“Hey, come over here, kid. You might learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday.” So begins one of the greatest culinary scenes in cinematic history, from The Godfather, where in twenty seconds, Clemenza teaches Michael Corleone how to make tomato sauce. (Some call it gravy. I know.)
This is when the Corleone family “goes to the mattresses.” This means they are at war with at least one other family, and so they travel and sleep in numbers so as to protect themselves. Someone would secure an apartment and put roughly twenty mattresses on the floor where the soldiers would sleep, awaiting the call to action.
Throughout my life, I’ve found that I often make sauce in times of trouble. No matter the cause of the hardship, be it a personal loss, professional setback, or any other kind of disappointment, I could take comfort in pulling together a few ingredients, settle into the kitchen, and make sauce. It was like a mute button for the world. It was my version of going to the mattresses: a time to regroup, tend to any wounds, and strategize how best to move forward. No matter what was going on outside those walls, it could wait a day. Today, today I’m making sauce.
Every family’s sauce recipe is different, and many are guarded and defended with blood oaths of secrecy. Well today, I’m going to do something a little unusual. It may even get me excommunicated from my own family, but here goes. Here, passed down from generation to generation, from the vibrant streets and sea-kissed docks of Cefalu, Sicily, across the rowdy and perilous Atlantic to the majestic shining shores of Ellis Island, to the buzz and bustle of WWI-era Baltimore, all the way down to sunny and arborous Atlanta—here it is: my family’s secret sauce recipe. So put on your favorite apron, and a little Dean Martin, and let’s get cooking.
It all starts with a little olive oil. Actually, quite a good amount of olive oil. You should use what is called “extra virgin” olive oil, though for the life of me I have no earthly idea what the rank or hierarchy or whatever other caste system developed for these oils entails. I should also point out that “extra virgin” is a needless distinction, like saying something’s “very unique,” since we all know virginity is a fixed state. One cannot be extra virgin. (Steve Urkel excepted, who was both extra and presumably a virgin.)
Take this olive oil, made from real olives, and pour some of it into a fairly large pot. Not sure what fairly large means? It means you might consider fitting a fully inflated basketball into it, but wouldn’t actually want to try it. That’s plenty big. How much oil? Just enough to cover the bottom should do. Listen, I don’t make the rules.
Next up are the onions. But what kind of onions? Well definitely not the red kind. Or I don’t know. Do people use the red kind? Have I been missing out on this all along?? No, don’t use those. I tend not to discriminate among the rest: white, yellow, sweet, what have you. Dice these up and fry them in the hot oil. (You should’ve been heating the oil this whole time. Work with me here. Please?)
If you don’t know how to dice an onion, that’s fine, but I’m not going to hold up the rest of the class just for you. Go watch a YouTube video or something and come back after. I don’t need sliced digits on my conscience, least of all now. Stir as you go. Please do try and keep up.
When the onions are softened and roughly translucent, about as transparent as you wish the administration had been about six weeks ago, you are almost there. Throw in some garlic and basil and maybe even some oregano and any other generally Italian stuff you have on hand that seems to make sense to you. Salt and pepper work too. Sort of like cooking Indian curry, a good bit of which is essentially “ragu” with different seasonings and a little dairy (or vice versa), it’s good to “activate” the spices by cooking them a bit first until they’re fragrant.
Speaking of “activating,” be sure to smack that basil to unlock its true essence. Pretend you are a fervent high school guidance counselor, tapping all of its raw potential. You are Edward James Olmos in the 80s’ Stand and Deliver, impossibly teaching calculus to at-risk inner city teens even though no one asked you to do that. How hard should you smack the basil? That’s hard to say, but roughly as hard as you would if you had a time machine and could go back two months to convince Past You about stock market decisions. Ooh, I can smell that sweet licorice already.
On garlic, this is actually where Clemenza and I begin to part philosophical company. You see, not everyone uses garlic in their sauce. Since I can already hear the audible gasps of pearl-clutching, gramophone record scratching, champagne glasses dropping, and general swooning onto fainting couches from “the vapors,” I’ll explain.
Garlic is delicious. The smell alone of a clove or two simmering in that sweet-yet-bitter golden and extra, extra virginal olive oil is one of the most comforting aromas that life has to offer from its abundant and fructuous bosom.
But, some people don’t put it in their sauce for the simple reason that they’re going to have garlic bread with it later anyway, so why be redundant by doubling down on a good thing? Well, as with so many things, it starts with recognizing that all authority is a societal construct to begin with and that is how power truly works. I’m not here to tell you what to do.
Once this has all happened, you’ll want to remove it from the heat for a bit while you do this next part. Chopping onions at the very beginning is arguably—though I’m really not here to argue with you—the most labor-intensive part of making sauce. This next part comes in second. Pause here to take a bracing sip of red wine. Did I not tell you to pour yourself a tall glass of red wine at the start of all this? Yes, start with that. Always start with that. This is me now telling you what to do.
So this next part is where the actual tomatoes come in. But can you see how even that modest assertion is a deeply problematic and nuanced claim potentially fraught with controversy? I mean this because not everyone puts actual tomatoes in their sauce. Scandalous, I know.
And while we’re dropping truth bombs, let me tell you another thing: I don’t give a hopping good goddamn whether you put actual tomatoes in that sauce or not. It’s not like I’m ever going to taste it myself. We’re on mandated quarantine. Do you.
But seriously, some people like real live tomatoes; some prefer paste. To that I say: tomato, to-mah-to. Some like to use those cans of San Marzano tomatoes you get to crush with your hands as you squeeze them into the pot. This is deeply, deeply satisfying. Why San Marzano has this part of the tomato market cornered, I’ll never know. Just keep up the good work. Oh, and if you go with paste, just know to add a few cans of water for each one.
That’s basically it. Turn the heat back to bring it all to a boil, then simmer it for at least an hour or so, just enough heat so there’s a little bubble that forms every few seconds, so you can pretend to be one of the witchy Weird Sisters in Macbeth and say “cauldron bubble” every so often. Actually, say it as much as you want. It’s not like anyone’s going anywhere. This is your Stay at Home time.
Oh wait, I almost forgot. The meatballs! Ok, so back when we were chopping all those onions and trying not to cry even though we knew we could all probably use a good one right about now, you should’ve set a bit of raw onion aside in a bowl. Add to this bowl a couple pounds of not-too-lean ground beef, and you’re well on your way. Some salt and pepper too.
Should you put some eggs in to help bind the meatballs together? Probably. Is it my place to tell you how many eggs? Decidedly not. The highest practice of Buddhism is to discard the teachings of the Buddha himself, prompting some monks to keep his statue atop a toilet as a reminder of this truth. Trust me not.
Also at issue is the matter of breadcrumbs, if any. I could tell you what kind of breadcrumbs I personally use, but then again no one pays me for this stuff. I am therefore withholding my endorsement of any particular breadcrumb brand until I see some proper goddamn compensation. Your move, crumb bums.
Brown those meatballs in a pan so they hold together, dump the whole mess into the sauce, and abbondanza! You are good to go.
Happy April 1st, everyone. Take care, stay safe, and be well. Mangiamo!