A Delicate Balance

May 21, 2018

In my hometown, sauce is special.

 

Like in many Italian-American kitchens on Sundays, my family in Youngstown, Ohio, adhered to a time-honored tradition. Walk into any of these kitchens, and you'd be met with the sweet aroma of tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. It wasn’t just a smell. It was a feeling, like being greeted by a memory of my grandmother's warm embrace. You could just feel love in the air. Someone would always be standing at the stove slowly stirring and guiltily–okay, maybe not-so-guiltily–dipping a piece of soft bread into the pot.

 

The recipe for sauce is cherished, even protected, passed down with pride from one generation to the next. Getting it right takes more than following a few directions. It requires the best tomatoes, a stout carrot, a perfect piece of marbled pork, and a little bit of magic. Any deviation can alter, even ruin, the delicate balance.

 

Sauce can enhance, bind, disguise, drown, or overwhelm a meal. My mother is the sauce of our family. She binds my brothers and me to one another. She instills in us the importance of sticking together and our shared memories. “Your siblings are the longest relationships you will ever have—honor them!'” she reminds us. Constantly.

 

While my mother was this sauce, my father was the chaos. He suffered from a variety of mental disorders, but chose not to follow his doctor's advice and often ignored his medication. As a result, our home was a volatile and unnerving place. Mom did what she could to disguise the unhappy moments, taking us on impromptu trips to the park or library, getting us out before my father came home from work or woke up from a nap. She knew that the potential of an unprovoked episode of rage was more than inevitable.

 

That’s my mom, the protector. To this day, even as my siblings and I have moved on to successful independent lives, she still smothers us with her worry. Like a greatest hits album, her warnings never get old.

 

"Nothing good ever happens after midnight!"

"Look under the car before you get in—someone could slice your Achilles tendon!"

 

"Walk in the middle of the street at night!"

"Don't sit in the car alone to balance your checkbook!"

 

And so on.

 

Unlike the smothering, her attempts to overwhelm us are far less obvious and can be impressively nuanced. Detailed vacation itineraries 12 months out. Articles mailed on everything from high school classmates, foods to combat depression, grade school yearbooks, and distant family heirlooms. She still sends all of us Easter baskets, Halloween buckets of candy, stuffed Valentine's Day bears, Arbor Day cards—you get the picture. She can't resist the holiday aisle at the dollar store.

 

But if you cross her, my mother can leave you feeling bitter. We have shared several bitter moments throughout my lifetime, most lasting just a day. A missed curfew, stealing $20 from her purse, ruining a favorite blouse, or just being a surly teenager. But one such episode lasted three years. My mother didn't approve of my ex-husband. I came home for Christmas, filled with joy and excitement to share the news of our engagement, but was met with scorn, anger, and bewilderment. She told me that if I married him, it would bring shame to my family and result in her getting a divorce. I left the house stunned, confused, and devastated, never expecting this reaction. Her disapproval was due to him being black, but this was not the woman who raised me, not the woman I thought I knew. Seven months later, we were married. My brothers were supportive, but for three years my mother and I were absent from each other's lives.

 

Then Mom extended an olive branch. For Christmas, she sent a beautiful mantle clock. On the accompanying card, she wrote that she loved and missed me, that too much time had been wasted and it was time to heal. I immediately called. We cried, forgave, and talked for over an hour, picking up as though no time had passed. More than 20 years later, Mom and I are still healing. She has confided in me that she carries a lot of shame as a result. We still have heartfelt conversations about why she reacted so out of character. While no excuses are made, she recalls strong parental opinions and an isolated upbringing—ethnically, socially, and geographically. I was told many years later that my grandfather, despite being a kind and learned man, would spout, “The animals in the jungle don’t mix, therefore we should not mix.”

 

This relationship is so special, complicated, and inexplicable. But when the perfect ingredients are added along with a whole lot of love, that's where the magic happens. My mother is the love of my life. I am so grateful for every batch of this good, bad, and inscrutable sauce that I'd gladly do it all over again.

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Ann-Marie Lariccia is an actress in Los Angeles, California. She can be found at www.annmarielariccia.com and @amlariccia.

Sunday Sauce

 

1 pork chop or 2 - 3 western ribs

1 t. olive oil

4 qt. tomato puree (Dei Fratelli if available)

1 qt. whole tomatoes, pureed
1 large whole onion
1/4 c. Italian seasoning (crushed oregano, parsley)

1 - 2 medium carrots

4 - 5 cloves crushed garlic
2 - 3 T. grated Parmesan cheese
several fresh basil leaves, shredded

 

Preheat oven to 375 F.
Rub meat with olive oil, and roast for 30 minutes

Combine meat with all remaining ingredients except basil in a Crockpot.

Cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 - 5 hours, stirring occasionally.

Add basil during last hour of cooking.

Remove meat, onions, and carrots before serving.

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