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How my father learned to cook (Recipe: traditional spaghetti gravy)

Spaghetti gravy

Guest post and photos by Sarah in Boston.

When my mother passed away, two days before their anniversary, she and my dad had been married almost 15 years.

While I doubt he ever got over the shock, my dad stepped into the role of single parent and, all things considered, he did a pretty good job. As we moved through those first weeks, one thing that became apparent was that he didn’t really know how to feed two growing daughters. His ideal pantry consisted of dried Great Northern beans, rosemary, sage, bay leaf, table salt, rock salt, pepper, onions, chicken broth and elbow macaroni.

After the funeral my maternal grandmother offered to stay on for a couple of weeks to help him design a week’s worth of recipes. They’d work with what he knew and incorporate some of what she called her "tricks". I can still see them sitting across the table from each other, supposedly talking about food, eating hot pickled peppers, the tears running down their cheeks, laughing and goading each other like kids trying to see who could eat the most.

I don’t know what my grandmother thought we would be eating when she left, but our weekly menu went something like this:

Monday: tomato gravy with elbow macaroni, some kind of sausage, and “greens”.
Tuesday: tomato gravy with elbow macaroni and white beans.
Wednesday: tomato gravy with elbow macaroni and ground beef and onions. (During deer season it would be venison.)
Thursday: all the leftovers added together.
Friday: minute steak sandwiches and fresh bakery donuts.

Preparation was always the same. Sunday after church we would go to Tom’s Market for ground steak, sausages, and the rest of the week’s supplies. In the evening my dad would cook two boxes of elbow macaroni, slather it with butter, and put it in the refrigerator in a green Tupperware bowl with a snap lid.

He would start spaghetti gravy and cook it for about 6 hours during the evening while he did his paperwork for the upcoming work week. At first he would start the 24-hour soak of beans to be cooked the following night, but eventually he discovered precooked Great Northerns in a jar.

We all appreciated the change. Dad had never learned the tricks for how to reduce that gassy feeling that comes sometimes when dried beans are used.

Gravy and pasta

Grandma Colonnese's traditional spaghetti gravy, fine-tuned by my dad and now me

Grandma cooked the gravy for days; it never seemed to come off the stove, just ladles full taken from the pot for meals with leftover dinner meats added. Her recipe serves 10-12.


In a stockpot, heat 1 Tbsp lard. (I know, but Dad loved it and refused to use oil. I suggest covering the bottom of the pot with olive oil.)
Cook 2 slabs of Canadian bacon, or 3 strips of regular bacon. 

1 medium onion, chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic. (He used garlic powder, but I prefer fresh garlic.)
(If you’re making a spicier sauce, this is the time to add some chopped hot peppers.)
1 apple, cored and peeled (Dad preferred Rome apples.)
1 medium zucchini or yellow squash, peeled and chopped fine

In a separate bowl, mix thoroughly:
1 cup of chicken broth
1 6-oz can tomato paste

Once the onions are translucent and the zucchini and apple are soft, add the tomato mixture.

Add 5 or 6 plum tomatoes, or 1 32-oz can of stewed tomatoes
Add any or all of the following cooked meats (NOT RAW): pork chop, sausage, chicken, lamb (Dad used whatever we had leftover.)
Add approximately 1/2 cup sugar, to cut the acidity from fresh tomatoes (If your canned tomatoes are already sweetened, add less sugar, to taste.) 

Finally, add: 2 bay leaves
1 cup red wine (I think Dad used Chianti; I use red table wine.)
A handful of oregano and basil (1 cup if fresh, chopped fine, or half as much dried sweet basil)
1/2 cup fresh parsley, or 2 Tbsp dry

Let simmer 3 to 4 hours, or a couple of days.

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Pasta with clams and vegetable sauce
Sicilian-style spaghetti
Broccoli, basil and pasta salad
Penne with roasted red pepper pesto
Linguine with tomato-olive sauce

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Beautiful story, and beautiful recipe! Thanks for sharing.

