At my invitation on one of my former posts (August 12) for guest bloggers who want to share an aspect of immigrant culture, Monique Clark rose to the occasion and sent me this wonderful piece about the peculiar and sometimes confusing term that Italian-Americans stubbornly and perhaps a bit defiantly refer to as “gravy” –the red stuff they put on their pasta. This is an interesting aspect of immigrant culture —-related to food, that will never go away. It is sometimes said that those who travel far from home to live in a new country will often keep their culture alive by the food that they eat—and when all ties to their food are gone, so is, for all intents and purposes , their ties to their culture. I don’t think Italian-Americans will ever have that problem.
By Monique Clark
“What that means, to me, …. the smell of my mother’s ‘gravy’ (Italian-Americans NEVER call it “sauce”) bubbling on the stove just like every single home in our neighborhood.”
It was Maryann Maloney who first introduced me to “gravy.” I was 19 and worked part-time at Corestates Bank, and we sat next to each other in the MAC Operations Department. Maryanne was a robust woman with curly thick blond hair, a hearty laugh and her no nonsense attitude defied her saintly patience. We loved to cook, and eat, and bonded over talks of our common loves. A bond that surpassed the fact that I was a young African-American and she, an Italian three decades my senior.
“I simmer my gravy for hours,” she said one day during one of our talks.
My brows furrowed deeply. Gravy, over pasta?
“Gravy!” she said, noticing my perplexity.
Gravy is some variation of brown. Goes over roast beef, chicken, rice. Not pasta.
“I don’t put gravy over pasta,” I finally say.
“No, I use spaghetti sauce.”
She slammed the pen on her desk. Startled, I jumped.
“No, no, no,” she said. “It’s called gravy! But that stuff there – no, no.” She wagged her finger at me and spoke to me in an unwavering firm voice. “I’m going to bring you some real Italian gravy, and you’ll never eat that stuff again.”
I was game and looked anxiously forward to this “gravy.” It had never occurred to me that someone somewhere was simmering gravy for hours on the stove instead of popping open a jar of Prego or Ragu or Classico. Nor had I known that store bought spaghetti saucewas a second rate (and depending on who you talk to, an unacceptable) substitute for real gravy.
Two days later, as promised, Maryanne handed me a medium sized Mason jar, sealed tightly and still warm to the touch. I excitedly unsealed the jar, and inhaled the smell of tomatoes, garlic and basil. All fresh, she assured me, with no sugar – another taboo. I let my index finger run slowly around the brim of the jar, coating the tip of my finger, before I put it to my mouth.
Hmmm. Different. Good.
“What are you doing?” she said. “Don’t stick your finger in there!”
“It’s mine. I’m tasting it.”
She lowered her voice, rubbed my shoulder and handed me a bag.
“Take it home. Share.”
I met Nan fifteen years later. She is so connected to her Italian heritage that it’s hard to believe that it runs through her mother’s bloodline only. My gravy recipe is one that was passed down to her. I, though, add finely chopped carrots. They satisfy the sweetness that my palate craves.
I make a pot of gravy once a month on a Sunday. That day affords me more time; the gravy must simmer for hours. “I’m going to bring you some real Italian gravy,” I recall each time I stir in the curly parsley, fresh garlic, onions, sweet basil and carrots. Sometimes I add some type of Italian sausage, sometimes beef, sometimes nothing.
I attach the lid and before long the aroma bombards the air. It’s pleasurable. My mind rests at a beautiful countryside almost nine hours outside the United States where acres of sunflowers bloom brightly in July and confirm that yellow is indeed the “happy” color. At a communal table at San Marco, where fifteen, sometimes more of us – diverse in age, culture and gender – greet each other every morning with a hearty “buongiorno.” At a place where there is no shortage of wine or watermelon or Carla’s fresh tomatoes.
A place of no shortage of ordinary people with welcoming arms.
My mind skips through the quaint towns of Bevagna, Spello, Assisi, Spoleto. Through spiraled and hilly cobblestone streets, as wide as alleyways with stoned-wall apartment-like homes lined on each side and littered with red and green and purple and yellow blossoms of sorts. Cloth ropes unabashedly lined with panties and tee shirts and other items of importance, lead me back to my Aunt Lily’s backyard in Smithfield, North Carolina where three cloth lines serve her faithfully. Her whites never dull. They need fresh air, she always says. I rest at the thoughts of midday at the village square where natives and visitors alike gather for fare and wine and good company, and I remember the people who smiled and posed for me as I captured a snapshot of their lives, in their space, so that I could recall those brief moments forever.
The bubbling of the pot always brings me back, and I hurry to check on its contents. I lift the lid slowly to avoid any splattering and inhale. Then I stir just a little. You don’t want to bother it too much, Nan admonished. At that moment, I find delight in the thought that someone somewhere — here and abroad — has a pot of gravy simmering along with mine. And, I feel connected.
I will pass my gravy recipe (yes, I have claimed it) down to my granddaughter. She is to promise never to prepare it under time constraints. She will recognize the importance of allowing it to simmer, and I will implore her to sit in the midst of the aroma – if only for five minutes – and breath it all in: the tomatoes, the basil, the onions, the garlic, the bubbling. In honoring Italian custom, she’s to NEVER call it “sauce, ” and she’s to promise to pass down the recipe, and the stories – both mine and hers, of what the smell of her Mi Mi’s gravy, bubbling on the stove, means to her.
Monique Clark is a writer who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.