I’ve been trying to figure out why it holds such an important place in my life. Yes, I love to eat. I really do. Figuring out what I’m going to eat next occupies a disproportionate amount of my time.
But it’s more than that. Food brings people together in a very personal way. And a home cooked meal is no less than an extension of the person who prepared it. Ultimately, food is love. It’s cliché because it’s true.
I instinctively knew that food was a way to people’s hearts since I was young. When I was 15, I made my first spaghetti with homemade sauce for Ben*, a boy I liked. He was 2 years older than I was, and I was crushing hard. I wish I could tell my 15 year-old self that Ben wasn’t worth that pot of sauce. The crush never went anywhere—I put my sauce on the line for nothing. He ate it up, and left. I felt used.
In subsequent years, whenever I was really into someone and things were getting serious, I would pull out my secret homemade sauce weapon. There was Carl, Anthony, Chris, and even Steve. Sauce for every one of them. Unlike with my teenage crush, my sauce did something to them. I don’t know if it made me seem maternal and caring, or if it simply made me the “complete” package. But things always got more serious after that sauce.
Of course I made sauce for my husband, Adam. We were friends at the time, and it felt like things might be moving in a romantic direction, so I suggested I go over to his place to cook with him. Marinara. Boom. Now we’re married.
Making my sauce for people is an intimate little dance. It’s my family’s recipe, which I learned from my mother. I don’t think I ever really got an official recipe from her though. I just watched her make it a gillion times when I was growing up. Like everyone else in my family, I don’t measure a thing. I eyeball the ingredients, and then taste. And adjust accordingly if necessary. But I’ve reached a point where I hardly have to adjust after eyeballing the whole process. I’m not tooting my own horn. It’s just a fact.
Now I’m making my sauce to woo another boy. Only this time it’s my son. Cooking for him delights me (especially when he actually eats it and doesn’t spit it all out…) I want the meals I make for him to imprint on his soul. I want him to know how much I love him every time he eats something delicious. I want to train his taste buds to appreciate good food. And while I still am the love of his life, I want him to understand how food can be love.
I don’t know if it’s the Italian in me that is responsible for this need to cook for people. It might be some other gene. (Everyone in my family has the same quirk). Or maybe it’s nurture and not nature. Since it’s how I grew up, maybe I’m just repeating what I learned. You do what you know, and somehow that feels right. If I’m lucky, my son will learn this lesson too. He can woo the ladies (or gents, as the case may be) with his sauce, made from his heart, with generations of tradition behind him.
*Boys’ names have been changed to protect the guilty
There are a few standard sauces that we make, so here is the recipe for a quick, basic and delicious pomodoro (literally tomato sauce).
2 tablespoons of olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 28oz can of diced San Marzano tomatoes (alternatively, you can use 5-6 large ripe tomatoes, pureed in a food processor. I like tomatoes on a vine.)
5 large sprigs of fresh basil, cut into chiffonades (thin “ribbons”)
¼ cup of grated pecorino romano (or parmesan)
Crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in a medium sauce pan
Add garlic and brown lightly (be sure not to burn it, as it cooks quickly)
Add a few pieces of basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes to the oil and garlic
Once garlic is lightly cooked, add tomatoes, the rest of the basil, and ¼ teaspoon of salt
Adjust heat to medium-low and stir occasionally, letting sauce reduce slightly
Once sauce has darkened and reduced a bit (about 6-8 minutes), season with salt and pepper to taste
Toss sauce with your favorite pasta and top with grated cheese
**Be sure to cook pasta in salted water! (It’s your only opportunity to season the pasta itself.)