Guest Blogger: Alice Orr and her “Sauce of Life”

I’m proud to introduce my first Guest Blogger to KitchenCauldron: Alice Orr, a writer friend I met many years ago, probably at my very first summer conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild, attended in 1995. Only in more recent years have Alice and I begun to connect on deeper levels, and our foodie interests seem to enhance that friendship. It’s only natural that my very first Guest Blog should be written by Alice.

Alice also gifts us with a bonus – a writing prompt following the recipe! Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer (and I have to say that you’re wrong if you believe that’s the case because we’re all storytellers), her suggested tale-telling/memoir-writing exercise is Food for Thought. Which brings me to another innovation for KC: if you write something, perhaps you might like to share it with KC readers? That happens to be what KitchenCauldron’s “Food for Thought – Getting Literary” Page is all about (see righthand column). If you write a short piece from Alice’s prompt (preferably up to 500 words, but no longer than 700), you can submit it via e-mail it to me at wmnwords@nycap.rr.com and I’ll consider adding it to that page (or subsequent pages, if I decide to create a “Volume 2”). Hey—if there’s a recipe with it, maybe you too might become a KC Guest Blogger!

But back to Alice Orr.

I first realized that Alice was somewhat of a foodie while she was still living on Vashon Island, in the state of Washington. I can’t recall whether it was during her bout with cancer (mentioned below in her story-intro to the recipe) or just afterward, but I have a strong memory of an e-mail in which she bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t find any place in her area that made good meatballs; and she didn’t have a decent recipe for them either. Having moved to Washington from New York City years before, she was somewhat spoiled by the tasty convenience of many an authentic Italian restaurant within walking, subway or taxi range, including a few in formerly Italian-immigrant sections of the city. I know this is not the reason she and her husband once again reside in The Big Apple, but I’m sure it has to be the “icing on the cake” regarding their return to her home state and beloved NYC. Or should I say, “the meatball in the sauce”?

This recipe, however, isn’t about the meatball(s). It’s about where the meatballs usually wind up, in the sauce, although this version is marinara. Connected with the recipe are special childhood and other memories, including the source of the recipe – a hometown restaurant. Alice has made it her own, as most foodies do. She says, “I feel okay calling this Alice’s sauce because I have added my tweaks to the original. They are part of the story too. For example, I picked up the paste sauté trick from an actor named Charlie a long time ago. It adds a depth of flavor and aroma that makes me and my kitchen smile.” She advises reader-cooks to “Feel free to add your tweaks – and your stories – also. Stories make kitchen life as rich as this sauce and then some. So be sure to spin your yarns as you stir your pots.”

Without further ado (and saving Alice Orr’s short “bio” for the end of the blog), please enjoy – and hopefully cook up – a  potful of…

The Sauce of Life
by Alice Orr

I dedicate this to my Grandma – Alice Jane Rowland Boudiette – because she gave me my first Warm Kitchen Memories.

Grandma cooked on a cast iron stove so massive it had to be cut apart with a blowtorch to get it out of her house after she passed away when I was seven years and three days old. A circle of heat radiated around that stove the same way a circle of tranquility radiated around my grandmother. I basked in both through many frigid Northern New York winter days.

I would sit at the small wooden table between the kitchen window and the door to the storm porch at the back of Grandma’s house on West Main Street in Watertown NY. The storm porch was where I stopped to knock the frequent blizzards off my buckled rubber boots before going inside. It was lined with cupboards stocked to overflowing during August canning season with Mason jars of peaches and pears – corn and tomatoes – jams and jellies – chili sauce and pickles.

To be honest I do not remember Grandma’s cooking anywhere near as clearly as I remember what it felt like to be with her. Not just safe and accepted but at the center of the essence of safety and acceptance where I was simply Ali Bette, and that was plenty enough to be. I have no doubt that the reason I find calmness in cooking and peace in preparing meals hearkens back to the heart of my Grandma, at the heart of her house, which was always her warm kitchen.

Twenty-some years after Grandma was gone, I inhabited another warm kitchen. I had been married by then and had become a mom, only to be unmarried again and become a single mom. My friend Gayle was in the same boat and our boat was floundering financially. We shared a house and pooled our resources, but that pool was pretty shallow and our grocery budget suffered accordingly.

We had a big battered cooking pot with a lid that bounced to a clattery rhythm when the contents boiled. This pot was residence for the three main staples of our diet – potatoes for mashing, macaroni for cheese and spaghetti for sauce. Our kitchen on Moffett Street, also in Watertown, had its own small table near the window. The top was covered in off-white Formica with a pattern of gray wavy lines.

Our kids sat there every morning before school, each with a different brand of breakfast cereal in their bowls. They ate fast and slopped cereal and milk onto the tabletop. Gayle and I were also hurrying to make it to work and had little time for cleanup. We came home most nights to a mosaic of cereal flakes and shapes glued so tight to the Formica that they had to be soaked in soapy water, then pried loose with a spatula before supper could be served.

The greatest gift Gayle and I gave our children and each other back then was our ability to laugh amidst the hurrying and our lack of money and, of course, the mess on the tabletop. That laughter is at the heart of my Warm Kitchen Memories from that time when the hands-down kids’ favorite among our battered pot meals was Spaghetti with Sauce.

