Thursday, October 30, 2008

Past Perfection

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.


  1. Anonymous12:11 AM

    I'll have to think about it while I sleep... *G*

    However, I know that in a few years, your daughter is going to be saying.... Man, this is good, but it's not quite as good as Mom's.

    I'm an okay cook....when I wanna be. I know how to make my mom's special meatballs, her strawberry shortcake and her chili.

    But it's never as good as mom's.

    Off to think about cooking and writing...

  2. Anonymous12:12 AM

    Perhaps it's a matter of personal perspective, but I think it's all about making it your own. No one else writes like me, and to try to duplicate someone else's work, well, it'd be an 'almost'. We each have to take what makes us special and add it to our own personal mix. A recipe is a recipe, but still they all end up a little bit different. Just like our books. :)

  3. As always, I'm not worthy. *g*

  4. I just stumbled across your blog for the very first time tonight (via Absolute Write) and...I think I love you. ::gives you flowers and writes mushy poems about you::

  5. Wow, that's a really amazing story. It's also an awesome analogy for writing. When I first started writing, I tried emulating authors I really liked, thinking that if I wrote like them...well, you know how that goes.

    I've learned as time has progressed that changing things doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong. You're just making it yours. :)

  6. I love your analogies. Now I see Dream Agent reading my query and muttering, "It's almost good enough..."

    But at least it's mine.

  7. Anonymous8:38 AM

    This is my favorite post since I started watching you. Thank you!

  8. Does this mean I should make a big pot of spaghetti sauce before I start working on Nano? I got my spaghetti sauce recipe from my dad, who never worked from a recipe except for banana bread. And he was a great cook. :)

  9. Hi Lynn,
    Your post made me laugh. When I first got married, I had a similar experience with my MIL's Pizza. Being the daughter of a baker, I knew I could duplicate it. I got the recipe from her and did a cooking class with her. However, all my attempts afterward got the same reception as your pasta sauce --Almost as good as mom's.

    I finally decided, if we felt like Pizza we'd just go over to his mom's or order in from a Pizza shop.

  10. My mother was not a wonderful cook, but that's partly because we never had enough money for more than boiled chicken or the occasional ground beef with a potato and onion cut up in it and a bit of ketchup thrown in for taste.

    So I learned soon after I got a job how to cook and consider myself fair. My MIL cooks some really wonderful things (Czech/Romanian) and I went through the same thing as you, Lynn. My DH would ask be to make something, raving about how it was so good, I'd get the recipe from my MIL, even help her make it, but it was never 'quite as good'.

    I think you're right. I'm not his mother and so his memories taint everything I tried, regardless of what I did.

    Rather like writing. I'm not you, or several other of my favorite writers, no matter how much I try to be. I'm 'never quite them'. The desire to be didn't last any longer than the second or third time the DH said the same thing.

    And I don't want to be them. I want my voice to ring true, not someone else's. And if I make it or not, it's because people are expecting to read me, not another author in disguise.

    I've lurked for a long time, this is my first post. Loved the analogy!

    Thank you :)


  11. 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.

    *bursts out laughing*

    SO. TRUE.

    I, too, am the daughter of a chef. And the sister of one, actually.

    My MIL, bless her, does not enjoy cooking, and cooks very plain, very...well, tasteless dishes, for the most part. To give you an idea, if I want to use a spice of any kind other than salt or garlic powder in their house, I buy it and leave it there. Yes, that includes pepper!

    My husband, as a result, is a very plain meat-and-potatoes eater. He finds the things my Mom makes "weird" and "too fancy". But after five years, I've gradually converted him into trying more new things. I learned early on not to ever tell him what I put in things.

    The only exception to his mother's repertoire of plain dishes is, coincidentally, her Italian meat sauce. They are a huge Italian family, and every year at Christmas his Mom and his Aunts make homemade ravioli and meat sauce. No matter how many times I make it, it will never be the same as theirs.

  12. I think it means we shouldn't be afraid to be original in our writing. There are as many good recipes for pasta sauce as there good ways to write a book. If we do it with passion, the results will be delicious.

  13. Anonymous1:19 PM

    My grandmother was a great cook who owned a bar and people came from miles around to chow down on her food. Sadly the damnable woman I believe chewed up and digested her whole cookbook before she died. Apparently no one’s filthy hands were worthy of her godly

    You know in my opinion metaphor is the best way to learn anything. You can give anyone "the straight dope" and most people won’t retain it because they are not forced to think. That’s where metaphor is so unbelievable it forces you think and thus causes you to retain.. Very well written..

    Writing is like a life form all its own with time and practice it evolves into something marvelous.

  14. Ha. Yes. Perfect illustration. (And I'd ditch the fat, too.)

  15. Anonymous6:57 PM

    I loved your blog-post. Quite amusing, quite the parable.

    Well done, and thanks.


  16. All in all, you still need a good recipe to start with. A foundation in which to grow as both a cook and writer.

    Love the story. :)

    Criticism hurts when it comes to anything you slaved over. LOL. I like the way you kept trying until it worked out. Recipe for success LOL. *groan* Okay, that was bad...

    NaNo has me nervous. We even started speedwriting sessions at the Realms of Love chat room for Saturdays and Sundays. I'll make it this time!

  17. "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."

    yup, that sounds like writing.

  18. Anonymous6:50 AM

    If you get tired of hearing "almost as good as mom's" go ahead and be a sneak. Get his mom to actually MAKE the dish and serve it up so when you hear 'almost' just smile and say "actually it IS your mom's".

    Been there, done that, he stopped with the comparisons :-)


  19. We're all foodies here,and married to an Italian my wedding vows were to never bring a jar of "sauce" into the house. There is no sneaking it-they know right away like I was giving them powdered milk or something.

    And you reminded me that I have to make a lasagna before my parents get here to trick or treat.

    Happy Halloween!


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