My story doesn’t start off like most… I didn’t grow up with a large family that sat down every evening around an even larger table for meals. I didn’t watch over my grandmother’s shoulder as she prepared her favorite dish, with her hoping that someday it would seep in and become a part of me. I didn’t even help to put the icing on the Christmas cookies that were prepared every year to give to friends and neighbors. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if I ever did make Christmas cookies as a child. Cooking wasn’t a love or a passion in our home. It was a necessity. You see, I grew up with my father. A strong, stoic, yet endowing, Eastern European, at that. And with just the two of us, our dinners often came from a box, or a can, or, if I was lucky, from a tin foiled tray that included something that resembled a small square of apple or cherry pie. Those were good days.
We ate our meals in the living room while we watched TV. My father sat on the couch at the back of the room with the coffee table as his place, and I sat in mine; on the floor between the wall and the over-sized brown chair that was made of a soft velvet, and sat “kitty corner” from the wall facing the television. This little triangle was particular. It was an area that both my father and I shared at times, squeezing in tightly beside each other. Other times, we silently battled over the space as we slowly eased each other out, claiming it as our own. The wall that housed that nook was the only one within the small room that had a register to the furnace, right there, close to the floor. This was the warm spot. It was sacred. But what was even more important was that it was my secret hiding place. That heating vent had a few metal rows missing, and allowed me an open frame to hide those unwanted bits from my plate. The fatty pieces from the canned pork and beans that I always seemed to get, the grizzle from the overcooked steak, even the runny mashed potatoes that caused me to gag as I tried, unwillingly, to force down as my father yelled from across the small room, “Eat your dinner!” My father’s talents were not necessarily in food, and well, it was a furnace. In my child’s mind, I believed that those unwanted pieces went into the fire and were burned and destroyed forever. There would be no evidence. No one would ever know. Until I finally moved away, and my aunt was helping my father paint the room bright white again. They removed the vent only to find a small shelf of petrified food collected over the many years of my squirreling and thinking that I was sooo very smart.
During these early years, my father and I lived next door to an Italian family who, by the grace of God, took us in as their own. My father was a newly found single parent, trying to find his way in a world where divorce was somewhat uncommon, let alone, a man raising his daughter alone. He had gone from living at home with his mother… who took care of him, to living with a wife… who tried to take care of him, to living with a child… that he needed to figure out how to take care of, and fast. He took this challenge to heart, providing a life for me the best he could. And it was good for us both. My father said to me recently, “We grew up together,” and that was exactly what we did. Where we lacked in flavor, we made up for with love. Yet, it wasn’t always easy. His days were filled with working hard, coming home tired after those many hours, and then, he would take care of me. His hands were full, and at times, he leaned on this family next door to help. When I was sick, when he had to work overtime or weekends, and other moments that confronted him with being a sole care provider for a young child, the Rancatore’s were always there for us both. Over the years and through the trials, this family became ours as well.
I called her Aunt Phyllis. And I loved her with all my heart. She was a gentle woman with the sweetest smile. Her dark curly hair bobbed when she walked, and her bright eyes twinkled when she spoke; especially about the bible. She had a slightly humped back and walked a bit crocked, but her arms could open wide and embrace you full into her bosom. She was the epitome of all that was good to me. She was that feeling that I created in my heart of what “home” was. And… she could also cook! Italian food. Every now and again, we were sent over a big helping of rigatoni with her homemade tomato sauce and meatballs. My father and I would look at each other with big eyes and smile wide, because we knew that we’d be eating well that night. It was a treat. And through Aunt Phyllis, my love for Italian food began. After I grew and left home, Aunt Phyllis continued to prepare a wonderful feast for my father and I, when I returned for a visit. These were moments that I always looked forward to and cherished more than anything. This is where my memories shared at a table over food really began.
