Getting Saucy … sort of

Frank Sinatra sang, “Regrets.  I’ve had a few….” One regret I have is waiting too long to ask my grandmother for recipes.  By the time I thought to do this, the beginnings of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia had begun to overcome her and it was too late.

It is not like we never tried to ask, because we did.  Our questions were often responded to with vague or generic answers.  The only thing I can duplicate pretty accurately, is my grandma’s breaded steak.  I can do this, because I watched her do it once.  It’s not hard.  You take the steak, dip it in olive oil, dip it in Italian bread crumbs and broil it.  Simple, right!?  She once walked me through how she made her chicken and gravy, but I have long forgotten how.

The one thing I have been trying to duplicate for years is her spaghetti sauce.  I have come close – very close – but it’s just not right, yet.  I have asked friends, and some family, and have tried to incorporate things in hopes that it would be “THE” missing ingredient….without any luck.  Granted, some of the suggestions have brought me closer, and each time I try something new, I am afraid I may mess it up more.

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One thing I DO know, is that grandma used sugar in her sauce.  I am told it is a Sicilian thing.  Whether or not to use sugar in your sauce is a heated topic among Italians.  Some people find it utterly disgusting.  Personally, I love a sauce that is a bit sweet.  I also know she used a lot of garlic.  She always used basil (“You have to use good, fresh basil!”) and a bay leaf.  Never oregano – she (and many Italian grandmas) used to say that you only used oregano for pizza sauce.

I also know that she always used Contadina products!

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I remember she had a pantry down in her basement that had literally HUNDREDS of cans of Contadina tomato sauce and tomato paste!  (We used to call her pantry Kroger because she also had rows of dish soap, canned vegetables, and other things down there.) When I first attempted to make the sauce, I knew I had to start with this.

I used my friend Christina’s grandma’s recipe as a basic guide.  I have expanded on it since my first attempt.  A cousin said that her grandma used to put a stick of butter in her pot of sauce.  Another cousin (and my aunt) both suggested a Bechamel sauce be added to thicken the sauce, which it did.  I thought my grandma used a little wine, so I tried that, too.

I have used ground beef, ground sausage, ground pork, and stewing beef in the sauce to see if that makes a difference.  To a degree it does, but I know grandma used to cook all of those in her sauce at times.  I have tried more seasoning and less seasoning, bullion cubes instead of salt, and white wine and red wine, but still come up short.

My radio buddy, Jim Bosh, is Italian and he has hosted dinner parties for holidays and such in the past.  His sauce (and meatballs) are about as close as I have tasted to my grandmas.  I can’t remember if I ever sat down with him and discussed making the sauce at length, but I know he has offered a suggestion or two.  I also remember him telling me that no matter how many times I try to make grandma’s sauce, there will always be one important thing missing – Grandma.

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The Ghost of Christmas Eve Past (and Yet To Come)

Grandma and Grandpa E (2)

For as long as I can remember, Christmas Eve was always spent with Grandma and Grandpa P. when we were kids.  I don’t necessarily know that there was any particular reason for this, I only know that from a very young age, this was the tradition. I also remember that dreaming of a White Christmas was hardly ever necessary.  If my memory serves me right, as a kid, there was maybe one or two Christmases that were we didn’t have snow.

The excitement for Christmas Eve was a bit different from Christmas Day.  Grandma and Grandpa always seemed to ask for our Christmas list early …. like July early!  She obviously planned ahead and shopped throughout the year, which must have saved her a ton of hassles finding things.  We usually were dressed and ready to go to Grandma’s house by 2 or 3pm. We would leave knowing at least one thing we were getting – a winter coat.  She got us one every year (which we hated, because she’d take us out shopping for it as early as October!).

Christmas Jackets

Christmas Eve dinner was always the same with very little variance.  Ravioli was the main dish.  There would be a feast that included breaded steak, sausage or meatballs, dinner rolls, and just about every other things you could imagine. Grandma prided herself on being able to make dinner that could feed an army! Grandma always made her Ammoghio (pronounced Moy-Gyoo) sauce to go on top of the steak.  This was made up of olive oil, tomatoes, some seasonings and a WHOLE LOT of garlic!  I never ate it as a kid, but as an adult – I love it!  Everyone who ate it smelled like garlic for like a week!

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There was always a dish with olives (green and black), sweet pickles, and veggies.  You would also find a big bowl with pistachios, and another one filled with nuts of all kinds.  The nuts were still in the shells, so you had to crack them open with the old silver nutcracker that was probably older than my grandma!  I can’t remember, but I think there was also a bowl or two of M&M’s and Hershey’s Kisses out to snack on, too.

