The newly published book, The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family and How We Learn to Eat (edited by Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper), features 28 original stories about how we learn (and re-learn) to eat, and why family food matters to our lives beyond the table.
Many of the book’s contributors are from the Bay Area, including some, such as Berkeley’s Phyllis Grant, author of the Dash and Bella blog, who have been featured on Berkeleyside.
Here, we publish an excerpt of the book — it is from “Red Sauce Days” by Berkeley Chris Malcomb who writes a rich history of his family’s Boston restaurant, Jeveli’s, and the red sauce that anchors its menu.
When I was a child, my mother made her Italian red sauce once a month, waking the house with clanking metal pans and steel blades on the wooden cutting board. I would drift downstairs just as the warm kitchen started to fill with familiar scents: simmering salt pork, soup bones, onions, garlic, spices. She never measured anything, tossing ingredients into her dented metal pot on instinct. Before long, empty cans of tomatoes—whole, paste, and puree—littered the countertop like open clamshells, and the bubbling, blood-colored liquid had turned the white stovetop into a small Jackson Pollock painting. Once the sauce was boiling, my mother set the burner to “low” and left it to simmer for most of the day.
Later that evening, I would find her at the kitchen sink, bathed in the dim light of a single bulb, stooped over a food mill (or “strainer” as she called it). She used this instrument to grind the sauce to velvet smoothness, removing tomato seeds, pieces of bone, and strips of meat she hadn’t already fished out by hand and popped into her mouth. When each batch was complete she poured it into tall, rectangular plastic containers. These she would seal, label, and hand to me to stack in the freezer.
Mine is a restaurant family. In 1924, my great-grandfather founded Jeveli’s, now Boston’s oldest Italian establishment. When he died, my grandfather took over the business and ran it for the next forty years. While the exact origins of the family red sauce are not certain, my grandfather maintains that it’s a traditional Campanian sauce from the region of our Southern Italian ancestors.
My mother asked my grandfather for the red sauce recipe when she was sixteen. He gave her the fifty-gallon restaurant version, which she copied onto a small sheet of paper and stuffed into her wallet. For the next thirty years, she carried it everywhere, taping its worn folds and retracing its penciled lines whenever necessary. When it finally became too fragile, she placed it between the pages of her Bible.
Her first attempts to make the sauce were failures. She struggled to reduce the portions to the few servings she wanted to ladle over some spaghetti for friends. Still, she persevered, learning to coax her own version out of her father’s ingredients, eventually transforming it into the cornerstone of my childhood diet: ladling it over spaghetti, ziti, or penne; mixing it with browned beef for sloppy joes; warming it in white bowls for dipping bread; and, eventually, slathering it between the layers of her eggplant parmigiana (or “parm” in my family), the meal I have come to most associate with Jeveli’s, and my mother.
Eggplant parmigiana is my true comfort food, the meal I most frequently request when I am home visiting my family. Even today I am amazed by how these simple ingredients morph into a taste far exceeding the sum of its parts. The individual flavors—sweet, tangy, earthy—blend effortlessly, revealing a different nuance with each bite. Whether dining with my grandparents in The Mediterranean Room or gathered in my mother’s kitchen for a birthday meal, I have always considered this dish reliable, familiar, and unchanging.
Or so I thought.
One summer night as I was finishing up a heaping serving of her eggplant parm, I asked my mother where she bought her cheeses. The traditional recipe calls for a combination of fresh Parmesan and buffalo mozzarella between each layer of eggplant. “Oh, I don’t use a mixture,” she said casually.
“Wait . . . …what?” I said.
She grinned. “I only use one cheese.”
I set my fork on the plate. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d said that she’d simply chosen between mozzarella and Parmesan — a decision befitting her cautious, yet loyal, rebelliousness—but she’d dropped not one, but two ingredients. Defining ingredients.
“But I thought—”
“That I never changed my father’s recipes?”
“But mine’s better, right?”
I wasn’t about to answer. “Wait…what other recipes have you changed?”
She hesitated slightly before standing up and reaching across the table towards my empty plate. “Only one. And just a smidgen.”
“One? Which one?”
She took my plate and headed towards the sink, laughing.
Growing up, I had no reason to question, or even care, if my mother’s red sauce was unique. I liked the taste, and I assumed that recipes were recipes, no matter the kitchen or the cook. Now, however, I appreciate how the distinctive taste of her sauce is the product of both history and individuality. My mother’s version is different from her father’s. And while it may share similar roots, it’s also not the sauce that Pasquale made in 1924, or that may have bubbled on his mother’s stove back in Italy. This, I think, is the true beauty of any family recipe, the cook’s ability to blend tradition and personality. My mother not only learned the family recipe, but also made it her own. Just like her father, and just like her grandfather. In doing so, she cemented her position in a line of forward-thinkers and risk-takers, people who found a way to both adapt and retain a cultural tradition.
Recently, I asked my mother for her red sauce recipe.
“Not if you plan on trying to improve it,” she said, half joking.
We chuckled at the irony, knowing that my ties to the “old world” must start in her kitchen, but certainly cannot end there.
Mom’s Red Sauce
Note: Do not try making this recipe without your Mom.
Makes about 10 quarts
½ cup vegetable or olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
½ cup chopped salt pork
About 2 pounds beef soup bones
¼ cup dried oregano
¼ cup dried parsley
¼ cup dried marjoram
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 shakes of garlic powder
2 bay leaves
9 28- ounce cans crushed tomatoes (Mom likes Redpack and Pine Ccone brands the best)
3 29- ounce cans Redpack tomato pureée
1 6-ounce can Redpack or Contadina tomato paste
1 large carrot, unpeeled, with ends trimmed
Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add all the ingredients except the tomatoes and the carrot. Cook, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes, until the onions are transparent and the bones are browned.
Pour the crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, and tomato paste into the pot.
Fill one empty 28-ounce tomato can one-quarter full with water. Swish the water around to loosen the liquid from the sides of the can. Pour this liquid into the next can. Repeat.
Continue pouring the same liquid from can to can until the insides of all cans have been washed.
Pour this tomato water into the pot with the sauce.
Add the carrot. Turn up the heat to bring the sauce to a very soft boil, stirring frequently.
Once the sauce starts to boil, lower the heat so the sauce cooks just above a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 8 to -10 hours, stirring the sauce two or three times an hour.
After 8 to 10 hours, let the sauce cool to a warm temperature (don’t let it get cold, as that will make it harder to grind).
Remove the carrot. Attach a food mill to the rim of a second large stockpot; place the stockpot and mill on the counter or in the sink. Grind the sauce in small batches, passing bits of meat through the mill but leaving soup bones in the original stockpot.
Reserve 2 to -2 ½ /12 quarts for the eggplant parm. Pour the rest of the sauce into lidded storage containers and place in the freezer.
See a schedule of local readings and events related to the book, ‘The Cassoulet Saved My Marriage.’
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