One particular Italian restaurant in Watertown was renowned for its sauce. Canali’s sat oddly off the main road which rose above it as an overpass. My family could not afford to go out to eat much when I was young. Cooking and eating happened at home. The same situation prevailed for Gayle and me. When I finally did get to Canali’s for a meal, their Spaghetti with Meatballs embedded itself in my taste memory forever. The sauce especially took my taste buds by surprise – subtle and full-flavored, with just the right amount of garlic.

Alice's former home on Vashon Island

I had never experienced sauce like that before and would not again until Cousin Robin reappeared in my life. We hadn’t seen each other since we were kids in Watertown. He was a towhead back then, a few years older than I with a big personality like so many of us in the Boudiette clan. His presence had not shrunk when my bout with cancer brought him to my house in Washington State a couple of years ago.

His robust frame filled our large dark green chair near the living room window. I languished nearby on my couch-turned-recuperation-bed. I could tell he loved to talk and let him do that. Robin is a raconteur with a memory for detail. His stories of our family washed over and through me as I drifted on the pleasant flow of his Texas-Oklahoma transplant drawl. Then he said two sentences that brought me to full attention.

“Do you remember Canali’s Restaurant in Watertown? I have their sauce recipe.”

He went on to unwind a tale of wheedling the recipe out of a chef there. I can easily imagine Robin wheedling anything out of anybody. On the other hand, he is a yarnspinner and I understand that the facts of a yarn are often embellished in the spinning. Nonetheless I was happy when a few weeks later he e-mailed me the recipe. I was amazed by the simplicity of the ingredients and cooking method, but the preponderance of canned components made me skeptical about Cousin Robin’s claims. I needed to test this out.

Vashon Island kitchen

I was feeling better by then – well on my way to the positive verdict my oncologist would soon bestow on me. I was ready to return to the warm circle of my own kitchen at the heart of our yellow farmhouse at the heart of Vashon Island. I was also eager to feel the reassurance I knew I would find there, where my wooden spoons – worn smooth by years of mixing – waited for me to pick them up again and mix some more.

I did not yet have the strength for anything requiring lengthy preparation. Cousin Robin’s recipe would be perfect and the ingredients were so basic I had them on hand. I pulled out my favorite sauce pot – a flame red Le Creuset with stove stains on the bottom – and began opening cans. Soon after, I was stirring with my long-handled wooden spoon while rich aroma wafted through the house that must have missed the comfort smell of cooking as much as I did.

I held off on the tasting. I looked forward to a happy surprise and dreaded disappointment at the same time. Finally I gave the thick darkish red sauce one more stir scraping in all of the bits from the bottom. Then I lifted the spoon to my lips. My taste buds leapt with delight just as they had back in Watertown at a booth in Canali’s Restaurant many years before.

Memory and longing collided in that moment at the very center of my being – from Grandma through Gayle to my Vashon Island kitchen – and I was profoundly grateful to be alive and present for the collision. Plus this was the best sauce I had ever made in my life.

ALICE’S SAUCE OF LIFE
Yields one large pot of marinara sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons of minced garlic (from a jar is fine)
  • Two 6-ounce cans tomato paste
  • Two 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
  • One 23.5 or 26.5-ounce can or jar of meatless spaghetti sauce, preferably tomato-basil
  • 2 tomato paste cans of water
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 medium size bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon salt. (Kosher salt tastes best but is bad for the blood pressure, so I don’t use it.)
  • Sprinkles of cayenne pepper, to taste
  • Sprinkles of allspice, not more than ¼ teaspoon
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Fresh parsley and chives, snipped into the pan (optional)

Process

  1. Heat olive oil to sizzling in bottom of sauce pan. Add garlic and stir until aroma begins to escape.
  2. Add tomato paste to pan, blend into oil and garlic and stir constantly until paste begins to brown and smells delectable.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend together well.
  4. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat until the sauce is simmering at a comfortable bubble.
  5. Simmer for two hours, stirring every fifteen minutes. Be careful not to let the sauce stick to the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat and stir more frequently if that begins to happen.
  6. Allow sauce to sit for a while or refrigerate overnight before serving so the flavors can come into true harmony with one another. Or – if you are in a huge hurry – serve it straight off. It will be delicious any way your time may dictate.

An Exercise for the Storyteller in You

Warm up as spring approaches by writing about an experience we have all had in some form or other. In my writing workshops, I do not usually specify what the mood of a piece should be. But this time I am going to ask you to make the mood of what you write WARM.

Write your own Warm Kitchen Memory scene. Something that has happened to you at some time in your life in a kitchen. Something you remember with warmth and fondness.

Do your best to make this scene come alive. The people who were there. What was said. What was done. And especially the feelings. Your feelings as you experienced this scene.

The first scene that comes to your mind and memory is probably the best one to write. It can come from your past or from this morning. There are no right or wrong choices.

Start by calming and centering yourself with some long deep breaths. Then – just write. Do not worry about how you write – just write – from the center of yourself and that Warm Kitchen.

If you have any questions about how to do this or if you would like to share the results please do not hesitate to email me at aliceorrseminars@gmail.com.

In the meantime – Keep on Stirring Pots and Spinning Yarns, Whatever May Occur.

Alice Orr has spent her career life as a publishing professional –
literary agent, book editor, published author.
In her workshops she teaches writers
how to give their writing work and their writer selves agent-editor appeal.
At her blog http://publishingsensefromaliceorr.blogspot.com,
Alice shares practical tips and pragmatic advice for writers
who want to be published or better published.
At her website http://www.aliceorrseminars.net/, she shares herself.