6. The Cooking Lesson

6. The Cooking Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


The Cooking Lesson

Recipe: A series of step-by-step instructions for preparing ingredients you forgot to buy, in utensils you don’t own, to make a dish the dog wouldn’t eat.

~Author Unknown

It was time to learn the family secret. The particulars had never been recorded on paper or even shared verbally. The silence needed to be broken, and I gathered up my courage to confront my mother.

I was nineteen years old and engaged to be married. The eldest of three daughters, I would be the first to leave the nest. However, I was not about to leave without the top-secret information. So I sat my mother down, took a deep breath, and blurted, “I want the recipe for your spaghetti sauce.”

There, the words were out. Still, the worst was yet to come. I dreaded her response, because I knew what she would say.

“There is no recipe. It’s in my head.”

We set a date for the information transfer: Thursday night. While this event did not approach the level of national security, it was certainly important in my world. Ready-made sauce was not good enough for the love of my life. He was special, and that meant he deserved special meals—homemade meals—with such ingredients as my mother’s world-renowned spaghetti sauce. This was an event worthy of clearing my calendar and bearding the lioness in her den.

I wished it were a matter of simply watching Mom while she cooked. Mom is a fantastic chef, but she did not like interlopers in her kitchen. She preferred to be left alone, and we girls knew better than to bother her while she was cooking up her culinary achievements. Even Dad steered clear when she was at work. My plan to sit in the kitchen and carefully document each step as she prepared her sauce meant that I would be entering uncharted and dangerous waters.

Thursday arrived accompanied by rising anticipation. I rushed home from work, quickly changed my clothes, and sat at the kitchen table with pad and pen. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll stay out of your way. You won’t even know I’m here.”

Mom gave me a look that said, “I already know you’re here.” She set an empty pot on the stove and began chopping an onion. I watched her and asked my first question. “How big is that onion?”

“What do you mean, ‘How big?’ It’s an onion.”

Her back was to me, but I was sure she rolled her eyes.

“I know it’s an onion, but is it a small, medium, or large onion?”

She sighed. “Let’s just say it’s a medium one.”

I wrote that down: one medium onion, finely diced.

Then she reached for the garlic, broke off a couple of cloves, and crushed them.

“How many cloves was that?”

“Two… unless of course they’re large, then you only need one.”

I wrote that down as well.

Mom poured some olive oil into the pot, and then added the onion and garlic.

“Wait! How much oil did you use?”

“I don’t know. Enough for the pot.”

I ignored the growing annoyance in her voice. “Well, how much is that?”

“It depends on the size of the pot. Just enough to coat the bottom. Use your judgment.”

I didn’t want to use my judgment. I wanted a recipe.

Mom emptied a can of pureed tomatoes into the blender. Then she added the blended mixture to the onions.

I grabbed the empty can and noted the size. “But why did you bother to blend tomatoes that are already pureed?”

“Because this is the way I make it. Are you here to tell me how to prepare my sauce, or to learn?”

Next, she poured one can each of tomato soup, tomato sauce, and tomato paste into the blender. I wrote down the size of each empty can when she finished.

While I wrote, Mom took a bunch of parsley and began chopping. Scooping up a handful of the chopped parsley, she moved toward the blender.

“Wait!” I jumped up and reached for her wrist. “How much parsley is that before you add it to the tomatoes?”

“A handful.”

“But, Mom, how much is a handful? Your hands are smaller than mine!”

I grabbed a large measuring cup and had her empty the parsley into it, noting the amount. After blending the parsley and tomatoes, she added the mixture to the pot. I could see she was beginning to get a little rattled, but thankfully we seemed to be near the end.

“Mom, I forgot to ask. How long were the onions cooking before you added the other things?”

“Once the oil begins to bubble, simmer for about five minutes.”

Then she sprinkled some oregano into the palm of her hand and walked over to the stove, only to be intercepted by me once again. I carefully emptied the contents of her hand into a measuring spoon. “Aha. Just about one teaspoon.” I dashed back to my pad and wrote it down.

“That’s it. Simmer the whole thing for about an hour.”

“Uh… Mom? That’s the second time you said ‘simmer.’ Exactly what does that mean?”

She counted to ten before she answered. “It means cook over a low flame.”

The sauce was simmering, and so was Mom.

I waited a few moments before venturing to ask my final question. “Are we done?”

“Yes, we’re done. Now it just cooks—simmers—for an hour. There’s nothing more for you to write down, so please get out of my kitchen before you drive me completely crazy!”

An hour later, we all sat down to dinner. My sister was the first to speak up. “Mom? This sauce doesn’t taste like you usually make. Did you do something different?”

“Of course not. It has the same ingredients I always… wait a minute.” Mom grimaced and shot me one of her patented looks. “I forgot the sugar… and the salt and pepper.”

The rest of the family laughed as I shrunk down in my seat.

I learned an important lesson that day. We’ve now been married more than thirty years, and my very special husband has always been served a very special spaghetti sauce.

From a jar.

~Ava Pennington

More stories from our partners