Mama’s International Cuisine
Taste buds awaken outside of her kitchen
By Cynthia Adams
Ours was an international kitchen . . . if you accept that the fare at IHOP is international.
Mama made gravy, but not the Italian red sauce certain New York Italians confusingly call gravy.
True, she made red-eye gravy, milk gravy and brown sausage gravy, which she spooned over biscuits. As for red sauce, Mama went rogue. If she ran short on Hunt’s tomato sauce, she substituted catsup. She used ground beef in her spaghetti sauce, but to a difficult-to-digest extent. Slicks of oil glazed the surface as she ladled it over the pasta, completely unfazed.
Mama’s version of Chow Mein came from a can of Chun King bamboo shoots. As she hotly argued, it had to be authentic or else Chun King would never have put it on the can in the first place.
The menfolk loved Mama’s Hungarian goulash, a substantial dish that came from The Progressive Farmer or Betty Crocker’s cookbook. It had little to do with Hungarians or actual goulash, but Mama, a born improviser, was no stickler. The sheer weight of the dish — leaning heavily on a base suspiciously like her brown breakfast gravy — featured ground beef, cooking oil, powdered onion, celery salt, canned mushrooms and a pint of sour cream. So substantial, in fact, it could sustain a famished Hungarian ditch digger.
When I experienced authentic foreign food as a student studying abroad, my reality was rattled. Nothing I’d eaten in Hell’s Half Acre, as locals called our community, had prepared me.
Italian fare — from a slice on the street to pasta — delighted yet bewildered. The simplicity and lightness of fresh ingredients — and lack of reliance upon Hunt’s tomato products — shocked my system.
Once back in Cabarrus County, I never told Mama how unlike Italian gravy it was. Besides, my father and brothers were enthusiastic about Mama’s hearty cooking, leaving no room for self-doubt. He would push back from the table, happily groaning, “Jonni, I’m stuffed!”
She was a get-er-done woman, uninterested in the fuss and bother of Julia Child. Jonni and Julia? Never. True, Mama was expeditious, but not so much as Mama June of Here Come’s Honey Boo Boo, who prepared on camera a two-ingredient “sketti” with catsup and butter. I figured most home cooks were equally steadfast in their reliance upon recipes found on can labels and cake boxes.
That was, until I met Peggy, whose son I later married. As a young woman invited to her table, I fell under her spell, already intoxicated by her fragrant kitchen — where fresh herbs and spices, olive oil, and generously sized Italian meatballs and sausage simmered.
I inhaled, and the aromas of Italy filled my senses. Although of Irish stock, Peggy was a native New Yorker steeped in Italian fare.
Chianti was on the table — I’d noted Peggy enjoying a glass as she cooked. These were habits I vowed to adopt as soon as I had a kitchen of my own. Only an M.F.K. Fisher or a Ruth Reichl could express Peggy’s carefree alchemy, meshing ordinary ingredients into an exceptional whole as she sometimes sang along to a Frank Sinatra tune.
As dishes were passed, I watched, enraptured as Peggy served. The sauce lightly covered slightly toothy pasta. Over that went hand-rolled meatballs, fragrant of fresh parsley, basil and garlic. Then the Italian sausages. Grated parmesan (fresh!) was passed around, along with garlic bread for sopping all that deliciousness.
I carefully avoided telling Mama about the ecstasies of authentic home-cooked Italian for obvious reasons. Mama would have been mortally wounded; she fancied herself to be a fine cook. (And I never told Mama how Peggy also created a culinary masterpiece out of a Thanksgiving turkey, too — pushing herbs beneath the skin before dousing it with a good olive oil. And cooking it until done, which Mama seldom bothered with.)
When my marriage to Peggy’s son ended, my relationship with her endured. Years later, Peggy and I were having drinks with her daughter, Gale. Peggy was especially fond of a good Manhattan, and, as we sipped, I wistfully reminisced.
Did she still make her spaghetti, I ventured, hopeful of wangling an invitation to her table?
Peggy giggled her signature, girl-like trill. “Oh, I don’t cook anymore,” she said, waving her hand. “Those days are behind me.”
This news was tantamount to learning that Michelangelo retired early and no longer carved marble.
“B-but . . . ” I spluttered, at a complete loss. I turned away before she could see my despair.
New World Italians have a charming expression for a meat sauce like Peggy’s: Sugo Della Domenica or “Sunday’s sauce.” It is never difficult, they observe, to get people to the table for Sunday’s sauce.
Sometimes in my dreams, I sip chianti in Peggy’s kitchen. The sauce simmers; bits of fresh basil dance to the surface. The growl of my impatient stomach. And then, sigh: that first al dente bite in the mouth.
My sweet Mama, I vowed long ago, could never know. OH
Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.