To say that pasta has played a significant role in my life would be an understatement. Like many ethnic cultures, food was central to all family gatherings, from weddings to funerals, and for Italian-Americans, pasta, in one form or another, was always front and center.
At home we ate pasta every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, as well as every holiday and special occasion (special occasion defined as company for dinner). Eating pasta was one of the central experiences in my young life, and a most enjoyable one I might add. But we never called it pasta; it was always referred to as macaroni, and occasionally, spaghetti, but never pasta.
The closest pasta came to being a part of our vocabulary was "pastafazool," also known as pasta fagioli, a term I did not learn until well into adulthood. I think this was an Italian-American phenomenon, the cultural evolution of immigrants from southern Italy and first generation Italian-Americans, one that varied widely from region to region.
Likewise, in our home sauce was always called gravy. Tomato sauce was something you bought in a can and used to make gravy. Here there is some controversy among Italian-Americans. For some it is gravy when meat is used in the preparation, and sauce when there is no meat. My mother always had meat in her gravy: chicken, pork, beef, sausage or some combination thereof, which she prepared early every Sunday morning for our mid-day meal, cooking it slowly for several hours to get a full rich flavor.
There are many recipes for making gravy, but for those who do so on a regular basis, it becomes an intuitive process, and although the results vary a little each time, one's "Sunday gravy" soon becomes identifiable by taste. And indeed, during my years at home, I could easily identify the gravy of my aunts and uncles; each one had its own unique quality. They were all delicious, but of course my mother's was the best.
John Williams Jr. recently gave us a jar of his pasta sauce during my wife's hospitalization. I saved it until she came home and served it with Gemelli, one of our favorite pastas. After a few moments we looked at each other and nodded our heads in agreement. It reminded us immediately of aunt Dolly's gravy. (It has been more than 25 years since we last had Aunt Dolly's pasta.)
Many of the Italian immigrants and their American born families made their own wine from homegrown grapes and fruits. My mother's specialty was a delightful Dandelion wine. My grandfather took things a step further and acquired a license to sell the wine he produced from the small vineyard on our farm. Prohibition killed the business, but not the grapes and my father continued to make wine for "home consumption" his entire life. There were always five or six wooden barrels of wine in our cellar, and a plain gallon bottle of wine on the floor by his chair in the kitchen. The wine, a constant part of the evening meal, was always served in small juice glasses. I cannot remember my father ever drinking wine from a stemmed wine glass.
The pasta, the wine, and all of the other experiences that marked the first 20 years of my life were so easily -- and foolishly -- taken for granted. Only now, years later, have I come to fully appreciate and treasure their wonderful richness and the contributions they have made to my life.
And I wonder: when did I begin to speak of pasta, and not macaroni, when did gravy become sauce (it never completely did), and when did I begin drinking wine in stemmed glasses?