Love and Lasagna
For the occasion of my Beloved Niece Paula’s upcoming birthday, her request from me in my official capacity as Uncle Jeff was a pan of her grandmother’s famous lasagna. Since Mom was an improvisational, intuitive cook who didn’t use recipes and rarely made anything exactly the same way twice, she passed on all her secrets and techniques to me in the same way some cultures pass along oral histories from generation to generation. I began learning to cook at the age of five, standing at her elbow and observing.
Life has taken both Paula and I in different directions since Mom passed away in 1996. For reasons that will remain personal, we were estranged from each other for many years. In the interim, life beat most of the bastard out of me, and Paula grew into a smart, funny, lovely woman who carries more than her share of the manifold Fitzgerald eccentricities that I have elevated to high art. So let’s just leave the Lost Years at that and move along with our story, shall we?
Mom’s lasagna was a product of southern West Virginia Italian influence and hillbilly ingenuity. Italians poured into the coalfields of the Mountain State beginning in the 1920’s from southern Italy, most of them already experienced coal miners, and settled into the coal camps and small towns of the rugged Appalachian region. They brought with them their cuisine, their love of wife-beater T-shirts, and their impressive array of obscene hand gestures. In short, they fit right in.
When Mom learned to make her signature version of the classic Italian dish, the idea of going to the grocery store and purchasing ricotta cheese was akin to going to a butcher shop and asking for pterodactyl confit. The same for the meaty San Marzano tomatoes favored for marinara sauce. She substituted cheap and readily available cottage cheese for ricotta, using eggs and ground Parmesan cheese to bring it to the desired consistency. Mueller’s lasagna noodles were her only option, these being the days before Barilla and Di Cecco found their way even to the most rural store shelves and the idea of making fresh pasta sounded to the average home cook like trying to make your own Worcestershire sauce.
PROTIP: Do not attempt to make your own Worcestershire sauce. No good can come of it.
She then constructed a ridgerunner ragú with ground beef, a mountaineer mirepoix (onion, garlic and green bell pepper), oregano, basil, watery canned tomatoes and tomato juice that was expertly cooked down over hours until it was a robust concentration of flavor that would have made Chef Boyardi do that kissy-fingers thing that is supposed to indicate that something is really delicious.
This is not to say that Mom wasn’t an adventurous or adaptive cook. She did the best with what she had. Were she alive today, I have no doubt that her cooking would have continued to evolve with the options now available to us. She wasn’t particularly sentimental about any dish, no matter how beloved it may have been. She was constantly tinkering, experimenting, advancing. She wasn’t afraid to take risks, and to fail.
One of our favorite things to do was to try something new and different in a restaurant and then go home and try to reverse engineer it. My first experience with Indian food, I went home and figured out how to make paneer (a fresh cow’s milk cheese). And one of the fundamental tenets of Mom’s cooking, that the best way to learn how to make something you’ve never made before is to screw it up a few times and keep figuring out where you went wrong until you get it the way you want it, kept me going until I finally got it right.
Mom came from a culture where food was the currency of emotion, a tangible expression of love. Both cooking and love should be the best we can give with what we have to work with, constantly seeking to improve but never losing sight of our true objective. The pursuit of perfection, in both love and cooking, often becomes nothing more than a narcissistic exercise in self-aggrandizement. Perfect love, and perfect food, is about service and self-sacrifice.
Rambling back around to the point.
Paula’s memory of Grandma’s Lasagna exists in a moment in time. It is the indelible imprint of familial love made manifest in a compendium of ordinary ingredients culled from the Clifton Forge Kroger circa the early Nineties. Making it now requires me to subjugate my own ego, and resist the temptation to demonstrate all I’ve learned as a cook since Mom passed away. Mom would have been proud at how far I’ve come, but, like perfect love itself, this is not about me. All the hours I’ve spent learning how to make fresh pasta, the trial and error that went into figuring out how to make my own ricotta, my epic Bolognese sauce slow-simmered with beef short ribs and pork neck bones and imported San Marzano tomatoes; all ultimately meaningless. What matters is the lasagna that lives in Paula’s fondest recollections.
The day before Paula’s birthday, I will make the short ¾ mile trip to the Incredo-Kroger and twenty years back in time. I’ll buy some ground chuck, green peppers, canned Del Monte diced tomatoes, Kroger brand tomato juice, the old familiar blue-and-white box of Mueller’s lasagna noodles, small curd cottage cheese, a suitable green plastic jar of ground Parmesan, and way too much shredded mozzarella (Mom was the originator of the Too Much Damned Cheese policy). I will fight my instincts to replace the parsley flakes in the cottage cheese mixture with shredded spinach, and the desire to use fresh oregano instead of dried.
I will do everything the way Mom did, guided by the love in my heart both for her and for my niece. And that humble pan of commonplace ingredients will be transformed, becoming something that cannot be had in any restaurant at any price. Hearts will warm, old wounds will heal, and the years that separated us will melt away. For a moment, Mom will be with us again as though she’d never gone.
Perfect love never dies; it can always be rekindled with just a thought, or through the smell and taste of a warmly remembered meal recreated with the same love that made it so special to begin with. Perfect love is far easier than we make it out to be, with none of the caveats or exceptions we wish to impose upon it. It really is as simple as a pan of coal-camp Calabrese cuisine, and the gift of self and selflessness it represents.
Your move, Stouffer’s.