eager and involved, well, you’d be totally picturemistaken.  It is a general misconception,  gathered in my many, many years in the US, that allItalian girls were born with a thorough knowledge of the cooking arts, destined to become accomplished cooks.  Not so.  Sure, some, of course, probably many, but notall.  Not me.  Once I graduated from the childish fantasy games I played with my sister (and, sometimes, brother), and often also with my cousin, my interest took the drastic, though natural, swing toward all things boys.  That is, shopping for clothes that would entice boys, ditto for shoes; reading romantic novels that involved the usual tall, dark and handsome boys with names like Darcy, Vincenzo, and such. And slowly dying to excruciatingly sad songs performed by pop star boys, thinking about the ones (boys) who colored my teenage dreams.  And that’s about it.  Thus, when my mother, on a bright late spring day, demanded (out of the blue!) that I make the sauce for the pasta that day, I was horrified.  Fact is, she was rushing off to an after-school workshop, having been home from teaching only half an hour or so, time promptly used up by the daily food shopping at the fresh market.  So she emptied her shopping satchel on the Formica kitchen table and ran off.  I can’t cook! I was screaming after her, already out the front door.  Sure you can, you’ve seen me make sauce all your life, she shrugged, impatient.  Seen: key word.  I had also seen my favorite singer play flawless guitar on stage…However, I had no choice.  Pasta had to appear on the table fairly soon, when my siblings checked in for lunch, and my father would arrive shortly after.  Okay, I knew she used a pot.  I grabbed the small, dented tegamino that looked pretty familiar, placed it on the stove, and started looking around.  Well, yes, of course, tomatoes, like the bottled ones she had had the country women prepare for us last summer (always one hundred bottles, that I remembered well, because we had to schlepp the damn things up to the fifth floor, a few at a time, and the tiny, temperamental elevator wasn’t always available).  So pour in, what, half a bottle? Yeah, that looked about the right amount.  Next, splash in some extra-virgin olive oil, good pinch of salt.  Now the odori, the flavorings.  I gingerly grabbed an onion from the freshly bought ones, clumsily (disgusted!) cut it in half (that’s right) and dropped it in the tomato passato.  Rummaging through the groceries, I found the mazzetto – the string-tied bundle of vegetables and herbs prepared by the fruttivendolospecifically to make sauces and soups – extracted parsley, celery, a carrot, a tiny branch of fresh rosemary, and added them (as is) to the sauce.  Then I remembered the basil growing in a small vase out on the kitchen balcony, tore off a couple of bright green, wonderfully aromatic leaves (yes, always loved basil), dropped them in, a quick stir, turn on the flame, partially cover it.  Done.  Off again to my fantasy world.  Sort of forgot about the sauce, but, you know what? We had pasta (cooked less than perfectly al dente by yours truly) with tomato sauce for lunch that day and…nobody said a word.  Which probably meant it was as usual – acceptable (not much the complimenting kind, the members of my family, me included).  Yes, I did feel a sense of accomplishment, but mostly of relief – not an experience I wished to repeat any time soon.  Well, such is life, and here I am, at home today, chopping onions for dinner, putting together a ground meat dish with a white wine and rosemary sauce, based on a recipe from my mother-in-law, but seriously tweaked, as I’m prone to do with almost anything (those creative juices…), listening to RAI Italia in the background (TV in the living room), and thinking about those Italian days of long ago.  And, once again, I see her, my mother, stirring, salting, rushing, slicing, eyeing the pile of ironing in the corner, sighing, grating Parmigiano, rushing, stirring…I wish she were still there, in her yellow kitchen in Portici, waiting.  For me.  Yeah.  A nasty beast, ‘sta lontananzaAuguri, mamma.  Happy Mother’s Day to all of you, beautiful mothers!

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