Learning to make a time-honored family recipe helps a young boy open his culinary mindset, connect with his father and explore his roots.
My parents divorced when I was 2, and I divided my time between two parents and two kitchens. My mom was queen bee of the house and the kitchen was her throne room. NORAD is what her friends called it. With varnished maple countertops (chopping prohibited), rubber Pirelli floors and an island counter big enough to seat a family of five, my mom’s kitchen was designed more for entertaining than cooking.
Cooking with my mom was one part dish, one part food preparation and one part spectacle. As she breaded pork chops, Carlton Menthol 100 smoldering in one hand, pork chop in the other, she’d tell whoever was in the kitchen—or on the phone— about the fabulous shoes on sale at Montaldo’s, or how, while having drinks at McFann’s, two of her boyfriends showed up. “What did I do? I introduced them.” Big sizzle as she dropped the pork chop into the cast-iron skillet.
My dad called me a little shit when it came to food. I grew up in Denver in the ’80s. Iceberg was still the only lettuce. I was happy eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and everything Chef Boyardee. This was endlessly frustrating to the father who added onions to marinated hamburgers he served on whole wheat bread. I’d ask for fish sticks and french fries; he’d make blackened catfish with roasted sweet potatoes. I hated the food he made, and he resented me for never trying anything new.
That changed when I was 10. I was alone at my dad’s for the weekend. No girlfriends. No brother. No sister. No friends. We met in the kitchen after my Saturday morning routine: Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, Thunder Cats. I was rummaging through bran cereals looking for the closest thing to Cap’n Crunch when he came in carrying a couple of pounds of frozen meat.
“Want to help make Grandma’s spaghetti sauce?”
Grandma’s spaghetti sauce had chunks of tomatoes and onions and garlic. It didn’t have melt-in-your-mouth, bite-sized meatballs like Chef Boyardee. It didn’t have meatballs at all. My dad and I had an awkward moment while I processed my options and measured the magnitude of the guilt trip simmering under the surface.
“You don’t have to.”
“No, I will.”
“Maybe you’ll try it when we’re done.”
I smiled to appease his delusions.
As he prepped, I asked questions. Is onion really necessary? Can you chop the garlic smaller? Can we put the tomatoes in the blender? Why don’t we make meatballs with the hamburger? Do we really need oregano, basil, parsley and bay leaves? Will I get drunk from the red wine? Once I had exhausted all my suggestions, I actually started to learn something.
As the meat sizzled in the pan, my dad showed me how to dice onions by cutting them in half through the core, then slicing them in a grid. He used the flat side of his chef’s knife to smash the garlic free of its skin. We barely spoke: just simple instructions. But the kitchen was alive with the steady rhythm of the knife on wood, and the sizzle of meat in a pan. In a large pot, he drizzled olive oil and sautéed the onion, then the garlic. He added the cooked meat with pinches of parsley and basil, salt and pepper. Next came the tomatoes, then the tomato paste, the sugar, and last, the wine.
With each step the sauce became thicker, the aroma in the kitchen heavier. My dad ladled sauce into a small bowl.
“Try it,” he said.
I inspected for chunks. I stirred and scooped until I had a perfect spoonful of meat and tomatoes, no onion.
“Better than that bottled crap your mother gives you?”
The meat was flavorful, the chunks bigger than Ragu.
“I guess.” I hated to admit it.
I didn’t magically open up to all kinds of food that day. But a door opened, and over the years, my dad and I spent more Saturdays cooking together. I learned more sauces: white clam sauce, boscaiola, marinara. His Italian roots, and our ritual of cooking together on weekends, became a part of me. So much so that my first jobs were in restaurants. Always in the kitchen, always cooking. I went on to live in Italy for a year after high school—a move inspired by my mom’s need for adventure and my dad’s heritage. I came to define myself with elements from both parents, mixed with my own interests.
Antonio Aiello is a writer and online editor for PEN American Center, an international literary and human rights advocacy organization. He is at work on a memoir about cooking and lives in Montclair, New Jersey, where he cooks and gardens with his wife and two kids. Excerpted with permission from Alimentum.
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