Before my third year of college, because I was about to move into my first apartment with a kitchen, my grandmother decided that it was time for me to learn how to make sauce. “Sauce,” in my family, is not a generic category of foodstuff, but means only one thing — tomato sauce — and it is the ultimate foundation of cuisine. No one in my family cares about the iconic mother sauces that form the base of classical culinary technique (bechamel, hollandaise, vinagrette, whatever) — for us, there is only one foundational sauce. And when you can make sauce, it is only a short step to the heights of Italian-American cuisine: lasagna, chicken parm, pizza, baked ziti, meatballs (which you must cook in sauce, and not in the oven, even though it is true that they dry out more in sauce). I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated a holiday or a family birthday that didn’t include a dish with sauce in one form or another.
One late afternoon during the week before I returned to school, I took a break from packing my things and sat with my mom in the kitchen, waiting for my grandparents. My mom recalled the culinary lessons she learned from her grandmother, watching over her shoulder on Sunday afternoons — “I wish you could have tasted one of those meals,” she said. My grandparents arrived early, walking up the front steps with a can of whole peeled tomatoes and a head of garlic. We got right to business. We pureed the tomatoes in the food processor, put a pot on a burner, and slowly heated a generous glug of olive oil while my grandmother and I peeled and minced the garlic.
Trying to be a good student, I took my time, hoping for an even, fine mince.
“Look how nicely he minces it!” She said to my mom. “I always get too lazy.”
I smiled, feeling confident that I was on my way to becoming one of the great sauce makers in our family history. Later, I realized that my grandmother’s praise wasn’t completely sincere. The way that she minces the garlic is of course the right way — if you mince the garlic too finely, you won’t get a big, spicy chunk of raw garlic in the middle of your bowl of spaghetti, and your sauce loses that crucial flavor. When we finished mincing the garlic (more cloves per can than many people would think sane) we threw it into the bottom of the pot where it immediately started to sizzle.
“How long do we cook the garlic?” I asked.
“Just until it gets blond,” my grandmother responded.
My grandfather, who was sitting across the room pretending to read the newspaper, interjected with a grin, “Make sure you don’t burn the garlic! I always gotta tell her not to burn the garlic.”
“Ahhh listen to you,” my grandmother said. “Would you shut up and let me show him?”
When the garlic was blonded and fragrant we dumped in the pureed tomatoes which splashed and sizzled in the bottom of the pan for a second, and then quieted down completely. We swirled a bit of water in the can of tomatoes and added it in to get all of the possible tomato flavor into the sauce.
“Now you bring it all to a boil, add salt and pepper, and then simmer it for 20 minutes.”
“You can add herbs if you want, but you don’t need to.”
“How much salt do you add?” My grandmother took a container of salt and poured so much into the sauce that I was tempted to catch the container as if she had accidently tipped it too far.
Twenty minutes later, when the sauce had finished simmering, I tasted it, and I could see myself sloshing it onto my t-shirt as a toddler. “That’s it?” I thought. Canned tomatoes, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil produced something that for my whole life just magically came out of the kitchen and had a taste completely unique and instantly memorable. It’s the one thing in my life that doesn’t just taste like food. It tastes like the sound of my cousins’ laughter and the feeling of bare feet in the summer grass. It tastes like a Wednesday school night in my baseball uniform after Little League, too hungry to change. For the taste to be so complex and precise to me, I thought it must have had some hidden secret that had to be passed down like an ancient relic. But like any lesson in simple food, all of the secrets are in the subtleties.
Since that first cooking lesson, I’ve explored a few different interests, and at one point I decided that I wanted to try to cook professionally. Despite some flares of excitement, it didn’t take too long for me to get pretty disillusioned with life in the kitchen. In fact, when I showed up at egg for my first shift, I was giving cooking a last chance. During that first shift, after I had helped the cooks get set up for service as diligently as I could, we got in our first order. The ticket for the order said a few things that at that point seemed like hieroglyphics, and then “SCRAM” — or, scrambled eggs.
Leading into his demonstration, the cook who was training me asked me if I had ever cooked eggs at a restaurant before.
“Yeah,” I nodded. I had once or twice, and never found it too complicated.
“Let me show you how we do it here.”
He whipped the eggs in the pan until they were soft and fluffy, and I took note of his technique, but still sort of figured that there was nothing easier than scrambling eggs. Later on when I tried to duplicate his results in the midst of a busy service, I found it anything but easy. “What kind of heat do you use?” “How much butter do you add?” “What stirring motion ensures that you won’t overcook any part of the egg?” For a reason that I couldn’t yet articulate, these questions started to matter to me in a way that questions about cooking hadn’t.
When I tasted my first perfectly cooked set of scrambled eggs, the flavor was pure and clean, like eggs in an almost ideal sense, the same way that my grandmother’s sauce tastes just like tomatoes are supposed to taste: bright, sharp, and refreshing. There was something about learning to scramble eggs, and cooking at egg in general, that felt close to what I always loved about cooking and eating. I realized that the simple food at egg was satisfying in the same way that the food that I grew up eating was — they are both the kind of satisfying that enhances the conversation around the table and puts an unwitting smile on your face. It reminded me of the lesson that my grandmother taught me, that simple food can taste so good and feel so nourishing because cooking it well forces you to focus on getting everything right. When your ingredients are canned tomatoes and garlic or eggs and butter, you can’t hide behind anything and everything matters. And when you’ve gotten it right, and you’ve struck the right harmony throughout the whole process, you’ll have made something beautiful that preserves the integrity of nature while simultaneously enhancing it. You’ll know in a deep and straightforward way that you’ve done something good.
I have a memory from one of my first months cooking at egg that I come back to often. One weekday morning in late fall, we got a table just a few minutes after opening. We cooked the order, and then went on to get a few things ready for the afternoon. When I looked out the swinging doors, I saw a father and son sitting at the one taken table, the father with a cup of coffee and the son with a glass of orange juice, and I felt so proud to cook for them. I felt proud to cook a meal that a father would trust treating his son to on that rare morning before work, knowing that the scrambled eggs with sausage and toast would be as good as his best memory of eating them as a kid. And I felt proud to be a part that kids’ memory of a delicious breakfast and the feeling of how great and special it is to go out with dad. I realized later that what I also felt proud of that morning was that when I cooked that meal, food meant to that father and son something like what it meant to me and my grandmother the day that she taught me how to make sauce. As naive and utopian as it may be, that realization made me feel like I was working toward something great, because if all of us keep those moments close, when what we nourish ourselves with is given the respect and sanctity that it deserves, then the growing movement around honest food could take root in the deepest part of our hearts and truly change the way that we live.