After Paul and I were married and after my father had told him all the reasons he shouldn’t marry me; I was worthless, couldn’t cook, keep house, clean or even be counted on to make my own bed and take care of my things I made it a point to prove him wrong.
For the first few months we subsisted on cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Chef Boy Ar Dee. Finally Paul decided he’d had enough and made what he called “Wop Sauce” one night. It was delicious. I had no Idea pasta sauce could be so heavenly. My mom had always made sauce with catsup and I never thought much of it but then I never thought much about food or eating while I was growing up. It was just a means to an end, necessary to survival.
It took awhile for me to start moving forward on my commitment to show my father I wasn’t a loser. I started with some simple cooking. I experimented with herbs and was excited with the results most of the time. It seemed I had a natural gift for putting flavors together. Paul was delighted and pretty soon we started having guests for supper. I often used the recipe I had begged Paul to write down for me and over the years I embellished it with touches of my own.
I discovered so many gustatory delights during our brief years together. I had never had a mushroom or an artichoke or even asparagus in my life. Salads had always consisted of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes or sometimes a few carrot nickels. I never cared much for salads then. All vegetables had been cooked beyond redemption, all the flavor washed out of them and the only ones we had ever had were green beans, peas, corn and, God forbid, the occasional rutabaga, nasty and bitter. I learned sautéing and steaming. I tried romaine and leaf lettuce with a touch or parmesan or feta and a few olive and maybe some walnuts. I was in heaven and I think Paul was relieved although he never complained and always encouraged me.
My parents were both from rural Wisconsin and my mom had spent most of her later childhood in a orphanage after her parents had divorced. My grandmother couldn’t provide a home for her and her sisters so when the relatives had gotten tired of them they went to the orphanage and she paid what she could so they wouldn’t be adopted out. My mom never had the chance to learn to cook or do the other things women in those days were expert at. She had taught herself to sew and knit and was an amazing housekeeper but cooking never was her gift.
I continued to use that sauce recipe over the years even after Paul was no longer with us. The kids grew up with it and all the beautiful foods he had introduced me to. They are all accomplished cooks, especially my youngest son. Eddie went to culinary arts school after high school but decided that it was an art and not something he wanted to make a living doing.
One Christmas after they were all grown and had their own homes I make a cookbook for them of all their favorite recipes. I found the original copy of the Wop Sauce recipe their dad had written down for me in his own handwriting so many years ago and made copies for each of them. It was yellowed with age and had a few spots of olive oil and tomato on it but was still legible. As I held it a lump in my throat formed and tears stung my eyelids. Paul was my mentor, my best friend and the love of my life. Even after thirty years I missed him terribly, it was like a piece of me was missing.
Last week as we all gathered for a family dinner the menu was the usual, pasta, wop sauce, garlic bread and salad. We each take turns making the sauce and each of the sides. Our dinner tradition has been as frequent as every other week or as seldom as birthdays and holidays. There are now 31 of us with the grandkids and their spouses or partners. So birthdays and other occasions for celebration are frequent. We aren’t always able to have everyone there at one time but it’s usually a house full. The aroma of the sauce pungent with oregano, tomato, anise and parsley fills the air, whets our appetites and mingles with the voices of soft conversation and shouts and squeals of the little ones. I’m sure Paul would be as delighted as I am at how our beautiful family has grown together and shared his gift from so long ago.