Noodles, Onions, Tomato Sauce and Brown Stuff

Recipes L’dor va dor (From Generation to Generation): When I got married, my mom passed along a stack of her go-to recipes, which I keep in a white three-ring binder. The collection includes a handful of her mom’s recipes for the holidays – Jewish and secular – along with selections from friends, family, synagogue cookbooks and popular ladies’ magazines. My mom passed away a year ago of pancreatic cancer. To honor her memory, I’m writing a series of articles featuring the back stories on recipes in my meal-planning rotation.  

When I was in first grade my teacher interviewed each student on how to prepare their favorite recipe. The assignment required us to each give a list of ingredients and instructions, which would be collated into a class cookbook. I chose spaghetti. I dictated the ingredients very clearly: spaghetti noodles, tomato sauce, canned mushrooms, one onion and brown stuff. I assumed the teacher would know what I meant by brown stuff – obviously it was ground beef.

The cookbook was published and shared with the class. I was mortified. My teacher didn’t list ground beef for my spaghetti recipe; she used my words – brown stuff. My six-year-old self couldn’t believe this was happening. How would my classmates know how to properly make my favorite dish? Why would my teacher choose this moment to take me literally? My parents, of course, thought the listed ingredient was adorable. I’m still not so sure.

What I am sure of is the extra special way my mom learned the recipe – my dad taught it to her. It was his signature recipe as a bachelor. They were 21 years old when they married, and my mom didn’t have many – if any – recipes in her repertoire.

The story goes that before he could teach her how to make it, he had to teach her how to use a manual can opener. She’d never seen one before, let alone used one. Electric can openers were only used in her home. Her mom was fancy like that. Once she became familiar with the can opener’s mechanics, he showed her how to heat up the meat, add the sauce, boil the noodles and mix it together. It should be noted that after her mom heard about the tutorial she bought my parents an electric can opener.

My mom was a quick study and mastered the meal. I can still picture her at the stove preparing the sauce and then the noodles. Sometimes, she would let me throw a sacrificial noodle against the wall to see if it would stick. If it didn’t slide to the floor, she’d know the pot was ready. After the meal, she’d combine the noodles and sauce in a large white Pyrex container with gold flowers circling the bowl. I’m not big on leftovers, but this recipe is even better on day two. Gratefully, my mom whipped up this old standby for my boys when we’d visit. It’s now one of their favorites, too.

Today, my mom’s handwritten instructions for spaghetti holds a space towards the front of my three-ring binder. She lists the proper ingredients – ground beef, not brown stuff – and the step-by-step instructions. Funny, there is no mention of whether an electric or manual can opener is preferred. Here’s the recipe as she wrote it. Feel free to use your choice of can-opening device.

1 Onion diced

1 lb. hamburger – very lean

1 small can mushroom pieces

1 any size jar spaghetti sauce – your choice ingredients

1 box spaghetti – 1 lb.

Brown onion and hamburger – no oil necessary – together then add drained mushrooms into spaghetti sauce. Cover and cook on low, while preparing spaghetti. Put spaghetti (dry) in boiling water. Then add a tablespoon or two of oil. Salt can be added if you want. Oil prevents sticking of spaghetti. Cook until spaghetti is tender. Dinner ready in a 1/2 hour. Enjoy!