I come from a long line of home cooks and bakers extraordinaire; this post is dedicated to one of them: Grandma Mo.xo Deb
I started this blog over 10 years ago during a period in my life where I was lacking direction and I was looking for something, anything to fill my time. I have always been a home cook and baker extraordinaire. In fact, I come from a long line of home cooks and bakers extraordinaire on both sides of my family. One of the biggest influences of this blog in the beginning and to this day is Dad’s mom, Grandma Mo. She would have been 98 today and, as an homage to her and in celebration of her would-be birthday, I remade her most famous dish into a one-pot meal. This is something I’ve been working on fine-tuning for a few months so it’s fitting that, on this particular day, the dish turned out just right.
I don’t know where my grandma’s original recipe for Slopped-up Spaghetti comes from – if she made it herself or got it somewhere – but it is a true family recipe. I have never heard of anyone outside of my family who has ever heard of or eaten slopped-up spaghetti unless I was the one who introduced them to it by way of my grandma. What I do know is this very simple meal was a staple during my childhood. Every time I was eating at her house and was offered a choice for supper, I would request this dish. I remember at a fairly young age watching her standing at her stovetop stirring the pot of pasta knowing some day she wouldn’t be around to make it for us anymore and feeling like I had to learn her secrets. I took this job seriously though there is a part of me that must have thought she would live forever because I really could not imagine her not being around. No matter how many times I tried, I simply could not recreate the taste of her dish. Even when she physically gave me the damn secret ingredient (her homemade “canned” tomato juice in a jar) and I followed her recipe to a T, the flavor was never quite right. And I could never, ever figure out what she did different than me.
In this version I do not have her secret ingredient. I planted tomatoes in April hoping to have a huge harvest come August just so that I could make my own canned tomatoes and tomato juice. Just so that I could make my grandma’s famous recipe. By October my tomatoes were either still green or had bottom rot, so I never yielded the copious amounts of tomatoes I was hoping for. So I began trying to recreate my grandma’s famous dish with a different tomato source, tomato puree.
Tomato puree is significantly thicker than the juice my grandma used in her recipe. As an aside, in my younger years I tried making this with store bought juice and it was disaster. If you ever want to make my grandma’s original version, please save yourself the trouble and just don’t try canned tomato juice.
Because puree is so much thicker, I decided to thin it out with a large amount of water. And the only way to pull the dish together to make it close to what my grandma used to serve us, was by cooking the noodles directly in the tomato “juice,” I reasoned.
I reasoned right. On my first try the taste was right there (with an ample amount of salt anyway). But the dish dried out too much and I didn’t think I had enough “hamburger meat” in the final product. My grandma used to use an ample amount of hamburger meat and not even an entire package of noodles! So I knew immediately I was going to have to make that adjustment. With a few tweaks like increasing the amount of hamburger meat, tomato puree and water, I was able to call this dish a success.
My grandma made this dish so often in 38 years of my 40-something life (and well before that) that by the time she was well into her 90s she didn’t so much love making this dish for us anymore. She moved from the house I remember almost living in during my childhood to an apartment when I was in my 20s. In my 30s, she moved to a senior living apartment. At each of the places she lived, she would still sorta graciously cook this for us if we asked politely and bought the hamburger meat.
By the time she moved to assisted living her cooking days were done. I don’t think she so much minded anymore even though in her youth and even not-so-youth she filled much of her time with cooking and baking.
She’s been gone going on two years now and still there’s a dull ache in my heart all day today as I think of her on her would-be 98th birthday. In case you’re wondering what she would be eating on her birthday were she here today it would most definitely not be Slopped-up Spaghetti, even if I made it for her. By the end of her life she was fairly sick of making and eating that dish. Note: that even if I ate this dish for 90 + years I don’t think I could ever get sick of it. No, she would not be eating this dish. Instead she would likely be eating duck from a same-named supper club a few miles down the freeway or egg foo young from the local Chinese restaurant of my hometown.
Here’s to you, Frieda Beautiful. Happy 98th Birthday.
- 1 ½ lbs ground chuck
- ½ to 1 yellow onion, diced or minced
- 2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced (optional – not in my grandma’s original version)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 12 oz strained tomatoes or tomato puree
- 1 + 5 c. water
- 16 oz thin spaghetti
Note: I have used 24 ounces of tomato puree on accident and found that 12 ounces plus 6 cups of water is the ideal amount of puree to recreate my grandma’s original recipe in as close a manner as possible. Pictures of this blog are from using 24 ounces, which produces a much thicker sauce and more “red” appearance than what our family is used to. My dad loved it.
