When I was growing up in Massapequa, my parents, brother and I always got together with my mom’s side of our family for the holidays. This was the Italian side — a heritage so contagious that it’s basically the only side. Even my Irish-American dad is as proud of his sauce as anyone whose last name ends in a vowel.
The gatherings were like something out of a Martin Scorsese movie: a big table covered in food, Nanny (grandma) in the kitchen yelling at someone attempting to steal a meatball, grandkids pouring Poppy a beer and sneaking a taste on the way over. The soul of almost every gathering, though, was my grandmother’s meatballs and gravy over pasta.
Everyone with an Italian grandmother proclaims the same things: Her meatballs are the best, her sauce should have been jarred, she should have owned a restaurant. Nanny was no different, except of course, hers were better. The velvety gravy was nuanced with layers of garlic and love, the meatballs seared on the outside, with tiny treasures of raisins and pignoli nuts contained within. All of this was served over bucatini, the fat spaghetti that is hollow at the center, the kind that as a kid, I couldn’t resist using as a straw for my soda.
Even before Nanny passed away, divorces, moves and family tiffs slowly ended our traditions without anyone noticing. Holidays shifted into quick visits, as kids had to be shuttled between parents. No one was ever sure who would host. With everyone working, who has time to prep and cook? Without my grandparents, holidays evolved into a stressful burden.
But last year, as Christmas approached, it looked like my parents would be alone on Christmas Day. They were selling the house I grew up in and planning their out-of-state move. This could be the last holiday in the only family home I knew — I needed it to be ... homey. I decided I’d attempt to make my grandmother’s meatballs and all-day gravy for my parents.
On Christmas Eve, I got a jump-start on the meatballs. I consulted my mom, because she was the only real connection to my grandmother’s unwritten recipe of “a handful of this and a bunch of that.” There were no formal measurements; the making of the meatballs isn’t in the brain, it’s in the heart and hands.
The next morning, I got up early and channeled Nanny, yelling at my parents to get out of “my kitchen” while slapping away grabby hands. I worked up a sweat, tending to the gravy, realizing that two pounds of ground beef and a pot-and-a-half full of sauce were way too much for three people. As we sat down to eat, we twirled bucatini around our forks and spoke of the family and fun of Christmases past. They praised my efforts, though I was skeptical — the balls were good, but not Nanny good.
That night, my brother and his girlfriend stopped by. I brought him a plate and watched as he scarfed it down. He ran back up to the kitchen, returning with a foil-covered package to take home.
“Wow!” he said. “When I opened the leftovers, they smelled just like Nanny’s. I haven’t smelled that since she was alive.”
Cue the warm fuzzies. A sauce of garlic-and-meat-flavored tomatoes in a Tupperware conjured up something we all thought was gone forever. It was as if a miniature version of that united extended family sitting around the dining room table was hiding under the lid of that container, giving our imaginations a taste of that simpler, happy time again.
That meal didn’t change much. The family is still scattered across the country, kids bounce back and forth, and new people come and go. But on that Christmas, we brought back my grandmother for a while, a moment we savored in our own way.
Tara Cox is the author of “Airstream: The Silver RV.”