I have a distinct memory that happened after a particular dinner with Aunt Phyllis, during a Christmas break, while I was home. It was the morning after, and the house was quiet. My father had gone to work, and I was alone to wander with my thoughts. I was sitting in that little corner, warming myself from the slight chill that seemed to find its way from the cracks of a settled, older home. I sat there going over the previous evening, the meal, and conversations held, and I stared to really think about cooking. I started to question the different aspects, wondering how long it took, how much effort went into preparing a meal like that. Kim, Aunt Phyllis’ daughter who had joined us that evening, said that she had worked on that sauce “all day long.” This had really made an impression on me. I mean, opening a can and heating its contents took about five minutes, fifteen for a box. “Was this what cooking really was? An all-day affair?? This must equate to love somehow. They say that cooking is a labor of it, after all… Is this what it meant?” Then I started thinking specifically about lasagna, with its denseness and layers. “How in the world do you make a lasagna?!? It probably takes all day too, and, well, you really must know how to cook… if you can make a lasagna.” That was my conclusion. And at that moment, I vowed that I would, some day, learn to make one for myself. I would become a good cook too.
A few years later, I did meet that goal. I learn to make that lasagna. I was officially independent and living on my own, and I was ready to learn how to cook for myself. I had bought an old used copy of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook at the local vintage store, and I studied it like some lost scroll that had been hidden away with its secrets and ways. I made its recipes; classics like Banana Bread and Scalloped Potatoes, and stranger ones like American Cheese Pie and Two-Cheese Spaghetti Casserole. And then I found the recipe for lasagna. The only problem was that I had gone vegetarian at the time, and this was clearly a meat heavy recipe. I spoke to a friend about this the next day who was also a vegetarian, and she shared with me that she used spinach instead of meat. And so I tried that with my boxed noodles, frozen spinach, jarred sauce and packaged cheeses. I felt successful! I had finally made a lasagna. Even if it was the preserved veggie version.
Several years passed, and I had graduated from The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, and moved on from boxed, packaged and frozen foods. I somehow fell madly in love with food, despite my beginnings, and I became even deeper involved with cooking the recipes myself. While seeking new taste and techniques, I found myself exploring those beloved Italian foods in Rome. It was there that I was, once again, confronted with lasagna. John, my husband, had ordered a slice for lunch, and to my surprise, I began to eat what was on his dish. It started with just a taste, but led to a full-on siege of his plate. This was what lasagna should taste like. THIS was IT. True lasagna without ricotta, but with a béchamel and a bolognese meat sauce, obviously, not from a jar. It was a moment of glory where I felt as though I had found something; the answer to the question that I didn’t even know that I was seeking. The piece wasn’t heavy, or overwhelming, even on a ninety plus degree day. It was light, yet filling, salty, yet sweet, with the right amount of creaminess and a perfect crunch from the top layer of crusted and melted cheese… and I just wanted more.
To my surprise, I found this recipe for Lasagna Bolognese in bon appétite magazine shortly after we returned home from Italy. It is akin to the lasagna that we experienced while we were there. I decided to explore the recipe and make it myself, but I never expected the actual effect that it would have on my life. This recipe helped to provide a clear defining turning point. A “coming home” of sorts. And, I had finally learned to make lasagna.
When I was recreating this recipe, I was at a vastly different place in my life than I was during those early beginnings. I was older, more mature, married and now living across the country, away from my father. He had been diagnosed with cancer six months prior, and even though he had been recently declared in remission, I was still dealing with the depression that I had sunk so deeply into when I had first found out. My father was still my center, my nucleus, and the idea of losing him was too much for me to accept. I was working on “finding my happy” again, but it came slowly. I was determined that if I would do the things that I thought would make me happy, eventually happy would meet up with me again. Recovery through action was my train of thought. And one of the ways that I lost myself, was in cooking. I spent days in the kitchen that season making new foods, trying new recipes. I lost myself in the monotony, the motion of it all; the chopping, the stirring, the blending, the kneading. I found a peace there, a peace that I had never quite known before, and it came again while I was making this recipe. While chopping the onion, carrot and celery for the Bolognese, I started to asking myself, “Is going to culinary school a realistic option? Is a life in food worthwhile?” And shortly after that, everything start to change…
Sidenote: This recipe may be somewhat time consuming, but it is extremely easy to follow and achievable for all levels of home cooks. And the results are more than worth the effort. I do sometimes substitute store bought fresh noodles found in the refrigerated section for freshly made in lieu of time, but of course, homemade is always better. Again, this is not my own personal recipe, but was found and copied from bon appétit magazine, published in October, 2013.