Though my mother’s no longer here to meet my son, he’ll taste his grandmother’s cooking though our family’s Sunday gravy, the one I make every week to keep her spirit alive.
Time has passed. While I’ll never get over the pain of losing my mother, I have learned how to live with the sadness. I’m able to process and compartmentalize the heartache in a way that was entirely impossible in the first few months and years after my mother’s death.
People always tell you that loss gets easier with time. That’s bullshit. It doesn’t get easier. You simply figure out how to deal with it better. You become an expert in the management of sadness.
There’s not a day I don’t think about my mother in some capacity. Even when I’m not actively remembering her smile, her laugh, her goofy nature, her thick-as-tomato-paste Jersey City accent, she’s in the back of my mind, lingering between the mundanity of daily life—the checklists that never end, the routine of being a husband, a father, a homeowner—and the grand and existential wonder, fear, anxiety, and anticipation that hides in the dark corners of all of our thoughts.
But on gravy day, she is right next to me at my stove, tasting, talking, laughing, smiling, alive. And my heart is full and the sadness disappears.
This is the strange power that food has over us. It’s tactile. It’s aromatic. It’s visual. And thus, it is wholly immersive. It commands all of our attention, thus it allows us to feel comfort often in ways that no other medium does because of its wholly enveloping nature. For me, it is a time machine. For my mother, it is immortality.
Sunday. Our front door is wide open and the benevolent North Carolina sun douses our hardwood floor with light. It’s unseasonably hot. I think. Perhaps it’s normally hot. I’m new to the South. Back in New York City, fall has begun to make her early bite. Sunday morning music lilts from our stereo. Jonathan Richman or Comet Gain or Wings or Patsy Cline. It’s not even eight in the morning and I’m wide awake, a dense wave of caffeine courtesy of three or four cups of black coffee coursing through me, my kitchen operating at full bore.
Sundays are gravy day.
Though hardly labor intensive, the making of a proper Italian-American Sunday gravy should take at least six hours on the stove. At least six hours of bubbling crimson stew. Six hours of not doing much of anything, save the occasional stir with a gravysmith’s most trusted weapon: his wooden spoon.
Each of the four burners on our stove is accounted for. On one stands the herculean lobster pot I grabbed from my mother’s kitchen in the days following her death, which is the primary vessel for the tomato sauce. The other three burners are full with pans of crackling and popping meat that will soon go in the grand pot.
Once the lobster pot is half-full with the sauces, tomatoes, onions, and spices on the stove, the time comes to add the meat. The pork chops, the steaks, the meatballs, and the sausage links don’t get cooked on the stove top. Rather they are browned in olive oil and garlic, and tossed in the lobster pot with the tomato sauce, where they will spend the next six or seven hours fully cooking through, slowly becoming the fall-off-the-bone fare that dance in the dreams of North Carolina’s famed BBQ pitmasters.
As the meat cooks, their fats, marrows, and juices blend with the tomato sauce, abiding in its evolution from red to something that is almost brown, a rust color with a brim of black crust around the surface edge.
“See that,” I always tell Emily, pointing to the black upper rim of the gravy. “See how it’s not really red anymore? That’s how you know it’s getting there.”
It’s a sentence, word for word, my mother would tell me as she scooped out an early meatball for me to eat when she was healthy, or later, sick, when she was still here. Her lips would smack with excitement at the gravy she had made ten thousand times before, as though this pot would be more perfect than any that had ever come before.
“Oh, that’s good,” she’d say, slurping a bit from her wooden spoon, eyes closed, corners of her mouth upturned in smile.
If you really know what you’re doing, at some point or another, the uppermost layer of your pot may very well resemble something more akin to motor oil rather than something you’d douse over a bowl of pasta shells. When it’s closer to black than it is to red, greasy, spotty, and oily, is when gravy is at its best.
This is the point when “sauce” becomes gravy.
The recipe is simple, really. The ingredient list short. Canned tomato sauce and paste, diced tomatoes, fresh tomatoes blanched and cut into fat chunks, thick as small stones, garlic, white onions, olive oil, salt, pepper both black and red, and fresh basil. Throw all in a large pot on medium-low heat, wait, stirring occasionally.
Of course, as the Italian adage goes, the final, unequivocal and most important ingredient is a little bit of love. As my mother would often remind me, “to cook with your heart is to cook perfectly. Cook with love and you’ll never make a bad dish.”
