Nearly every Sunday of my early childhood my Mom made something most Italian-Americans (especially those from Naples) called Sunday Gravy. Simply put, Sunday Gravy is making a large batch of tomato sauce and introducing various types of meat into it. In Italian, the word salsa means sauce... a sauce is made from something other than meat. Like putting a fruit or cheese sauce over meat, chicken or fish. The Italian word sugo means gravy. A gravy is made from the liquids and fat that are rendered from various meats--like using turkey drippings to make a gravy. The all-day cooking of meat in tomato sauce gives off a heady scent, that would fill our apartment, and waft out into the hallway for the entire building to smell--"Ahh... the Finzi's are making Gravy today!"
The secret of Sugo the slow cooking or pippiare (cook slowly). Sunday Gravy has it's origins from a beef stew popular in medieval XII-XIV century, way before tomatoes were introduced from the New World--a clay cooker slow cooked the stew of beef and vegetables for hours and hours. This beef stew turned into a ragù and eventually Neapolitans evolved the dish by the eighteenth century for the noble courts, using very fine meat, such as beef and veal, but no tomato. (Tomatoes didn't gain popularity right away in Europe... they were thought to be poisonous). This dish was mainly prepared on Sundays, the sauce used on pasta and meat served as a second course. One historian described a Sugo using tomatoes in 1857 that was being served in taverns in Naples.
Sunday Gravy is a hybrid of sorts... it starts out as a tomato sauce and becomes a gravy after meats have been added and have rendered their flavors during a long cooking period--the Sunday Gravy.
But Sunday Gravy wasn't a meal, per se. It was an event--a gathering. It was reminiscent of an entire village doing communal cooking... coming together to make pasta, make bread, make the olive oil, tend the olive trees, fix a roof, gossip, laugh and be together.
My Mom started making Sunday Gravy sometimes on Saturday... or even the Thursday before.
She was a working Mom and was frugal with her time. She would make a meat dish one night--maybe the meatballs. Then she'd give us a simple dinner with some of them, but hold most of them for adding to the Sunday Gravy pot. Maybe on Saturday after shopping, she'd make the brasciole and brown the pork ribs under the broiler. These would also go into the fridge, ready for the Sunday Gravy pot.
Sunday morning would come and I'd go to Mass with one of my sisters and then stop at a bakery to pick up "buns" for our whole family--even my Aunt Rose's family who lived upstairs. "Buns" were anything sweet from the bakery... cream donuts dusted with cinnamon, raisin "buns" (my favorite), a crumb cake with crumbs as big as my 5 year old fist, a cheese danish that would fill a plate, and maybe a dozen "mixed buns"... assorted goodies that the person behind the counter would surprise us with.
After all, Sunday Gravy wasn't just about the one meal. It was also about what we'd be eating in the coming week. Lots of leftovers in that big pot. The gravy might even allow us to cheat a little on "meatless Friday" by using just the tomato sauce without any meat on pasta, ravioli or with fish. And everyone knows the Gravy only tastes better over the next few days. The flavors of all those meats meld into the sauce turning it magically into a true gravy--rendered from meat. It's a carnivore's manna--nectar straight from our Roman and Greek bloodlines. My Dad's very large family ate from a single pot.... and a single bowl in the middle of the table. You can imagine the Sunday Gravy there with brothers and sisters taking a meatball here, a rib there... a couple of these meats, a piece of bread or pasta and some of this gravy and you had an incredible meal. Filling, nutritious and delicious.
There were lots of mouths to feed--seven of us in our family, and the dog. My cousins would stop by, too. It was about the famiglia... the heritage... the food... the tastes that even our memories had forgotten but unknowingly were our a link to our past.... Naples, Molfetta... and my Grandmother, Mariantonia Delulia. (Once I learned her real name I was compelled to say her full name over and over... like poetry off an Italian tongue.) She made her own version of Gravy... everyone does it slightly differently. She'd add more peppers and large chunks of onions, and pignoli in her meatballs. A cut up pork shoulder (the affordable cut for poor immigrants, when they could afford it) was the star along with hot sausage.
