Grief, with a side of baked ziti

After unexpectedly losing her mother, one writer uses a beloved meal to connect the past, present and future

By Joelle Zarcone
March 20, 2021 10:02PM (UTC)
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Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food stylist: Kate Buckens. (James Ransom / Food52)

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Good food is worth a thousand words — sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


They say everyone has their own love language, their unique way of showing people that they care. For my mom, that language was, unmistakably, food.

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Growing up, she taught me that gooey brownies were the best way to cheer someone up; that you didn't dare go to a friend's house without a cake in hand; that you should always have an extra loaf of crusty Italian bread on hand, "just in case"; and that adding cheese to most things can make life's problems suddenly feel a whole lot more manageable.

My mom's signature recipe was her sauce: A third-generation Italian, she had learned very early in life how to make my great-grandmother Nannie's classic bolognese recipe. Every Sunday of my childhood was designated Sauce Day, a multi-hour event that kicked off midmorning — complete with the rituals of stirring and tasting, never measuring, trusting your wooden spoon to let you know when there was enough of an ingredient, and when this rich meat sauce was done and ready to be paired with pasta. Despite our being a family of just three, this exceptional Sunday sauce was designed to serve 10, and any leftovers were meticulously packed up and frozen, usually in the Chinese takeout containers my parents washed and saved specifically for that purpose.

When I left home to go to college one state away, my mom started driving up to visit, with a big red and white cooler seatbelted into the back seat of her red-wine-colored sedan, transporting the most precious of cargo: frozen containers of her sauce, made especially for me. From her perspective, this was nonnegotiable — it was her responsibility to make sure I always had some on hand, just in case I got homesick. Five hours by car and six slightly defrosted containers later, she would arrive, double-parking outside my dorm, telling me how much she'd missed me. And later, when she'd head back home, the sauce would remain, tucked away in my freezer for all those days when she wasn't around.

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The writer with her mother.

The writer with her mother. Photo by Joelle Zarcone. 

This tradition continued for more than 15 years, well after I graduated college. When I moved cross-country and a cooler in a car would no longer cut it, she'd arrive at my doorstep with her trusty pot and wooden spoon, setting up shop in my apartment to make enough sauce to last until her next visit.

That sauce was the key ingredient of my favorite dinner — Italian baked ziti. This was the meal my mom made to celebrate special occasions, including my birthday. If there wasn't any freezer sauce available, she'd make a fresh batch, always calling out from the kitchen as she was slicing the mozzarella. Her thick New York accent would travel across the house, letting me know there was extra cheese available to dunk into the simmering sauce on the stove, you know, just in case I wanted some. (I always did.) It didn't matter how old I was, she still used that baked ziti to remind me how happy she was that I was around.

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It was also the meal my mom made the first time my now-husband visited my parents' house, and the dinner she always made the day I'd arrive home for the holidays. If we were together, it was worth a celebration, and her love spilled into every meal she touched.

In March of last year, shortly after the pandemic had begun to take hold in the U.S., my mom was diagnosed with stage II cancer. It caught us by complete surprise, as cancer is apt to do. While the chemotherapy didn't, thankfully, wreck her the way it does many, it caused her to lose her hair and — perhaps most unfortunately from her perspective — her appetite. Nothing tasted quite right anymore, and the exhaustion caused by her treatments left her eating applesauce and Jell-O more often than the Italian recipes she'd made for 60 years.

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Midsummer, she experienced a complication from chemo that we'd never anticipated, nor even known was possible: stubborn blood clots that traveled up to her lungs, making it difficult for her to breathe. When she first went into the hospital, she would detail each of her meals for me during our frequent phone calls, especially tickled when the head cook stopped by to ask how she was enjoying the food. She was impressed to see the pride he had in his food service — it felt similar to how she felt about the meals she cooked for her own family.

We thought she'd be in and out of hospital, but within 10 days of being there, her situation took a turn for the worse. Shortly after midnight on a Friday in July, she became unable to catch her breath and was put on a ventilator. Two days later and one month before my birthday, as I stood at her bedside rubbing her legs under the piles of blankets and sobbing through layers of cloth face masks, my mom — my best friend — left me forever.

