recipe

Worn tin box is my time machine

IMG_6916_rw1As published in The Providence Journal, April 15, 2018. Photo: Rob Walsh

I cast my line into Google’s data ocean with the words “vintage recipe box” as my bait, and get a quick 3 million nibbles. I click for images and, after one scroll down, there it is: a red metal tin identical to the one that sat by my mother’s stove, and now sits on my desk.

According to eBay, Mom’s recipe box could fetch me $19.99, but I’m not selling. How can I? The worn tin is priceless – a treasure chest, a time machine, a family portrait.

After 60 years, the artwork on the box is more kitsch than cool. A fish peers at me one-eyed from a frying pan; an orange Jell-O mold is topped with a cherry or perhaps an olive – I’m not sure which. The bottom panel reveals a manufacturer’s pride: “Design Copyright by Stylecraft of Baltimore.” Such recipe files were popular in 1956, the year my parents got married.

While Mom’s cooking wasn’t fancy, it always “hit the spot,” especially her chicken cutlets, and macaroni and meatballs.

After I moved into my first apartment, I asked my mother for her meatball recipe. Instead of reaching for a pen, Mom reeled off a litany of ingredients that included ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk, pepper, and a dash of garlic salt. I guess she presumed I would know what to do with them. It was years before I produced an edible orb.

This exchange left me with the sense that my mother was averse to writing down the secrets to her dishes, but her recipe box proves otherwise. It contains a hodgepodge of index cards, folded notes, newspaper clippings, and alphabetized dividers, which Mom clearly had no use for.

Today, almost five years after my mother’s death, the first recipe I pull out of the box is a family classic: Nonnie Caione’s Easter bread – a miracle of eggs, butter, sugar, aniseed, salt, sugar, yeast, and flour. By Palm Sunday every spring, a loaf would appear on our kitchen table, waiting to be sliced and then slathered with soft butter. As we relished each bite, Mom would celebrate her maternal grandmother, invariably noting, “Nonnie was tiny.” My brothers and I found this funny since, at 5 foot 1 inch, my mother was no Wilt Chamberlain.

A preprinted card from the Virginia Electric and Power Company lists standard measures on one side and a hamburger and vegetable casserole recipe on the other. It reminds me that, as newlyweds, my parents lived in Fredericksburg while Dad was training at the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico.

A recipe for veal and mushrooms is grease-stained, indelible proof of its deliciousness. The dish, from a dear family friend, became a favorite for special occasions and send-off dinners.

There are surprises. A Providence Journal clipping from the early 1980s details how to make President Reagan’s favorite macaroni and cheese. I don’t recall Mom liking mac and cheese all that much, but I do know she loved the Gipper. Who knew her recipe box would confirm her preferences at the ballot box, as well?

Two recipes stand out. One is for “gravy,” the meat-based tomato sauce that simmered on our stove every Sunday. No doubt this culinary prescription was given to my mother by her mother in our family’s version of Moses receiving the tablets. The other recipe, for meatballs, is equally sacred. It echoes my conversation with Mom from long ago: ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk …

Recipes now come to me via Bon Appetit email blasts and Tasty videos on YouTube, which I love. Still, I’m holding on to the vintage red tin for the ingredients only it can serve up: my mother’s familiar handwriting; artifacts from my parents’ early life together; connection to foods my grandmother and great-grandmother once made.

It’s a family archive to be savored.

Stirring Things Up: The Gravy Recipe

crushed tomatoes

I have written seven Op-Ed pieces for the Providence Journal since December. Topics have included Wiffle ball, the return of “Mad Men,” and Christmas Eve at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill.

Of all the pieces, one stands alone in its popularity: “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which ran this past Wednesday. It garnered, by far, the most Facebook shares of any of my columns to date.

I’m not surprised. Having grown up in Providence, I know first-hand how passionate people can be about bread and gravy.

When the number of Facebook shares topped 100 on Wednesday afternoon, I offered an incentive in hopes of generating more: if the shares reached 200, I’d publish my gravy recipe. It worked. Shortly before noon on Thursday, we hit the magic number. By the end of the day, the shares exceeded 300. First thing Friday morning, they were at 401 (appropriate number) and still climbing.

My gravy recipe is simple, but figuring it out was anything but that. Years ago, when I asked my mother about the ingredients, she said “depends on what you have.” (For meat, she would use sausage or pork or steak or braciole – whatever was on hand.) When I asked her about proportions, she used phrases like “just a bit” and “a good amount” and “you know, until it tastes good.” That’s when I learned these truths: making gravy is more art than science. And each batch is as unique and personal as a signature.

My mother’s gravy was delicious, the ultimate comfort food for me. I watched and experimented and fine-tuned. And then one day, many years later, my mom said, “Your gravy is good.”

If I had been elected President of the United States, she would have been proud. But it would have been a silver-medal accomplishment next to my gravy gold. I had arrived.

Opinions abound about what makes a good gravy, so feel free to weigh in. Just don’t get me started on the meatballs.

Buon appetito!

Here’s the recipe:

THE GRAVY

INGREDIENTS

> 1/4 cup vegetable oil

> 1 small onion, finely chopped

> 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

> ½ pound sweet Italian sausage, about 3 links, cut into pieces (OR pork or steak or braciole, “depending on what you have”)

> 1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes

> 1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce

> Fresh basil and thyme, finely chopped, OR Italian seasoning

> 1 small carrot OR a pinch of sugar

> 1 bay leaf

> ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

> ¼ teaspoon salt

In a large pot, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and onions, and sauté until onions are tender and translucent. Add the sweet Italian sausage (or other meat) and brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, fresh basil and thyme (or Italian seasoning), carrot (or pinch of sugar), bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Simmer partially covered over low heat for at least two hours; if the Patriots are playing, for the entire game. If gravy gets too thick, add “just a bit” of water.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: