Every Thursday afternoon when I was growing up, my mother would take a big, bright-yellow Pyrex bowl from the cupboard, sit on one of the long benches that ran alongside our kitchen table, and begin the process of making meatballs.
This was our standing Thursday night dinner. I looked forward to that spaghetti, red sauce, and savory little orbs of meaty love every week like it was nobody’s business.
I would come home from school and tell my mom all about the trials of teenagehood while she tore up pieces of white bread into small bits, which she would then combine with chopped meat from my dad’s butcher shop, parsley, and several other tried-and-true ingredients that made me go back for seconds and thirds—and sometimes get into a tussle with my older sister Laura over the last meatball.
My mom passed away when I was 21, right around the time I was moving into my first apartment and taking the helm at my first stove (albeit a really small, crappy one). My roommate back then was a vegetarian, so no meatballs were made on that tiny little stove; there was no sense in making a big pot of sauce and meat when only I would eat it. Plus, we were perennially broke, so I slipped into vegetarianism for that brief period for all obvious and practical reasons, and to my father’s great chagrin.
After that, I kind of forgot about meatballs, until recently when I realized I’d utterly forgotten how to make them–or, more accurately, make them well. The thing was, I’d spent years experimenting with all sorts of exciting new foods and recipes and cuisines; meatballs just seemed, well… boring. This coincided with a time when the whole culinary world was eschewing Italian-American cooking in search of “the real Italy,” seeking out the most authentic ingredients from the wives of fisherman in Sciacca or the owner of a trattoria in Tuscany. It started to feel that meatballs were passé. And anyone can make them, right? Well, actually, no.
About a year or so ago, I was thinking about my mom and those great Thursday night dinners, and in a fit of hungry nostalgia, I threw together a batch for dinner with my very Italian husband, Dan. We sat down to eat them and…meh. I chewed and chewed. He chewed and chewed, avoiding my anxious gaze.
“They’re not that good, are they?”
He smiled supportively, but gently shook his head.
“No. They really aren’t.”
It was total meatball ineptitude and failure. How could this happen? How could I be such a whiz in the kitchen and be unsuccessful at what I considered the most basic of dishes? The acute disappointment I felt was doubly hard to swallow because it made me yearn for my mother’s company, her cooking, and the incredible attention and love she put into it (and us). I could almost smell a phantom pot of her sauce on the stove. I needed to learn how to do this.
It was total meatball ineptitude and failure. How could this happen? How could I be such a whiz in the kitchen and be unsuccessful at what I considered the most basic of dishes?
It’s been over a year now, and as I sit here writing this I’m anticipating the heady smell of meat, cheese, garlic and parsley cooking on my stovetop wafting soon. It took me all this time, but I finally figured it out—in part from looking at good recipes that made sense and figuring out what I liked, but also from allowing myself to remember those days of sitting and watching mom at the kitchen table with her big, yellow bowl. I’m making this batch for Dan tonight; I can’t think of a better way to show someone you love them.