For dessert – there were ALWAYS cannoli! Early on I think she made them from scratch (I may have her recipe somewhere), but I really remember her getting them from the Italian bakery.  There were also always plenty of cookies!  Grandma spent days baking them and by the time she was done, I think she had like 400 dozen!  She used to store them in these big tin cans that Better Made Potato Chips used to come it.  She always made chocolate chip for me, oatmeal for my brother, cut out sugar cookies and these little ice box cookies that none of us ate … well, I can’t say that … we fed them to the dogs and they seemed to like them a lot!

I recall the year that my grandmother bought my brother and I every Star Wars Figure that was out.  There were one or two that were very difficult to find, but she found them.  We each got a set!  Then there was the year she bought us the Atari 2600!  This was long before the fantastic graphics of Play Station or X-Box.  The games on this thing were very primitive as far as graphics went!  Oh, the hours I spent playing Sea Hunt, Pac-Man, and Pitfall!!  Even after all of the gifts were open, there was always an envelope for us.  For many years there would be a crisp $100 bill in it.  $100 was a LOT of money and I was always amazed at how new the bill was – it was almost like she had printed it herself!

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One Christmas Eve I remember particularly well.  Unlike previous years, when we came in the house, we were ushered immediately downstairs.  Usually, we went into the sun porch off the back of her house, where tables would be set for dinner and food would be out.  This year, dinner was in the basement.  We hardly EVER went in the basement, so I wasn’t sure what was happening.  In the middle of dinner, we heard a noise from upstairs.  Someone was walking (actually stomping, I think) around upstairs.  I think she had my great Uncle Ralph some in and do it.  My grandma said that Santa was probably up there leaving presents.  It was well before midnight, and you know how kids are – we knew that Santa came at midnight and we questioned it.  Grandma said she had called and “made special arrangements with Santa”.  Looking back on it now, I can totally see Grandma like Don Corleone of the Godfather making “special arrangements” with Santa!  At any rate, soon after the noise was gone, we were allowed to go upstairs and into the porch.  I am sure I am over exaggerating when I say that the porch looked like Toys R Us!  It was loaded with presents and a bike for both my bother and me.  I don’t even know how we got the presents home!

After dinner and presents, my brother and I would go watch movies, play the video games, or with our toys, while the adults went back into the porch to smoke and play cards.  Pinochle was what they usually played, although I seem to remember one year they also played gin rummy.  Depending on the people who were present, sometimes dad will play his guitar, Uncle Sam would play his accordion, or grandma would sit on the old Hammond organ and sing songs and play. Grandma played by ear and had no sense of tempo (or time signature for you musical folks), so she was either hitting wrong notes or playing ahead or behind everyone else.  From a child’s perspective, the music wasn’t very good, so my brother and I would go to another room.

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When I had finally learned how to play pinochle, I was a welcome addition to the card table.  My dad played, but he was usually done after a few games, so I gradually took his place as a “regular” at the table.  I LOVED this!  We could play forever!  Grandpa and mom were always partners.  He would often over bid my mom because he thought he had a good hand, then they would lose the hand.  They would get so mad at each other.

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I remember before I started playing, they would play cards until well after midnight.  My brother and I would be struggling to stay awake, our job was to remind mom and dad of how late it was getting – God forbid Santa not come because we weren’t home and in bed! Dad would constantly remind us that he paid for Santa to bring toys, and Santa would “circle the house” until we were home and in bed before delivering the toys.

When I began working in radio, it seemed that I was always on the air on Christmas Eve.  One of the “on air” traditions that I started was to call grandma and ask her how the preparations for dinner were coming. She would go into detail about what was on the menu and what time dinner was.  She would often razz me on the air and warned me not to be late.  She was an instant hit.  It was amazing how many people would call and ask if I was gonna check in with Grandma!

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Over the years, the faces of Christmas Eve changed.  Some years there were more relatives than others.  Aunt Rose became a staple after Uncle Sam passed away.  After Grandpa passed away, friends of the family often came by and the pinochle games continued.  As the years passed, there seemed to be more reflecting on Christmas Eves of the past with laughter and sadness.

Over the last few years, Christmas and Christmas Eve has undergone many more changes.  While many of the voices of Christmas Eve have been silenced, those wonderful memories warm my heart.  I look back at the memories fondly, and I also look forward to the new memories that will be made.  This year, my two amazing sons will be with us Christmas Eve morning to open presents with us.  They are older, but still full of excitement.  When they saw the gifts under the tree their reactions were typical for their age.  Dimitri, 11, saw the big box and said “Whoa, is that for us?”, while Dante’, 16, said “Is this all of the presents, or will there be more?”

I sit writing this as everyone in the house is still asleep.  Sam and I have joked around at what is in the big box under the tree more than once.  The camera is ready to capture the moments from this Christmas Eve, ready to provide them both with memories to look back on themselves in years to come.  I hope that someday, they will look back at Christmas Eve as one of their favorite holidays, just like I do.

Mom Dad Keith and Chris 1980