There is an undeniable smell that lingers in the air that foretells of the upcoming dinner. The tomatoes bubbling and frothing their way to becoming the perfect balance of paste and water. Oregano and Rosemary tickle your nose welcoming you home. The aroma that comes from homemade tomato sauce is unquestionable. This sounds like a peculiar statement to make, but there is truth in it. When you grow up in an Italian family, even if it is only in part, something is comforting in the smell, the taste, of the bubbling sauce. It was a tradition in my household to always have fresh tomato sauce when the meal called for it. I never tasted a “jar of sauce”, that is until I was about eight years old…
My parents received their annual phone call to drive down and visit a good friend. This friend, though we saw quite often, liked to have one big party each year to gather with family and friends. Joan picked one day in early fall, before any Holiday festivities began, to throw her dinner party. Each year my mother would warn me to act like I loved the food. Poor Joan, she was a terrible cook. Her gravies were as thick as jam, her biscuits were uneatable, and her roast beef always had the distinct smell of tainted meat. Everyone pretended that they were culinary masterpieces as to not hurt the dear sweet lady’s feelings. The lingering memory of those “Haute cuisines” will forever haunt my nightmares. However, for my mother’s sake, and of course out of politeness my sister and I would “pretend” that we enjoyed the food. We must have been great actresses for each year Joan, or “Aunt Joan” as we called her, believed our fake enthusiasm for her dinners.
I can never forget that one chilly Autumn Saturday morning, September 25th at 10:00 am to be exact when the phone rang. My mother was expecting Auntie Joan’s call, so it was no surprise when Joan began to chatter gaily on the other end of the phone. My mother listened politely as Auntie prattled on with the rapidity of Hummingbird’s Wings. Until suddenly my mother’s face fell, and she turned to look at me playing at her feet with the cat in tow. By the look on her face, I thought that something truly awful must have occurred. And it did. My Aunt announced that this year’s dinner party was going to be a themed dinner party. But not just any theme it was to have a spread of Italian foods from all over the vast regions in Italy. My Mother ended the conversation quickly and hung up the phone.
Then suddenly my mother sat on the floor in front of me. Looking me directly in the eyes as I kissed my cat who was squirming to run free, she said “ This year I want you to be an extra good actress, Aunt Joan is making Italian food, and no matter what it tastes like I want you to pretend you like it as much as mommy and nana. Now, I know I do not have to worry about your sister, so please follow her example.”
It must be understood that I was not an intentionally fresh child; however, I could and still can be extremely blunt when I think that I am telling the truth about a situation. As I said earlier Aunt Joan was a horrible cook, the worst food you would ever taste, but she tried so hard to make her culinary masterpieces. It must be further understood that I was spoiled when it came to food. It would not be until this party that I would find out what boxed pasta was. I had my Nana who lived with us, made only homemade authentic Italian food, and mommy and grandma who made everything else to perfection. From French Cuisine to homemade Apple-Pie mom and grandma made it all.
When my mother married my father, my Nana taught my mother to make each traditional Italian dish. For those of you who have immigrant grandparents, you know that it is tradition to verbally pass down these recipes and it is of utmost importance to do it accurately.
My mother naturally was anxious, to say the least, as the party was approaching. I was lectured and lectured on how important it was to be polite and to “put on my very best acting”. Now I knew Auntie was a horrible cook, but I did not understand why my mother was making a particularly big deal out of this dinner party. The long-anticipated night finally arrived, and I was seated in between my older sister and my mother. The first course was presented, Spaghetti and Meatballs with an extremely red tomato sauce. My mother held her breath as I took my first bite. Tasting the bitterness that was welling in my mouth from the sauce, my eyes began to water; I could not do it, so I promptly spit it out. Seeing my mother giving me daggers from the side of her eye, I claimed that it was just too hot. But that was not the truth, the truth was it was horrible, and it tasted rancid. I went to take another bite. My Aunt finally exclaimed “Oh I forgot the Parmesan cheese” and left the room. When I thought that the coast was clear I exclaimed to my mother; “Mama I can’t eat this I think it’s rancid!” I had just learned this word and was very excited to use it properly in the sentence, “There is something wrong with the spaghetti sauce and the noodles taste funny, and I don’t think it’s Aunt Joan’s fault this time! What do we do? Do we tell her!?” Just then my mother clamped her hand across my mouth, as she was the only one to notice Aunt Joan had walked back into the room. It is hard to explain the yelling that ensued and the tears to follow from not only me but also my poor Aunt Joan. I honestly thought there was something wrong with the food! I did not know I was being impolite but I saw Aunt Joan had left the room, so naturally, I thought I was safe to speak freely. I was wrong…. My mother tried to explain that I just never had noodles from a box or sauce that came from a jar, but I do not think that was much comfort to Aunt Joan.
That night when I got home, I had to write a three-page apology note. I do not think I ever cried so much as I did that night, after accidentally hurting her feelings. I think it’s worth mentioning that Aunt Joan and I patched things up quite nicely. However, due to the mishap, Aunt Joan always had the food catered thereafter.
Until next time when I return to more storytelling, I remain respectfully,
Cheyenne E. Mitchell
*** Note this story is in no way meant to offend jar sauce eating/making individuals it is meant purely as an amusing anecdote. ***