My destiny to serve authentic sauce on top of pasta was sealed when I said yes to Sal Marotta’s proposal of marriage. Marottas do not do bottled or (gasp) canned marinara. My soon-to-be mother-in-law Emily offered a lesson in the sauce before the wedding. I was an eager student. I had tasted the sauce. It was thick, rich, dark red, and memorable.
To this day the sauce is my only true claim to culinary skills.
Making the sauce is not about the recipe. It is about the experience. I learned that a layered rich sauce must begin at the start, with the starter. The starter is the heart of the sauce. It is the legacy of all the sauces that have come before . . . it is stored in the freezer. Sal’s Great Aunt Julia had rows and rows of starter in her freezer. She called it her “blood bank.” My Sal’s grandfather, Grandpa Sal, brought the idea of starter sauce to America from Sicily when he immigrated. Grandpa Sal had a full kitchen in his garage so he could cook the sauce with more space and ventilation without getting nagged about the mess. He taught Emily (another non-Italian who needed the secrets), and Emily taught me. It took us all day in the kitchen and much wine for the recipe as well as the lesson itself.
|Great Aunt Julia|
On the day of my lesson Sal’s mom confidently taught me how to cook the sausage, onions, garlic, and then to brown the paste- incorporating all the flavors. All the while the heart of the sauce sat patiently slow warming on a separate stove top coil. Side by side we layered the flavors by combining starter and paste, wine and herbs. By evening I learned the Marotta stories, was advised against putting oregano in the meatballs (it is mutinous and can cause loud Italian fighting), and more than anything that the sauce was a legacy. I was part of the family and trusted to carry the tradition forward.
It has been thirty years since my lesson. I now have my own tradition of warming the starter in early September. I spend the day browning the paste and incorporating the new sauce to make a batch that will last us throughout the fall and winter, leaving a little extra starter for next year. So far I have taught my oldest daughter the process, who has added a playlist to her cooking, and expect someday my youngest will ask for her turn in the kitchen with me.
Because everyone knows you can’t feed an Italian family properly without the sauce.
The inspiration for this post came when I met a remarkable person named Sarah Shotts at the Arkansas Women’s Bloggers Conference last month. As soon as she told me about her dream to record “heirloom recipes” across the world I knew I found a friend. If you or someone you know has a passion for family, food, and film please visit her Kickstarter “Project STIR.”