My mother greets me wearing her orange housecoat and waving a mound of ground beef in the palm of her hand. “So,” she says, “you want to learn.” Her sister June laughs from the kitchen chair where she always sits. They are sisters, but they look nothing alike. Auntie Junie gets her hair coiffed and sprayed every week; my mother has let hers go gray and will don a wig for special occasions. Auntie Junie still wears powder on her cheeks and red lipstick, while my mother gave that up long ago. Auntie Junie lives next door, but she eats all her meals with my mother. “Good luck,” Auntie Junie says.
I’ve brought my 15-year-old son, Sam, with me for moral support and to taste the final product. But he takes one look at the setting—my mother’s Winston smoldering in an ashtray, the waiting frying pan, my own worried face—and he hightails it to the den to watch reruns of Monk, leaving me alone to learn the most cherished and most difficult culinary achievement in my Italian family: meatballs.
My mother’s are legendary. I barter for favors from friends with them. I give them as thank-you gifts. We eat them without sauce, still hot from the pan, impaled on forks like lollipops. Mini meatballs float in our soup on Christmas Day. But eating them with red sauce and macaroni is the very best. How to achieve these meatball marvels (recipe, page 146) is one of the most closely guarded secrets in my family. My grandmother Mama Rose made them alone, not allowing anyone to watch her, until she turned 78 and my mother, worried she would take the recipe to her grave, insisted Mama Rose teach her.
Ten years ago, with a family of my own to cook for, I begged a lesson from my then-67-year-old mother. Reluctantly, she agreed. That Sunday afternoon, we huddled together in her pantry. What we call the kitchen is actually the dining room, with matching cherry table and chairs, 1960s paneling, and the good never-been-used china displayed behind smoky harvest-gold glass. Also, oddly, the refrigerator is tucked in there. Where we cook is called the pantry, and it is as small as the name suggests: stove, sink and a tiny counter with cupboards top and bottom.
My mother insisted on mixing the ingredients herself. She threw in garlic and parsley before I could measure the amounts. Then she directed me to add a quarter cup of salt. “Really?” I said. “That’s a lot of salt.” “Did you come to fight, or to cook?” she asked impatiently. I added the salt. When I brought the freshly fried meatballs to my kids to taste, they took one bite and spat them out. “Too much salt,” they gagged, clutching their throats. Auntie Junie tasted one and immediately put it down. “A little salty,” she said, pouring herself a glass of water. I looked at my mother. “So next time, don’t use so much salt,” she said with a shrug.
Next time turned out to be a decade later. By now, I have come to realize why withholding the meatball recipe is important to the women in my family; it means I will still make weekly runs to my mother’s house to pick up a fresh supply. She remains the Queen of Meatballs, adored, admired, envied. To reveal the recipe is a rite of passage that represents a dethroning of sorts.
Yet this time, she seems ready to relinquish her crown.
When I was a very little girl, Mama Rose gave me the job of mixing the ingredients with my hands. Plunging them into the cold meat was a painful thrill, and a messy one. In anticipation of that, I remove my wedding and engagement rings. My mother hands me the ground beef she’s holding. “Use 83 percent,” she says in a hushed voice as I dump it into a bowl. She doesn’t explain why this makes the best meatball, but I suspect the dose of fat helps the flavor. “Now salt and pepper to taste,” she says. At the word salt I shudder, and sprinkle about a half teaspoon over the meat. My mother peers into the bowl and frowns. “You told me salt to taste,” I remind her.
“Yeah,” she says, “but I go back and forth, like that.” She moves her hand back and forth over the meat several times. “Did you do that?” Worried, I add more salt, about another half teaspoon.