April 19, 2024 -

Everything is in the Sauce

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso Passover Yizkor Memorial Service, 2021. 

Coming from an Italian family, everything was about the sauce.

I remember going from the train station on Spring Street to Lafayette Street, making my way up the stairs of my grandparents’ walk-up apartment. The scent of Rose Caruso’s tomato sauce was unmistakable, emitting a sweetness that only Luciano Pavarotti could produce from one of his arias.

Each time I made my way down to Little Italy from the Upper East Side, I felt myself traveling into some kind of time warp. When I entered the apartment, my grandma was predictably wearing her cooking housecoat, puttering around in that tiny kitchen which seemed to transport me back to the town from which my family hailed, in the region of Cosenza, Calabria.

I, a second-generation American, got a front-row seat to the past, MY past, which enveloped me in the form of that ever-present sauce. The ingredients put together yielded a recipe that traversed miles of ocean, with stories folded inside like the stains that mark the pages of a beloved cookbook.

I recently read an article entitled, “Grief, With a Side of Baked Ziti.” The author’s mother inherited the family-favorite baked ziti recipe from her grandmother. The Bolognese sauce was, well, the “secret sauce” that made the dish so beloved. The author, Joelle Zarcone, shares her memories of finding herself sitting at the feet of her mother’s cooking:

“My mom’s signature recipe was her sauce: A third-generation Italian, she had learned very early in life how to make my great-grandmother Nannie’s classic Bolognese recipe. Every Sunday of my childhood was designated Sauce Day, a multi-hour event that kicked off midmorning—complete with the rituals of stirring and tasting, never measuring, trusting your wooden spoon to let you know when there was enough of an ingredient, and when this rich meat sauce was done and ready to be paired with pasta. Despite our being a family of just three, this exceptional Sunday sauce was designed to serve 10, and any leftovers were meticulously packed up and frozen, usually in the Chinese takeout containers my parents washed and saved specifically for that purpose.”

As the special moments of her life unfolded, the author recalled how her mother would always pack up that sauce and bring it to her in college, when she got her first apartment, and when she married – like a family love letter traversing miles of road to deliver a warm kiss.

Years later, when her mom was diagnosed with cancer in the midst of the pandemic, things began to decline quickly. Soon, Zarcone found herself saying goodbye as her mom took her last breaths. She reflected on the moments that followed:

“It took weeks for the shock to wear off, and I clung to the tangible pieces of my mom I still had left: an old sweatshirt, her favorite ring, her notebook of recipes (a black and white composition book, weathered and stained with use). And that one last container of her sauce, tucked deep into my freezer back home, saved from the last time she’d come to visit.

One evening in the fall, three months after she left us, I defrosted it. As I served my dad and husband that warm California evening, I began to cry. It felt like she’d died all over again; her sauce had been such a real reminder of her unending love and care, and now it was finally, truly gone.”

Before the death of my Grandma Rose, I don’t think I ever truly appreciated her role in the house, as I did my grandfather’s life outside of it – he, working as a tailor and designer in Midtown. I never really appreciated the art of cooking, and how food is the constant binder of home life that pulls all of the disparate personalities of a family together. The most democratic of family happenings.

In our Jewish tradition, sitting down for Shabbat dinner is much more than sharing a meal. Those who head the household are the priests, and the table is the altar. Joining together for a meal has the potential to be a holy event, because we are bringing together generations of stories, of narratives, of grief and of joy all around the unifier of food. Inherent in that moment is gratitude for what the moment brings, and how it intangibly forms our lives.

In that walkup apartment on Lafayette Street, the tomato sauce of my youth unified my past and the present; being together and tasting that sauce made me appreciate the people who made me who I am today.

As for Zarcone, she spent hours and hours trying to piece together the recipe that shaped her indelible connection to her mother. Unfortunately, the recipe was never written out; it was prepared by the “feel” of the cook. Recalling kitchen scenes from her childhood, and vague text messages, Zarcone ultimately pulled the recipe back together after some trial and error. Finally, simply by the scent of her simmering pot, she knew that she got it right; the sauce was just like her mother’s. As hard as it was to part with her mother on earth, her memory would always be present in that sauce.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” That’s not just something we recite at the Passover Seder, but a refrain past generations of cooks have shared time and again. The art of the meal is a compelling practice on its own, and in its subtlety it informs our lives in untold ways.

Our loved ones, those who we mourn today, provided the foundational “sauce” that can never be forgotten. When we piece together the ingredients of their love, we can breathe life into their memories. While we can never bring them back physically to this earth, we can always remember them for blessing. May we continue to find ways to recall them, even in the most common of tasks.