Occasionally I use writing exercises to get me started. Today’s prompt sparked this trip through memory’s kitchen.
When I think of my childhood back in San Jose, I taste tomato sauce, specially on raviolis. Oh God, those stuffed pasta squares from La Villa’s delicatessen in Willow Glen. The smells of that place. Tomatoes, oregano, cheese. Wine bottles encased in straw baskets. Loaves of French bread. Salamis hanging from hooks on the wall.
Raviolis were a treat for all of us, especially Mom, who didn’t have to cook. While we set the table, Dad would go fetch them, along with little cardboard boxes of macaroni and potato salads. We might have bread, too. White bread stacked on a plate, to butter heavily and use to soak up the leftover sauce. Nobody complained about the all-carb meal in those days. It was just hot and cold, red and white.
We sprinkled on grated Parmesan cheese from a green cardboard container. I never tasted fresh ground Parmesan until well into adulthood.
When the deli in Willow Glen felt like too far to drive, we were stuck with Pianto’s, located nearby and owned by our neighbors. The sauce was more like the stuff Mom bought in cans at the store, and the raviolis were not as fat or as firm. Years after Mr. Pianto died, the family got tired of the business and sold it to another family which moved the business to Saratoga. It closed in 2009. The original location became a pizza place. Pizza has tomato sauce, too, but my parents never ate pizza. My father still doesn’t consider it food.
Other places filled the ravioli gap: By th’ Bucket, Frankie, Johnnie and Luigi’s, and a now-defunct place called Ravioli. All good. By the time I was in my teens, you could also buy frozen raviolis and tubs of frozen sauce at the grocery store, but those were for emergencies only.
There had to be raviolis, something for those nights when Mom wasn’t up to cooking or company dropped in unexpectedly, which they did quite a lot. My parents wouldn’t touch Chinese or any other Asian food. And you couldn’t serve hamburgers for dinner. So, they bought raviolis.
It’s no wonder I became a ravioli head. It’s what I always wanted to eat on my birthdays and what I usually got. I would stuff myself until I wasn’t sure it would stay in my stomach, but it always did, and I always found room for chocolate cake with Cool Whip frosting.
Tomato sauce showed up in other dishes, of course, especially spaghetti. My grandmother had the best sauce. I can still smell it as I hovered near the stove in her kitchen, where the walls and wooden trim were all white and the ceiling was painted bright red. I wanted to immerse myself in it. I think it was oregano mixed with cumin that gave it its distinctive aroma. The only sauce that ever came close was the sauce they served at Cypress School on spaghetti day.
My mother’s sauce most likely came out of a can, but we ate a lot of it on spaghetti or the no-name noodle-hamburger-tomato sauce casserole that showed up on the table all too often. I ate it. I ate it all. Firsts, seconds and thirds.
When I grew up, I wanted to make good sauce, like Grandma’s. I developed a variation of Betty Crocker’s recipe that came close. Then I married Fred, who had his own recipe, and it was better. It included onions, mushrooms, peppers, sausage, stewed tomatoes, cheese and a good dose of wine. Leaning over the pot, I got drunk on the steam. It was heaven.
When we combined that sauce with long flat noodles, Italian sausage and three kind of cheese for lasagna, oh my God. Heaven on a plate.
Tomato sauce was not just for pasta. Mom made a wonderful casserole of zucchini, onions, American cheese and tomato sauce. She also put it on green beans, which almost masked the taste.
If we’re talking tomatoes, we can’t forget ketchup. If we had meat, there was ketchup on the table. Purists might disdain eating steak or prime rib with the red stuff, but for me, it was required. Still is. Hamburgers, pork chops, French fries, onion rings–got to have the ketchup. Mom even put ketchup in our tuna sandwiches and made salad dressing with ketchup, mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce. Don’t knock it till you try it.
Yes, the taste of tomatoes captures my childhood. I might be Portuguese, German, French and Spanish, but my stomach is Italian. As an adult living alone in Oregon, I buy a few fresh tomatoes at the store. Mostly I slice them for BLTs, aware that my doctor doesn’t want me to eat any “T.” My troubled stomach has had its fill of tomato sauce and screams no more acid. I dress my frozen raviolis in pesto or alfredo sauce. I sauté my zucchini with olive oil. But sometimes a girl just has to have a little tomato, especially when it’s quite possible the red cells in her blood are full of tomato sauce. It’s almost my birthday. If I close my eyes, I can still taste those raviolis in the big yellow Pyrex bowl on top of the yellow Formica table. It’s almost my birthday. Do I dare? I must.
What taste captures your childhood? Don’t think too hard.What comes to mind first when you think about those days when your legs were so short your feet didn’t quite touch the floor. Please share in the comments.