Luigi’s Grandma’s Homemade Sauce
To fully understand this story, a deep embodied appreciation of authentic homemade Italian sauce is required.
Or, gravy, as my sister-in-law called it. Being a Jew myself, gravy has another meaning entirely, but that is yet another story.
When I met my wuzband (the man who used to be my husband), he enchanted me with stories of how he grew up making homemade sauce. And I don’t mean homemade using crushed tomatoes from a jar like I currently do.
I’m talking — actual tomatoes, peeled and pitted, carefully placed in mason jars that were boiled over an old-country fire pit in their Long Island backyard.
I wish I could relay the full recipe for you, but that is not possible. But, I will say that inside each carefully boiled jar was fresh tomatoes, one fresh basil leaf and a spoonful of sugar.
The creation was quite intentional so that a proper acidic environment was assured. His family tradition originated in old school Ventotene, the small island off of Italy that his mother was from.
Dozens of jars were cleaned, boiled, sealed air tight, and then placed in a box to set for the following year. My wuzband’s job as a young boy was to peel the tomatoes and remove the seeds. According to the story, there was always at least one jar that grew moldy because air somehow got in. That one was mourned and sadly, thrown out.
My mother-in-law utilized those jarred tomatoes as the base for her homemade sauce. The content of the jars was not to be confused with a complete sauce. It was a base.
I don’t know what she did to that base, but her sauce was THE BEST EVER. I mean, lick your lips delish.
When she died in 1992, her sauce process was sadly not carried on inside our family.
So perhaps you can imagine our pure joy the following year, as we cleaned out her house and found a milk carton of mason jars filled with her saucy love!!
It was better than finding gold.
We split the jars evenly with his sister, about 10 each, and utilized them on Sundays and special occasions. The house would fill with the scent of saucy magic and eating it was divine — a true masterpiece of the palate.
When we were down to a few jars, we became more strategic about how and when to use them. We had two children of our own by then and decided to save the very last jar so that our kids could eat their Nonna’s sauce.
I remember that Christmas, using The. Very. Last. Jar. I remember our kids enjoying that sauce as it splattered everywhere. She would have loved that.
And that was that. No more jars.
I taught 6th grade Social Studies for twenty years and I always began the year by learning about each other’s cultures. I created Culture Day, and kids brought in 1–2 items that demonstrated their culture to the class.
Kids brought in Irish soda bread, jewelry, mezuzahs and flags representing their country of heritage. We enjoyed feasts and learned a lot about each other and the world. It was always a wonderful connecting day.
Luigi was a sweet, happy-go-lucky Italian boy. His grandparents were from Italy and on Culture Day, he brought in a tray of ziti with homemade sauce. He shared how his family boiled the jars and then stored them for a year, always using last year’s jars to cook with.
OMG. My body filled with electricity and I told Luigi how lucky he was to have this experience. He stayed after class and we talked and laughed about the incredible process of the jars for a long time. I shared my own story and that all our jars were now gone.
The next day, Luigi came to school and told me his grandma wanted me to have a gift. He handed me — YES, a mason jar of that homemade goodness.
Jackpot!!! I couldn’t wait to go home and share this gift and have my wuzband turn it into a meal that would remind us of his mother’s old-country cooking.
I was touched and grateful. And hungry. I put the jar on the desk of my classroom and reveled in it all day long, so excited.
As I picked it up to pack up for the day, the jar slipped out of my hand. The moment felt like slow motion to me and I can still see the jar as it slipped and flew and I tried to grasp on to it.
No luck. That mason jar of deliciousness landed smack on my classroom floor, shattered into a billion pieces as the tomatoes oozed out everywhere.
My heart sank. I could not believe what had just happened.
I never did tell Luigi what happened to that jar. It broke my heart too much to tell him. Luckily, he never asked me how it was.
This story, my mother-in-law’s cooking genius, my wuzband’s wonderful inherited sauce skill, my precious student Luigi with his big smile and generous Italian grandma and her broken jar of sauce have been occupying my heart for all of these years.
This is article #4 in a series of 22 articles I am writing to digest my 22 years of teaching. Read the first 3:
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