This is a wonderful story. I've never seen spaghetti gravy with apples in it. I'll have to try this recipe.

That is a beautiful story! Many men would have stocked up on frozen dinners. What a labor of love that was for him to learn to cook for his daughters. Thanks for sharing!

A manly YUM, nice to see other men that like to cook

many thanks....for the story and recipe

Hey - I just checked out your Website Sarah. I love the poem on wooden bowls. What a beautiful tribute to your mother's legacy. I wish I could see the exhibit and spend a couple of hours discovering all of the lines of the poem on each of the upturned bowls.

This is a wonderful story... I had always heard about spaghetti gravy, but never had it growing up... is it a regional American recipe or from European descent?

I like this post, too.

And, apples? Wow...that is new to me. I never would have guessed.

oh how this post speaks to me. I love making my own gravy from scratch on a cold wintery sunday.
love this.

This is great! I am in desperate need of help in the kitchen!
Great story about your dad, too -

Great story! I can only imagine how hard it was for the both of you with your loss. It is great that your dad made the gravy his own. It is memories like yours that make me glad that I became a cook to create them.

Thank you for your story.

He did a pretty good job!
I'm not used to sauces being called gravy. Up here gravy is just the sauce made out of roast drippings. Is that a Southern thing?
I love a good spaghetti sauce, and that pot is classic!

Thanks everyone for all your comments. Gravy is an Italian term or at least one I heard around my grandmother's table - I think dad added the apples because they were always around and, he liked things sweet, maybe he figured it was better than sugar - he tried using maple syrup but it just didn't work.

After I created the tribute to my mom (1,000 wooden bowls with 1,000 memories wood burned into the bottoms) my dad was always asking me what I was going to say about him. I think he worried I'd only remember the yelling. I hope he is enjoying these stories.

What a wonderful story.

Hey Sarah, this is great! I'm going to try this version the next time i make red sauce.

I LOVE the story!!

Lydia, this is awesome. I was making some spaghetti today using a store-bought brand and was wondering how I make it from scratch!

Thanks for the recipe and great to read your story as always! :)

tell me - Great Northerns . What do you think they might be called in the UK?
Great Big Veg Challenge

I love these little poignant slices of life. Especially the image of your dad and grandmother eating the hot pickled peppers and daring each other to eat more. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks, Great site, nice story.

One more to add to my list of things to be grateful for this year! Thank you so much for sharing more of yourself…

This looks great!

I loved the recipes and the memories.

You've done it again... created a warm, tender w/o being soppy, humorous w/o being irreverent, story of life and eats in your family kitchen.
Did you really eat the week's menu as described on the bottom? or was that a bit of literary license? What would be perfectly OK either way. But if true, how did your young girl bellies survive!

Very touching and loving insight of you and your dad. The apple surprised me too. I'll have to try that.

I love the story..sad and funny and very very touching...I can imagine the scene. tq for sharing the story n the recipe :)

Thanks everyone, I have no idea where great northern beans originate. Maybe Canada. I'm sure dad would be really pleased by all your comments - and yes, for about a year we did eat elbow macaroni 4 days a week.

This looks like a fascinating recipe, especially with the apples and all that simmering.

late post - but I am doing a little catch up reading!
I have recently revisited using bacon fat - in moderation it really makes a difference. (oh be sure to balance it's use with hours at the gym!)
as for the apples and squash - I think he was "slipping some veggies into the kids!"
great story, great posting!

Hi Sara. Thanks for a blast from the past!
Sad and sweet. The spice's of life.
By the time I came along I don't remember grandma doing to much cooking, only telling mom how to do it the right way (her Way).
But I remember Aunt Fran's kitchen with the bottomless pot of gravy and home made Italian bread ready to go from icebox to oven at the moments notice. And the smells mm-mmm good!
Best wishes for peace and happiness,
Love Camille

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