There is no better food in the world than Sunday gravy.
Before I tell you why, let me clear up a few things. There’s a lot of debate about what to call tomatoes cooked to serve over pasta. Is it sauce? Gravy? Something else? I won’t tell you that you’re right or wrong, whatever you think, but in my world here’s how it breaks down: Tomatoes cooked with Italian spices and served over pasta is marinara (I think adding “sauce” to “marinara” is just redundant). When you add meatballs, sausage and a stick of pepperoni, that’s gravy. There are, of course, plenty of sauces — clam sauce (white or red), cream sauce (any variety), and many others.
But gravy is what we had on Sundays. And, apropos of the day, it was heavenly.
For many people, Sunday was — and is — family day. Playtime with friends is limited, which is to say your backyard is where you play with your friends who had different schedules. In some areas, Sunday is a visiting day, though when I was young my extended family lived too far away for a day trip.
Sunday gravy. I don’t know when Mom made her meatballs, only that they were made in advance, as she is a proponent of chilling them before cooking (this helps them to not fall apart when frying). On Sundays, we’d wake to the glorious smell of frying meat, the air thick with garlic and onions and basil. We’d all head off to Sunday school and mass, and when we came home around noon, a thick gravy was already simmering. I don’t know how she did it, since she also taught Sunday school classes and drove us around. Another of Mom’s brand of magic.
The gravy needed to be ready because our Italian family’s tradition was to have a midday dinner, around 2 or 3 o’clock. I guess we had a light supper or snack later before bed — I remember a lot of PB&J crackers while watching the Disney movie that showed weekly at 7 p.m. — but gravy was the main meal every Sunday.
After putting on play clothes, you’d wander through the kitchen as much as possible, eyeing the heavy pot. Whenever you dared, you’d grab a slice of bread (white, not wheat in those days, and this makes a huge difference in taste), slather on some gravy, and dig in. Mostly, Mom would yell that it wasn’t ready yet, but it was. Gravy bread is unparalleled in its deliciousness. Sweet and spicy, and on a lucky occasion with a few pieces of meatball…you’d try to wait for it to cool but that was too hard. Who cared about burning your tongue, anyway?
When Mom put the water up to boil, Dad would get the unwieldy cheese grater out. This mammoth device clamped to the side of the countertop, reassembled with every use. A block of parmesan was cut and a lucky kid got to crank the handle. Said lucky kid also got to snack on the sharp, pungent cheese while doing the job.
The six of us gathered for dinner, possibly with a good friend, or, later, the lucky boyfriend or girlfriend who had achieved that special level of acceptance (everyone was welcome for Friday night pizza, but only a chosen few made the cut on Sundays). Thick, fresh bread and an amazing salad rounded out the meal. Dad served us heaping portions — and when it came time, offered seconds, which we called a “Grandpa spoonful”, which was a heaping ladle of macaroni, far more than you could ever eat, but Grandpa and Dad seemed to agree that all of us needed to be fattened up. Have another meatball! More sausage?
Another pause. We called it macaroni. I still do, though most of the world refers to it as “pasta,” something I’m still getting used to.
This meal a tradition that I am trying to continue. Ray and the kids love my cooking, though I am partial to my mother’s gravy and meatballs. I leave out the pepperoni, though, as it gives me agita (which you know as heartburn). My brother Stephen also cooks a gravy on Sundays. Harry and his family do from time to time. Michelle joins in.
The kids help me make meatballs and they wander through the kitchen, sniffing eagerly as the gravy simmers. We crowd around the tiny kitchen table, bumping elbows and knees, and dig in. Family time over Sunday gravy.
Gravy. “Sauce” is far too ordinary for this kind of meal.