As a girl, Susan Russo remembers how every Italian-American woman with any pride started cooking "gravy" — tomato sauce with meat — by breakfast on Sundays so it would be ready for a 2 p.m. meal. Russo shares memories of the Sunday dinners of her childhood.
Savoring Memories of Sunday Dinner
Susan Russo for NPR
Hey, come over here, kid, learn something. ... You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh? ... And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick.
-- Clemenza teaches Michael to make gravy, in The Godfather
When my husband and I were dating, we would sometimes deliver papers for his family's Sunday morning paper route. I remember his mother's detailed instructions for whose paper went where — Mr. Lisi, side door; the DiFuscos, back door.
I also remember the smell that hit you as you approached each little house at the crack of dawn — not coffee, not bacon and eggs, but gravy. Many Italian Americans refer to tomato sauce cooked with meat as "gravy." And to make it correctly takes hours.
I grew up in Rhode Island, which is 19 percent Italian-American — the highest percentage of any state. In my neighborhood, every Italian-American woman with any pride started the gravy by breakfast so it would be ready for Sunday dinner at 2 p.m.
At the heart of every Sunday dinner was gravy and meatballs. Though every family had its variations, the basic premise was the same: braise cuts of pork and beef in olive oil. Add tomatoes, a few glugs of red wine, some crushed red pepper and a handful of fresh basil. Then let it cook from three to six hours until the meat is so tender it falls off the bone and the sauce turns a deep, rich red.
Once the gravy was on, the meatballs had to be made. From the time my hands were big enough to roll the meatballs, they became my contribution. My mother and I stood in the kitchen laughing, talking and rolling for hours without regard to my cold, wrinkled fingers.
The meatballs were added to the gravy and served with special pasta such as cavatelli, a small, hand-rolled shell pasta that was more expensive than spaghetti or penne and therefore reserved for special meals. At my house, the pasta was always accompanied by a side of meat, such as baked chicken or veal scaloppine. Vegetables typically included stuffed mushrooms or stuffed peppers and a sauteed bitter green, such as broccoli rabe or escarole with beans. With a salad, a loaf of crusty Italian bread and some red wine (homemade, if you were lucky), Sunday dinner was complete.
It was exactly the same every Sunday; yet, we always looked forward to it. If I close my eyes, I can see my mom's kitchen windows steaming up from the simmering gravy, hear her banging her wooden spoon on the rim of the gravy pot, and smell the meatballs sizzling in olive oil. I can also see my dad, grandmother and siblings ripping off pieces of Italian bread and dunking them in the gravy as they walked by.
Sadly, I can't imagine cooking these Sunday dinners today; they seem old-fashioned. Who's got six hours to make dinner? We're too busy. But then I think, weren't our mothers busy, too? How did they do it? In some ways, life seemed better then, certainly more so than on a recent Sunday afternoon, when I'm standing in line at the San Diego Costco.
Sitting down for family meals has been in decline in America for decades. According to surveys, however, that's beginning to change. This is good. Studies show that children who eat meals with their families are less likely to have behavioral problems, more likely to do well in school, and more likely to have a healthier diet. Not to mention that treasured childhood memories are irreplaceable.
Maybe because it's the holiday season or because I am getting older, I've been thinking a lot about my family dinners — not what we ate, but the way my mother would announce dinner by saying, "Mangia! Mangia! (Eat! Eat!)" — or the way my grandmother would still be eating well after the table had been cleared. My mom probably has no idea that 20 years later and 3,000 miles away, I reminisce about her Sunday dinners and am thankful to her for providing me with those memories — and for teaching me how to make good meatballs.