We'd carry the big white bags and boxes tied with string back home to our street, then stop at the candy store to pick up the Sunday papers, thick and heavy like the sauce Mom was going to make. We didn't have breakfast on Sundays. We had "buns" and comics. Mom and Dad would have coffee with theirs, and the five of us kids would dunk our "buns" in milk and read Dick Tracy, Mandrake, Little Orphan Annie and Blondie...
Before we would get through the comics, our little railroad apartment would start to smell differently.... sweet, pungent... Italian. Mom would start by taking a huge onion and cutting it up into small pieces... and sautéing them in the bottom of her huge stock pot on the kitchen stove until they were soft and glistening and letting off their pungent scent. After that, my Dad would get the wine from the cellar (he'd sometimes have jugs of some home made wine he got from an Uncle down there) and pour some into the pot. Not sure how much.... maybe a couple of cups.
Next, Mom would let one of us open the cans--big cans of imported tomato puree. It was fun opening cans with the wall hung can opened over by the dumb waiter door (nailed shut by Dad so us kids wouldn't try to go for a ride.) About four or five cans would go into the pot. Next came the spices. A handful of sugar to cut the acidity, half handful each of dried basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder (or a 5-6 cloves of fresh when Mom had it), a good sprinkle of red pepper flakes, a tablespoon each of salt and pepper, then a quarter cup of olive oil. If Mom had any leftover rinds of cheese from a grating wedge, they'd go in too.
Then she'd take out the meat... lots of it. A rack of ribs cut up would be layered in like logs at the bottom of a red lake. Then would come the sausage browned and cut up into 2 inch pieces, then add the meatballs. Next the brasciole... all tied up like neat little meaty packages. Then the Sunday Gravy pot is put on the back burner--the smallest one--and starts to simmer and simmer, bubbling like a crater of lava from the old world. The aromas get more and more intense as the day goes on--you can taste the flavors turning the tomato sauce into something... luscious. My siblings' friends come and go with an open door policy, my mother always inviting them to have a "bun" or sit down for a meatball sandwich. There was more than enough... a few would never be missed.
As for us, we would taste the Gravy all day long by getting a piece of bread and spooning some on top. What a treat. I still do this when I make gravy--or sauce. Taste it on top of a piece of bread... fine tune the spices, then simmer some more. Lucas is growing to love this little snack way before dinnertime. In the Fifties we would sometimes eat Sunday "dinner" at 2 in the afternoon if my Mom was lucky enough to get the Sunday Gravy in the pot early enough. Otherwise, we'd eat by 5 or so. There was no set dinner time on Sunday's in our house. Besides, we had "buns" in our bellies--the starch, fat and sugars keeping our fluttering young hearts going. No one went hungry on Sundays.
This Easter I made Sunday gravy, as I described above. I didn't follow a recipe... I followed my memories. We've already had two meals from it. It all came together for Easter Sunday's late afternoon meal, as my family had done time and time again so many years ago. We'll probably freeze half of it for future meals. We made home made tagliatelle to have with it the first night and a risotto for the next night. But we also had each other. We shared garlic bread and wine with it--Lucas had a little glass too. I'm teaching Lucas how to drink with a meal rather than drink to get drunk. He places a small forkful of meat in his mouth, chews a bit, sips some wine and discovers the flavors as they mingle and merge into something Godlike. It was a family Mass with a prayer beforehand. It's a joy to watch his eyes light up as he discovers great flavors. Lisa helped me with some parts of the meat preparations as early as Thursday. Lucas helped make the meatballs and the pasta. Lucas is also a spice expert, so I told him to "Make an Italian tasting spice rub for the ribs". He nailed it. Mom made the risotto we had for our second meal... the Gravy mixing with the rice turning it into something dreamy.
Traditions--or perhaps I should say--rituals are important in our family... and in our food. After all, the food holds ties to our heritage and the food eventually becomes us. Literally.
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