My guy's mother, who passed away many years ago, had eight kids. When she wasn't cleaning or doing laundry, she practically lived in the kitchen. She had no microwave, no food processor, and no training as a cook except what her mother had taught her. Like most women of her generation, she did it all by hand, and all from scratch.
Fortunately she loved to cook, and over the years built up an impressive repertoire of dishes, one of which was an Italian pasta sauce made with two kinds of sausage. This sauce also happens to be my guy's favorite dish. Like his mom, I love to cook, and after hearing him sing a thousand praises of this pasta sauce, I had to ask for the recipe.
I realized how cherished this sauce was from the moment my guy's sister bestowed the recipe on me. I received a photocopy of the original, handwritten by his mom. With that I got not one but two stories that illustrated how much everyone in the family loved the sauce. Evidently one time the smell of it roused some uncle out of a coma or something along those lines. Before the recipe was handed to me, I had to promise not to give it to anyone else without asking the family. Given the reverence for it, I'm surprised a priest wasn't brought in to shake holy water over the pages and recite a few Hail Marys.
So for the first time I made Mom's Italian Sausage Sauce for my guy. It took all day to cook, I had to stand over it practically the entire time to add things at different intervals, check this, adjust the heat up and down and sideways, stir, fold, check that, etc. It might be perfection to eat, but JM&J, it was a towering pain in the ass to prepare.
On the subject of perfection, while I was cooking I sampled Mom's sauce a couple of times. I knew everyone worshipped it, and it probably was a cure for cancer or whatever, but to be truthful? I thought it tasted horribly oily (probably because one of the ingredients was eight full ounces of extra virgin olive oil.) I later discovered that if you let the sauce sit undisturbed for a minute -- something that does not occur during the cooking process -- a two-inch layer of red-colored olive oil would rise to the top. Combined with the fat from the sausage (which was added raw and cooked in the sauce itself), I thought this stuff could have easily doubled as homemade napalm.
The final blow was when I served it to my guy, who did love it, and assured me that it was "almost as good as Mom's."
Almost? What the hell? I'd followed the recipe to the letter. I'd spent eight wretched hours in the kitchen, making it. I'm not a chef, but I'm the daughter of one, and I damn well know how to cook. It should have been as good as if not better than Mom's.
I didn't give up. There had to be something I was doing wrong, so I tried making it again, and again, and again. I used a timer so I could add in the onions precisely two hours into the cooking time. It still tasted the same. I found the exact brand of crushed tomatoes his mother had used (cheap, watery tomatoes, I'll have you know.) Didn't change his reaction. I had my sister-in-law show me how finely her mother had chopped the vegetables. Had no effect. I even borrowed the beat up, black-bottomed cauldron the old witch had made the stuff in. Made no difference.
I tried and tried and tried, and every time I served it, my guy would say, "It's almost as good as hers was, honey" or "You got pretty close this time."
After the fifth or sixth time, finally, it sank in. I was never going to be able to make this oily gunk as well as his mother, The Patron Saint of Pasta Sauce, ever. Not because I'd messed it up. Not because I'd done something different. I could never make anything that tasted as wonderful as Mom's because I'm not his Mother. When he was a kid, he never raced home from school to find me slaving over a hot stove to make his favorite dish. I'd never admonished him to eat every bit so he'd grow up big and strong. I'd never sent a frozen vat of the stuff with him when he moved into his first apartment. I hadn't even been born yet.
Freed from the self-imposed prison of trying to duplicate that past, "perfect" pasta sauce, I turned my attention on the recipe itself. At first I just wanted to make some changes so that I didn't have to spend my life in the kitchen (and so that I could eat it without gagging.) So silently, surreptitiously, without petitioning the Pope or getting legislation passed or asking anyone's permission, I began to trim down the recipe.
The first thing that went was that whole bottle of oil olive she put in it. Two tablespoons, in my opinion, were more than enough, and the next time I made it I think I lost thirty pounds from the calories I was able to cut.
My guy, oddly enough, didn't notice.
Encouraged by this, I gradually made more changes. I ditched Mom's ingredients one by one and replaced them with products that I preferred. I substituted turkey sausage for the fatty bulk pork stuff she used, and eliminated altogether the small mountain of salt she put in it. I whittled down the eight different bottled seasonings she employed to three fresh herbs that I grew myself. I added some new ingredients I liked, too, like a little red pepper to give it a nice tingle, and some roasted garlic for more depth. I stopped worrying about Mom's nine thousand different cooking stages and restructured the preparation to three simple steps.
My guy never complained, and never realized I was changing it. P.S., that is the secret to improving a cherished family recipe: don't tell anyone, and don't do it all at once. Over time, they forget what the original was like and get used to your version.
By the time I was done overhauling the recipe -- it took about two years of slow trial and error -- I'd replaced nearly all of the ingredients, cut the cooking time down to an hour and the cost of the dish by 65%. But I never told my guy or (until now) anyone what I'd done to the sauce. I'd made it healthier, cheaper, faster and, in my opinion, a lot more appealing and appetizing. I could actually enjoy it as much as my guy did. But I didn't think of it as his Mom's sauce anymore. It wasn't her sauce anymore. It was mine.
Would his mom approve of what I did to her recipe? Hard to say. Some cooks have very high opinions of themselves, and are quite possessive of their recipes. Some even believe no one can equal their skills. But the fact remains that anyone can make pasta sauce if they really want to. You can buy it in jars. You can get it in restaurants. A lot of people love Italian food.
From the stories my guy has told me about her, I think Mom would be okay with it. She loved to cook because she loved her kids. What made them happy, made her happy. And while I might be a bitch in the kitchen, I make her boy and her grandkids pretty happy.
I still make the sauce a couple of times a year, and every time I serve it my guy loves it, eats three platefuls of pasta and asks if we can have it two nights in a row. And yes, I did eventually admit to him that I'd made some (cough) minor changes to the recipe. He still says the same thing every time: "It's almost as good as Mom's." I don't mind anymore; I really don't want to replace Mom in his memories. Those should be forever. I simply want to make new ones.
What has making pasta sauce got to do with writing? Think about it.