The Lost Recipe

(by Cindy Roos Young)


At five years of age, I remember standing at my little toy ironing board (the only “tabletop” low enough for me to reach) with a bowl, a peeler, and a cucumber so that I could have a hand in the preparation of salad for supper. My mother was a terrific cook, and she decided when I was very young that she wanted to pass her joy of cooking on to me.


She was famous for her homemade spaghetti sauce, even if her fame was only among our extended family and neighbors. It was slow-simmered for hours in her well-worn cast iron pot. Our next-door neighbor used to tease her when he smelled it wafting out of our kitchen window and onto his screened-in porch, saying that it absolutely had to have booze in it because nothing could possibly smell that good without a little beer or red wine. It had neither. It was just plain, slow-simmered good.


Just two months after I was married, Mom passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly after falling and hitting her head. She was only 47 years old. My world was shattered. Each day was dark, and it was difficult to smile. Or cook. I had a lot of support from family and friends, and my new husband was my rock, but so many things would never be the same. What if she had used secret ingredients that were never written down? I missed the sound of her voice. Eventually I heard that voice in my head telling me that I had a husband to take care of, that he needed some good old-fashioned home cooking, and that I needed to snap out of it. Mom was a wise woman, but it would take me a long time to be strong enough to take her advice.


One day, several years after her death, I was craving her spaghetti sauce. I’d been putting off looking through her cookbooks, which had little notes written on the recipes like “tasty—family loved” or “didn’t like—yuck.” (Why she didn’t just throw out those “losers,” I’ll never know.) I knew it was going to be unbearably sad, just like when I had to sort through her clothes and jewelry in the weeks after she died.


I remembered that Mom had a tin box filled with index cards, with recipes either written in her own hand or cut out of magazines and glued onto the cards. That’s where I found the “famous” spaghetti sauce, but I was dismayed when only the ingredients were listed, with no measurements. All I could think was: Are you messing with me, Mom?


The next day, I went to the store to procure the tomatoes, cheese, and other essential ingredients, guessing as to the amounts. I didn’t have the old cast iron pot that my mom had used (lost years later in the move when my father sold the house), but while the sauce was cooking, the house smelled almost as good as when my mother made it. And after a few more tries over the next few weeks, I nailed it. (My husband happily ate spaghetti sauce for weeks.) And I discovered I could make it in a slow cooker, so that it was ready when I got home.


Thanks to Mom’s teaching and coaching, my career path took me to the most interesting and fun job in a corporate test kitchen (although I was always sad that she didn’t get to see me there). And in my own kitchen, I have gone a step beyond Mom’s recipe filing system. I have a huge binder filled with pocket pages labeled with every category imaginable. I have often told my sons that if there were ever a fire in our house, we would need to evacuate things in this order:


1. All the people

2. All the cats

3. My recipe binder


My sons roll their eyes when I give them the evacuation instructions, but the recreated sauce became their meal of choice each year on their birthdays. And don’t worry, guys. My index card will have the measurements written down for you.

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Cindy Roos Young is a retired test kitchen consultant/recipe editor and author of the novel The Mothers' Arms Recipe Service. She lives in New Jersey and can be found at cindy.roos.young@gmail.com.

Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs


For the sauce:

28 oz. tomato purée or crushed tomatoes

6 oz. tomato paste

8 oz. tomato sauce

1 c. (or fill the 8 oz. can) water

2 T. dried parsley flakes

1/4 t. ground black pepper

1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese

2 - 3 T. sugar

2 T. dried basil leaves

1 bay leaf


For the meatballs:

1 lb. ground beef

1/2 c. plain dry bread crumbs

1/4 c. milk

1 egg

1 T. dried parsley flakes

1/4 t. ground black pepper

1 t. onion powder

1/2 t. garlic powder

1 t. dried oregano leaves

2 T. dried basil leaves

2 T. grated Parmesan cheese


Stir all ingredients for the sauce in a 4-qt. slow cooker until well mixed.

Cover and cook on high for 4 hours or on low for 6 hours.

Thoroughly mix all ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl.

Shape firmly into 12 meatballs.

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Place meatballs in a 9-in. (round or square) nonstick baking pan, and bake for 30 minutes, or until browned and cooked through, turning once during baking time.

Add the meatballs to the slow cooker for the last hour of sauce cooking time.

Remove the bay leaf.

Serve the sauce and meatballs over spaghetti.

Makes about 6 cups or 12 servings.