IT’S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR
So it’s the holidays. And as much fun as it may be to act like a snarky assholish curmudgeon, the truth is I love this time of year. I love Christmas. You get to not work. You get to be with family. You get all the good free shit that you’re usually too cheap to buy for yourself. Little kids running around adds a whole other element to it. And in my family, you get to eat. A lot.
Holiday meals for me are grand and dogmatic affairs, strictly controlled, based on “the old ways” and tracing their lineage back to my earliest holiday memories to a modest house in Jerome, Idaho where my grandparents lived. Its main gathering areas were limited to the small kitchen and it’s adjacent table and then the living room that came off of that. For some reason, this was determined to be the perfect space for all of our large family gatherings.
My mother and her sisters would cram anywhere between 17 and 100 family members, friends and holiday orphans into that space, most of whom over the age of 12 were holding lit cigarettes, all of whom regardless of age spoke no softer than a bullhorn, and all of whom no matter blood or creed crowded into that house-shaped clown car in the name of family togetherness.
For clarity, family togetherness meant that if you left your seat to use the bathroom it would most likely be taken when you returned, a scenario that almost caused me to piss my pants on more than one occasion. Family togetherness meant a house with the thermostat already at 80 would routinely jump into the low 90s just due to the thermodynamic forces of Italian body heat. Interestingly, family togetherness also meant that if you opened a door or touched the thermostat, you’d be yelled at for “letting all the heat out.” In fact, “family togetherness” was a notion that with even the briefest of scrutiny might be more accurately called a fire hazard by the official types who pay attention to those things. Getting home and finding a cigarette burn in a favorite sweater was not unheard of.
But for all the cramming, burning, near pant-pissing, shoehorning, and suffocating heat, we really did love it.
There was a security to being crammed 17 to a couch, slowly marinating in each other’s juices as the hazy layers of my grandmother’s Marlboro Light 120s washed over us. She had a habit of keeping a lit smoke in every ashtray as she quietly shuffled through the crowds, filling her cocktail with Old Crow and attending to the ham dish, or shrimp aspic mold, or pistachio bowl, or smoked salmon tray, or salami plate, or canned smoked oyster trough, or whatever item had been placed out for mass consumption that hour.
There was a comfort to being lined up like basement-floor body bags, tucked into sleeping bags and futons and foam mats and blankets all asshole to elbow with all of my cousins. Telling dirty jokes and trying to figure out new ways to work the word fart into more Mad Libs while we waited for Christmas morning.
There was a specific pride to knowing that my grandfather would be cooking Christmas dinner in his boxer shorts, conducting the important business of the family in bellows and booming grunts between trips to the kitchen to burnish his own glass of Crow and stir the sauce.
More than anything, my grandfather’s spaghetti meant that it was a holiday. Thanksgiving and Christmas were welcomed by a giant pot, slowly perking away on the cooktop before presents were even unwapped. He hated the presents—wasteful, overly extravagant, brightly wrapped bits of proof that his own hard work had successfully lifted his family out of the immigrant poverty he had endured all of his own childhood. I suppose the hard work wasn’t supposed to have an end result, rather just continue in perpetuity like it’s own never-ceasing reward.
“You big-headed bastards were born with a silver spoon in your mouths.” Was about all he had to say about it. That is until he thought to remind us of the Christmas he was so poor that he only got an orange for his present. Or until he remembered to encourage us to piss outside in the zero degree Idaho night to reacquaint ourselves with his own unfortunate childhood plumbing situations. Or until finally one of us was instructed to be a good boy or girl and stir the sauce for him… maybe bring another splash of Old Crow as well.
Stirring the sauce was a sign of stature. Basically, it meant that you were trusted to not fuck it up—something that amounted to a compliment in my grandfather’s world. Spending years and years of Thanksgivings and Christmases stirring, smelling, working and tasting that sauce is what made me a cook– graduating from sauce stirrer, to sauce helper, to eventually sauce maker, and now all these years after my grandfather’s death, to sauce keeper.
There were never yams on my family’s table. Or wiggly jello things. I’ve never eaten a tiny marshmallow at Thanksgiving. I almost punched a kid in third grade when he told me I was weird because we had spaghetti on Christmas. It took marriage for my wife to get me to budge, allowing mashed potatoes to infiltrate the menu. And that’s after I asked her father’s permission to marry her on Thanksgiving day, while standing over a pot of simmering sauce. We have rib roasts, we have turkeys, we have ever expanding and more extravagant antipasto spreads. But the holidays have always been, and will always be about the sauce. I still only make it on special occasions. It’s my only recipe that I hold basically secret—it’s too personal to let someone outside the family know it. Too much a part of my blood. Some things need to remain sacred.
Make some sauce for your family this year. Doesn’t matter if you’re Italian or not, everybody likes food that tastes like love. And on Christmas, sauce tastes like love, and home, and like being a scrawny, smoke soaked sardine lined up on an old couch with all of your favorite people, reaching for the smoked oyster trough and hoping you don’t have to use the bathroom . Which is what the holidays should always taste like.
If you don’t have your own sauce recipe, here’s one you can borrow. It’s not my grandfather’s, but it’s damn good. Merry Christmas.
2 large onions, diced
Several cloves of garlic
3-5lb pork shoulder, cut into steaks
1 end cut of cured pork: salami, prosciutto or coppa
1 pig’s foot (optional)
3 29oz cans San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
Salt and Pepper
Heat a dutch oven or large heavy pan. Vigorously season the pork steaks with salt and pepper. Oil the pan and heavily sear the steaks on both sides, working in batches. Add the onion and garlic and sweat it in the rendered pork fat, season with salt and pepper. Pour in the tomatoes. Add the cured pork and the pig’s foot. Add several oregano leaves. Season with more black pepper. Simmer for 4-5 hours on low heat, stirring every time you walk past the pot. When you’re ready to eat, remove the pigs foot and cured pork and discard. Shred the pork steaks into bite sized pieces. Mix the pork back into the tomato sauce, add a good bit more oregano, check and adjust the seasoning. Serve with homemade gnocchi or a heavy macaroni style pasta.