I am half Sicilian, so as a kid, Christmas was all about the food and presents. While my sister and I stealthily counted our gifts, my grandmother whipped the kitchen into shape for trays of lasagna, veal parmigiana, and freshly-rolled meatballs.
The garage, which became the satellite kitchen at Christmas, had a semi-permanent coating of oil and flour on the rafters from batches of bow tie confections with clouds of powdered sugar. Rolls of strufoli sat on floured towels, ready to be cut, fried, and drowned in honey and sprinkles. The cannoli tubes were wrapped carefully in dough and lowered into the deep fryer with a touch of champagne to give the pastry tiny bubbles on the surface.
The more for powdered sugar crannies, my dear.
I remember the first Christmas that I decided I would no longer eat veal.
“Whaddaya mean, you don’t eat veal? It’s your favorite. Here, mangia, mangia.”
“Gram, I just can’t. I don’t eat veal any more.”
She would shrug and go on her way, muttering about how pazza (crazy) kids are.
I always had my nose in a book while my grandmother cooked. Consequently, I know how to fry a cannoli tube, but I have no idea what’s in it. I can roll a meatball, but I don’t remember how she made the mixture. And sauce? Forget it.
“You’re not going to buy some Ragu?” I teased my grandmother.
She would nearly spit on the floor. “We don’t eat Ragu.”
It is because of this that I have been a Ragu snob my whole life.
Many years ago, at one of the family reunions at which people were still mostly talking to each other, my cousins created a cookbook. It included all of the family favorites from our great-grandparents on down, including some stories and jokes I don’t understand to this day. There are recipes for sauces and main dishes and the desserts and pastas I always loved.
Whew, I thought. I’ll always have these recipes and I can replicate these dinners, myself. I was in my 20s then, and had very few cooking skills at the time.
When I was old enough to actually use this family cookbook, I was in for a shock. Have you ever tried to do one of those math problems with no real answer?
If Tom has three apples and Jean has two oranges, how many blue shirts do they have?
This is what it’s like to read the recipes my grandmother and her sisters submitted to the cookbook. But it was Christmas, after all, and my soul needed some of that comfort food from my childhood. I started with the sauce. How hard could it be?
Start with the good oil, it began. Put a little in the pan.
The good oil? Which one is that? How much? Which pan? WHERE ARE THE MEASUREMENTS?
Saute six cloves of garlic.
Breathe. OK, I can do this. Now we’re rolling.
Add a medium onion and two cans of crushed tomatoes.
Onion, check. Tomatoes . . . wait. How many ounces in the can? What kind?
WHY ARE THERE NO SEASONINGS LISTED? DON’T ITALIANS USE OREGANO OR SOMETHING?
Country style ribs for flavor.
Come again? How many ribs? How do I cook them? How long? Should I brown them first?
You can see why, to this day, I have no idea how to make my family’s marinara sauce.
I have given up and usually just buy a jar of something Italian-sounding or refer to Giada De Laurentiis’ ready-for-TV recipe. My Gram is surely shaking her fist at me from Heaven, but at least it’s not Ragu.
This original piece by Kristin Shaw was written exclusively for In the Powder Room, a division of Hold My Purse Productions, LLC. Featured image © depositphotos.com/LightHunter.