It took weeks for the shock to wear off, and I clung to the tangible pieces of my mom I still had left: an old sweatshirt, her favorite ring, her notebook of recipes (a black and white composition book, weathered and stained with use). And that one last container of her sauce, tucked deep into my freezer back home, saved from the last time she'd come to visit.

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One evening in the fall, three months after she left us, I defrosted it. As I served my dad and husband that warm California evening, I began to cry. It felt like she'd died all over again; her sauce had been such a real reminder of her unending love and care, and now it was finally, truly gone.

I had resisted making her sauce for years, even before she got sick, because I felt like it could never taste the same. I also didn't have a real recipe to go off of; while she'd given me the baked ziti recipe a long time ago, there was no entry in her notebook for the sauce. All I had was the list of ingredients (saved from the last time she'd made me a grocery list), and my memory of the verbal instructions she called out as she cooked. With my freezer empty, though, I decided it was time.

I spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of November poring over old text message conversations and emails about cooking that I'd received from her throughout the years, and racked my brain to recall kitchen scenes from my childhood to remember the order in which she poured things into the pot. It took two Sundays worth of trial and error over the stove to finally piece the recipe together. That second Sunday, I knew from the moment I smelled the sauce simmering in my kitchen that it was a success — it smelled just like my mom's.

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That week, I made a big tray of baked ziti to celebrate my mom's life, using her recipe, which is now mine, too. It was just for my husband and me, but I made enough to serve a much larger table, because that's what my mom would've done. And when it came time to slice the mozzarella, I looked around my quiet kitchen and called out to no one in particular that we could now dunk it in the simmering sauce if we wanted. I did.

***

Recipe: Cheesy Baked Ziti With Big-Batch Sauce

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Serves: 8-10

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Ingredients

Sunday Sauce

  • 8-10 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 garlic gloves, finely chopped
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans, tomato paste
  • 8 (7-ounce) cans, Hunt's tomato sauce
  • 1 (28-ounce) can, Hunt's crushed tomatoes
  • salt, to taste
  • pepper, to taste
  • 1-2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
  • 2 small yellow onions, whole
  • 1/2 pound beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/2-3/4 pounds pork spare ribs

Baked Ziti

  • 1 pound ziti, cooked
  • Sunday sauce (see above)
  • 5-6 tablespoons ricotta
  • 1 log of full-fat mozzarella, sliced into chunks

Directions

Sunday Sauce

  1. Add olive oil to a large, sturdy pot and place on medium to low heat. Once oil is hot, add garlic and sauté on low. (Do not let garlic burn!)
  2. Once garlic is fragrant and slightly browned, add two cans of tomato paste. Stir for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Add remaining cans of sauce and large can of tomatoes to pot and stir well. Add water to each of the small sauce cans (not the large can) and mix and pour into the mixture. Stir well to combine.
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste, as well as the Italian seasoning. Stir once more to mix seasonings into the sauce.
  5. Cover and bring the mixture to boil on a medium flame. Add whole onions and meat. Reduce to low heat and simmer for 2.5-3 hours.

Baked Ziti

  1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Pour cooked pasta into a 13x9-inch oven-safe baking dish or similar pan. Pasta should cover the entire length of the baking dish in one consistent layer.
  2. Add about 5-6 heaping tablespoons of ricotta to pasta, and mix until ricotta is well incorporated.
  3. Add enough of the Sunday sauce that the entire dish is well-coated, but not soaked. (Note: Even though this is a meat sauce, do not add the meat. Instead, save it for another meal or serve some on the side of the baked ziti, mixed in with extra sauce.) Next, add a handful of mozzarella chunks, and mix well so the dish of pasta is pink with sauce and cheese is well spread out.
  4. Add more sauce to cover the top of the pasta (you don't want the pasta to dry out in the oven), and a final layer of mozzarella. You can add as much or as little cheese as you like, but keep in mind that it will melt and spread.
  5. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until evenly hot throughout and cheese has melted and crisped up. You can cover the pan loosely with foil to bake, but remember to remove the foil for the last 5-10 minutes. Serve with extra sauce on the side.

Joelle Zarcone

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