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A once-a-year tradition with bubbling pots of tomato sauce and plenty of homemade wine.
I grew up in New Jersey as part of an Italian American family. As the baby in the family, my best friends were pre-picked and waiting for me when I was born: my cousins. “The club” to me wasn’t one with loud music or dancing, but the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Italian American Society, where my grandpa would wander off to after dinner. And “gravy” in my home was not the brown slop that drowns so many Thanksgiving plates, but tomato sauce, particularly with the addition of any kind of meat product you can fit into the pot simmering on the stove.
When it was time for me to leave the nest, I moved to a city where I could recreate the bubble of family, food, and culture I grew up with and took up residence in the upper floor of an Italian American Society in Hoboken, NJ. Here, I am spoiled by the fresh mozzarella made a block away at Fiore’s Deli. My neighbor Sergio gives me figs, peppers, and cucumbers from his garden; his passion and broken English remind me of my aunt Carmel, who tended her own garden until she was 104 years old. The Sunday suppers I knew as a kid have transitioned seamlessly into my adulthood, since multiple cousins live within a half-mile radius of my apartment. But there’s one event, aside from birthdays and holidays, which annually brings me back to the actual place I grew up: sauce weekend.
For us, sauce weekend begins with loading a dozen bushels of San Marzano tomatoes from Corrado’s in Clifton, NJ into my Uncle Joe’s pickup truck. Some years it’s just my uncle and me, but this year my cousins Nicole and Matt joined. Back home, we wash and halve the tomatoes, then fire up the outside burners and fill a half dozen 15-gallon pots with water and two bushels of tomatoes each. As they boil away, we sanitize dozens of jars and lids (Ball mason jars are our vessels of choice).
When the tomatoes are starting to fall apart, we drain them and plug in the electric mill. This moment is when my uncle annually reminds us that “back in the day” things used to be very different. Sitting in the same driveway of my great grandmother’s house, he recalls hand-cranking every last tomato through our former mill. “This machine is worth its weight in gold!” he shouts over the noise. And as the crimson pulp oozes out of the machine, the phone chain gets underway: “I’m making the sauce. Come over!” Relatives aren’t the only ones who get the alert. Neighbors, friends, and strays—Uncle Joe inevitably assembles a random assortment of sauce-obsessives.
After the milling, when the seeds and skins have been separated out, the watery sauce goes back in the pots to cook down. I head into the garden to snip basil until the aromas of toasting garlic and searing meat guide me to the kitchen, where Uncle Joe has started dinner. The pot on his stove is tiny in comparison to the ones bubbling outside, but still large enough to feed everyone. Tradition dictates that to the pork ribs, sausage, and braciole already in the pot we add the last lingering jars of the previous year’s sauce, marking the commencement of a new season.
Everyone in our family has a specialty requiring the jars of tomato sauce we’re making; we all need them, each in our own way. Uncle Joe’s gravy is inarguably the family’s best; I could drink it as if I were dehydrated. Aunt Donna makes vodka sauce with pancetta, sundried tomatoes, and a single egg yolk folded in at the end; elbows are thrown on Easter to get to the front of the line as she ladles it over penne. Nana Nettie has her crab sauce, which reminds my dad of the summers he spent in Shark River, NJ. Sautéed garlic, blue crabs, herbs and a few quarts of our crushed tomatoes; we greedily devour it in the summer months and pack leftovers in Polly-O Ricotta containers to freeze for the winter when we’re craving a taste of the shore. My mom makes her puttanesca, a dish named after the “ladies of the evening.” With simple ingredients easily found in the cupboard, such as cured capers and olives, puttanesca was said to be made between clients because it was fast and did not cause an interruption of business.
Back outside, canning begins. We work in an assembly line. A mason by trade, Uncle Joe has hands that have long lost their feeling. He is responsible for dipping a pitcher into the scalding vat and filling the jars. My job? I drop a single leaf of basil in each jar before laying down the metal top. My cousin screws the lids tight. Once we’re finished and waiting for our company to arrive, Matt and I walk up the hill to our grandpa’s house to siphon some of his homemade wine into bottles for dinner. Weaving through the meat grinder, sausage stuffer, and grape-crushing machines, ducking below the hanging soppressata, we reach the back of the garage. We reminisce about the vintage where my grandpa, testing the alcohol level and finding it to be 18 percent, proclaimed it “high octane;” we laugh, seeing the years and years of homemade labels on the aging bottles stacked against the wall, and the “golden cork” plaques awarded to them by the Italian American Congress of Union County. A framed article from the local paper declares, “Wine from the Del Duca garage is nothing if not prolific.
Arms full of homemade Lambrusco, we head back to my uncle’s house. The smell of stewed tomatoes lingers in the air as we make our way down the driveway. Voices and laughter erupt from the house. Abandoning our typical Sunday noon start time, we sit for dinner at seven p.m., bowing our heads as someone says grace. My uncle catches my eye, gives me a wink, and I think how lucky I am to have these traditions, how proud I am of my culture, and how grateful I am for what makes all this possible for me, my family.