Stirring the Pot: A Tradition of Cooking with Nana


LIZ WILLIAMS (this article was first published in October 2012)

Liz Williams’s Mother, Grandmother, and Great-Grandmother

One of the reasons it was so important to me to cook with my children is that I have such fond memories of cooking with my grandmother and my mother. I really didn’t cook with my mother as a child, she was very protective of her kitchen, but as a teenager and later, we did enjoy cooking together. But my memories of cooking with my grandmother, my Nana, are firmly associated with small joys and feelings of closeness starting when I was a child. I still remember standing on my stool so that I could reach the stove and help stir the pots.

My Nana suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, so when I helped her I knew that I was not just being humored, but that I was really helping.  All the small things were up to me.  When I spent the day with her, we would often put up tomato sauce.  In tomato season we would make it with fresh tomatoes.  Other times it would be made with canned tomatoes. I could help either way. I could chop onions and mince garlic. And when the tomatoes were not sweet enough, I would grate carrots for extra flavor and sweetness.

Liz’s mom in 1921. Photo courtesy of Liz Williams.

On days that we made tomato sauce, my grandmother would let me drink wine with her. She would fill a tumbler with water and add a tablespoon of wine. She drank her wine from a tumbler too. We would sit together and chat. I felt so grown up and included.  She would tell me stories about growing up in Italy. She talked about her family.  Of course, I loved these times. I still cherish them.

When my children were small I wanted them to feel connected to their food, of course, but I also wanted to do something important together with them. Cooking, the most ordinary quotidian activity, was the perfect thing to do together. Not only would we enjoy each other’s company, but I would be passing on family culture, teaching an important life skill, and just having fun.  My own experience made me more aware of duplicating it with my kids.

And now I still enjoy cooking with my kids.  They are both adults, but there is an easy rhythm and comfort with each other that we can fall into when we cook together.  It is a great way to talk and catch up.  And it makes us remember good times cooking in the past.  I am looking forward to cooking with my grandchildren.

Ingredients ready for tomato sauce. Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Nana’s Basic Tomato Sauce

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 anchovy, mashed
  • 3 large onions, finely chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 stalk celery, minced
  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 5 pounds tomatoes
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 bay leaves, whole
  • 2 tbs. dried oregano
  • Juice and zest of half a lemon
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large pot with a heavy bottom.  Slowly sauté anchovy until it dissolves. Sauté onions, garlic, celery and carrots until very soft.  Add tomato paste and continue cooking until caramelized.  Add the tomatoes, wine, and bay leaves.  Stir.  Cover and simmer for at least an hour.  (Cooking time for fresh tomatoes is longer.)  Continue simmering uncovered to allow to thicken.  This could be hours, so be prepared to stir regularly as the water in the tomatoes evaporates. This was not fancy tomato sauce, so we didn’t remove the seeds or peel or even chop the tomatoes.  They finally just fall apart.  Add oregano, zest and lemon juice.  Cook 15 minutes and serve over pasta.  Grate parmigiano-reggiano over the whole.

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