THE WASHINGTON POST
My grandmother’s Sunday dinners were magical. Could I re-create them for my own family?
If there’s one thing I wanted to share from my childhood with my fiance and his three kids, it was Sunday dinners.
For the first 25 years of my life, my Italian American grandmother hosted them. I could smell the garlic emanating from her Langhorne, Pa., house before I walked in the door. I could hear the laughter and passionate shouting of cousins, aunts and uncles. When I went inside, I’d find Gran standing over a sea of simmering red in the industrial-size pot she had used at the restaurant she ran for 30 years. Her eyes, big and brown and life-affirming, sent the message that just us being there made her happy. Good food was the lure. But Sunday was more than just dinner: It was time held still, time to relax and engage with the people we loved for a long, drawn-out afternoon.
In 2015, five years after Gran died at 85, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my fiance, Alan, and his three kids, who stay with us half the week.
I wanted to give them the same unforgettable meal experience that Gran gave me. I wanted them to taste what it’s like to bite into al dente pasta decked with Gran’s sweet, piquant sauce and hearty meatballs , complete with peas and onions , and garlic bread . But no one in my family would tell me the recipe for what we collectively called “sauce.” No one.
I started a group text with my two sisters, who are 10 and 14 years older than I, hoping they’d give in. To cook dinner Sunday, I needed the recipe by Thursday, and it was Tuesday already. I tried threatening them:
“If no one tells me the recipe soon, I’ll just look one up online.”
“You have to watch me make it. That’s how I learned from Gran,” Missy, the oldest, wrote. “Why didn’t you pay attention all those times we made it together?”
She had a point. Soon after Gran died in 2010, Missy and I reinstated Sunday dinner by inviting family and friends from our Philadelphia neighborhood. Like Gran, we’d fry meatballs on the stove early in the morning so they could simmer in the sauce for hours. Also like Gran, we’d pre-grate cheese. We’d turn up Frank Sinatra. We’d set out large bottles of Coke and wine. It was the best way we knew to share our favorite takeaway from our childhood. But I was just the sous chef. I didn’t know the measurements, the ingredients or the cooking times. I had failed to take initiative.
“If you can read, you can cook,” Gran used to say. But there was nowhere I could read her recipe because she didn’t write it down. Thankfully, my other sister, Shayna, came through:
“Call me at 3.”
“No!” Missy texted. “Don’t do it!”
“Shayna’s my new favorite sister,” I wrote.
Because my fiance’s kids don’t stay with us Sundays, I chose a Friday night. The two oldest, both teenage girls who often make their own weekend plans, assured me they’d be there. They even seemed excited.
I met all my work deadlines early, so that morning, all I had to do was cook. I still worried I might mess up.
Gran knew what to do without consulting a cookbook. And she had made an effort to learn the recipe — something I neglected to do at the hundreds of Sunday dinners I attended.
Her mother, Carmella, prepared food all day every Sunday at their home in Baltimore when Gran was a girl. There were always people passing through their house, but Sunday was when all of them came together.
And when her mother cooked, Gran took mental notes. I can see her as a teenager in a black-and-white photo I have, her head amid a crowd of standing guests raising forkfuls of pasta. The wooden table that sat more than 20 people was full. Her father, my great-grandfather, Colergero, had made the table by hand, after immigrating to the United States from Calascibetta when he was 16. A few years later, he operated two businesses, a shoe repair shop and a restaurant, which inspired my grandmother to open her own restaurant — a cozy family eatery in Bensalem, Pa. — in the 1940s.
As I mixed ingredients for the meatballs, a sixth sense kicked in. I trusted my judgment. I added spices that weren’t in the recipe. I even mustered the audacity to dismiss the plain white slices of bread that Gran had used and made fresh bread crumbs instead from a seeded loaf. I spooned in pecorino cheese and added an egg to ensure the meatballs wouldn’t fall apart. After I browned them, I dropped them into the tomato mixture. I added a pinch of this, a handful of that. I stopped measuring. The aroma was overwhelmingly familiar. I texted Shayna:
“Should it be vigorously simmering or just bubbling a little?”
“A little.” Then I remembered. When Gran would turn the burner up too high, the sauce would splatter everywhere. It made a “tih” sound on the copper stovetop.
“How do I cut the onions that I sauté with the peas?”
“Slice thin.” I remembered chewing into the long strands.
“I put the garlic bread on 350 for how long?”
“Until it’s a little brown.”
I had to watch to know. After I closed the oven, there was nothing left to prepare. Alan and his kids trickled in, their eyes wide. They were not accustomed to seeing me in the kitchen. Their dad is the one who invents recipes on the spot and masterfully crafts his Mexican grandmother’s handmade tortillas, chile verde with pork, beans and sopa de fideo. And with lots of garlic, always. When Alan and his kids walked in the door, the first thing they noticed was the garlic scent.
“I could smell it all the way from my school,” his 9-year-old son joked.
That night, even the picky eaters ate my pasta. I had to boil a pound more. In addition to angel hair, I made conchiglie, seashell-shape pasta, a surprise Gran would uncover for me moments before we’d sit down to dinner. Alan’s oldest daughter chose shells because she liked how they collected the sauce.
“That’s why they’re my favorite,” I said.
After we were too full to eat any more, Alan took out the playing cards, another staple of Gran’s. The kids taught me Rummy 5000, a fast-paced game they learned from Alan’s sister and brother-in-law. There was laughing and passionate shouting. Some of us refilled our plates an hour after we thought we’d had enough. We didn’t notice it — of course we didn’t notice — but afternoon changed into evening. We were still sitting at the table, all of us together. The Sunday Dinner effect had fully kicked in.