In the Italian-American household, gravy is sacrosanct. It’s more than just a pasta dish. It’s an heirloom, a link from past to present. It’s having my mother, right there in my kitchen next to me every time I devote my entire Sunday to a pot of gravy. It’s having my great-grandparents and their great-grandparents around my little stove, each adding their own little secret to our communal pot. Someday people who will never have met me will be sitting down over a bowl of the same gravy that I make today in my North Carolina kitchen.
It is because of this that my family’s gravy is more priceless to me than any piece of jewelry passed through the generations, than any story, legend, or anecdote that is routinely recounted every holiday over the family table. Perhaps it is that those artifacts, at their inception, were the property of someone else, someone specific. Conversely, this bubbling pot is ours. No single person has ever owned it. Every time it sits atop my stove, it is a marriage of the past and the present. It is the confluence of all Italian-Americans. It’s our universal inheritance. It is the singular thread, the living heirloom that ties us all together.
Once the meat has been browned and is tossed in with the sauce, the rest of the day is of relative leisure. You need nothing more than to stir the pot every ten or fifteen or twenty minutes as the tomatoes, the acid, the natural sugars, the marrow from the bones of the meat, the basil, the pepper, the salt, the sugar all work together and dance their fierce, boiling ballet inside of the massive pot.
When you think of it as such, you become ancillary to the gravy itself. You’re no more than a stirrer, a facilitator, whereas the parts of the whole become the cook.
As pragmatism is often the best sous chef, always listen to your pot when making gravy. Let the gravy be your guide. Tastes like it needs salt? Add salt. Too tangy? Add sugar. Not enough onions? Add more onions.
My mother always said, “You don’t need no fuckin’ recipe to make this stuff.”
Start with a little bit of everything. If it’s not enough, add more. If it’s too much, don’t use so much next time.
Stir, stir, stir. Six, seven, eight hours into the cook, still we sit, occasionally sneaking meatballs, eating them from a coffee mug with a tiny dab of gravy on top, just like mom taught me.
“That’s the best way to eat ‘em,” she would always tell me about the fist-sized meatballs. “Just make sure you don’t eat ’em all. Leave enough for Daddy.”
Eventually, the lights go off and a single bulb above our stove is the only thing that illuminates our kitchen. The gravy still bubbles in the pot, the stirrer occasionally stirs.
When it’s time, we pour the gravy over top a pile of airy and bouncy shells or penne, topped with fresh grated Pecorino Romano, with our homegrown basil providing the perfect aromatic counterpoint to the gravy’s pungently aggressive tone.
We had our first baby recently, a little boy we named Julius. Watching Emily become a mother makes me wonder how I ever chose to spend so much time away from her, how I ever survived without her every single day. I wonder how we did what we did, how selflessly she allowed me to chase my dreams.
I think of the gravy and the dumplings and the chicken and the Number 1 Chinese, the phone calls and the texts and the ways she reminds me of my mother. I think of the way we somehow made our relationship work, despite the thousands of miles so often between us.
I look at her holding our Julius, our Jules, our Julie, and my mind can’t help but wander to my mother. I think of how much she’s missed out on in death, how she’ll never get to hold or rock my son to sleep, never get to see him grow or watch his soccer or football games, never see him ship off to college or dance with him at his wedding, never get to see the parts of her that manifest in him; the stubbornness that she gave me, the resolve, the forgiveness, the passion, the empathy that I hope will someday compose the core of who he is.
I promise myself that I won’t be afraid to talk to him about my mother, that I’ll tell him everything I can about the grandmother he’ll never meet, as he is who he is because of who she was. And I’ll tell my little boy the stories about my mother that I love the most and I’ll remind him of her goodness and her kindness and her patience and her toughness and her attitude and her accent.
And someday, I’ll show him how to make her gravy. And someday we’ll stand together in the kitchen, lording over the pot as the bubbling sauce magically transforms into gravy, aprons on, wooden spoons in hand.
And in those moments there she’ll be, in our kitchen, standing beside the little boy she never got to meet.
Michael Venutolo-Mantovani is a writer and musician living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And though he loves the South, he's quick to tell you that he's actually from Jersey and moved down here from Lower Manhattan. His favorites include black coffee, NASCAR, his son and wife, a well-placed "fuck," sunflowers, his truck, college basketball, and the vocals-only takes of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, though not in that order. He doesn't have an MFA. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @christglider (it's not a religious thing) and on the web at therealmichaelvm.com