- In a large stock pot, cook onion and garlic in some olive oil over medium-low heat until softened. Add the ground chuck. Turn heat up to medium. Break up meat with a wooden spoon. Cook until browned/no more pink. Season with salt and pepper. Add one cup of water and simmer until water has been reduced.
- Add tomato puree and stir to combine. Allow the sauce to simmer on low for a few minutes and then add the remaining water. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta to the pot and cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat to low and cook for 9 more minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Taste and adjust seasoning. Note: if the pasta is fairly watery, the liquid will absorb into the noodles even if you turn the burner off and let the pot sit there. My grandma used to let all the flavors meld in the pot (over low heat) for about 30 minutes before serving to us.
- Serve immediately with plenty of Kraft parmesan cheese.
This is the letter I wrote to my grandma for her memorial service I was not able to attend due to COVID:
In the recesses of my mind, I knew there would come a day where we would lose you. The thought of losing you was always this far-reaching nebulous concept to me, even down to the last few breaths that you took. I never pictured any sort of scenario where I wouldn’t be able to see you one last time or get to say goodbye.
My long-term memory has faded over the years but what I do remember of my childhood is thousands of little moments with you. Incidentally, lots of them involve food. You were my home away from home in grade school. I remember sick days spent laying on your couch while we watched “your story.” You got me hooked on Days of Our Lives as a grade schooler. I remember walking to your house after school. You standing over your stove as you stirred a pot of slopped-up-spaghetti for dinner. Even when you got sick of eating slopped-up spaghetti because we requested it so often, you still made it for us. I remember Halloweens and spilling pillowcases of treats onto your family room floor and eating candy until I got sick. I remember gathering in front of the Christmas tree every year at your house for a cousins photo and how impatiently we waited for my dad to arrive so he could eat and we could open Christmas presents. I remember the trays of Christmas cookies you made and your crystal punch bowl filled with your homemade eggnog dotted with ice cream. I remember hours of exploring the nearby marsh with cousins, aunts and uncles and how you scared me into thinking I could grow a tapeworm in my stomach if I drank water from the spring and how it might make its way out of my mouth someday. I remember the threat of the wooden spoon though I’m pretty sure I was practically perfect in every single way as a child and the threat was always for someone else. I remember trips to the cemetery to plant flowers for grandpa and Uncle Tom. I remember Auntie Marge as a fixture at your kitchen table and her cheesecake that everyone always wanted her to make. I remember playing SPUD in your yard and climbing your trees and the time you went through the older cousins’ names trying to remember mine before you finally landed on it. (Jennie! Jeff! Jebba! DEBBA!) I remember the large rocks at the bottom of your driveway and skipping from rock to rock and how that (oddly) entertained me for long stretches of time. I remember how you used to take care to only put raisins in half of your famous bread pudding because you knew some of us kids didn’t like raisins. I remember being next to you in the church hall at my Uncle Philip’s funeral and you squeezing my bony hip. I remember how much you loved sitting in your recliner no matter where you were living. I remember the basement of your house. Isn’t that weird? I have vague memories of spending a lot of time in your basement. I can nearly perfectly remember what your house on River Park Circle West looked like inside and where all the furniture was located.
Sometimes I think about the many ways in which we are similar, though I should tell you that I definitely didn’t get your dancing gene. I can be a little bit spunky at times and I like to think I got that from you. One of our biggest similarities is a love for cooking, baking and eating. At a young age, I tried to replicate your slopped-up spaghetti recipe. I couldn’t. No one could. It never tasted the same if anyone besides you made it. I was positive you put something special in the recipe so I made you write the recipe down for me and even when I followed it to a T, I couldn’t replicate the flavor. When I moved across the country as an adult, you encouraged my hobby by clipping recipes from the newspaper or magazines and picking through your old index cards and sending me recipes of interest. I looked forward to pulling the stuffed envelopes with your scrawling penmanship out of the mailbox and seeing what you sent. Sometimes you would include little notes or comments on the recipes. Sometimes you included a letter describing the weather or your garden or how squirrels were eating your bird food.
I never threw out a single recipe you sent me, not even the super weird ones that would make me laugh. When I glanced at a recipe and thought it didn’t immediately interest me, I tucked it away in a box. When I tested a recipe, I tucked that recipe away in a different box. I knew one day I would stop receiving recipes from you and that all I would have left of you were those recipes.
A few weeks ago I found an unopened, sealed envelope of recipes. Opening it transported me back in time. I ritualistically flipped through the recipes making mental notes of which recipes I wanted to try first and at the bottom of the stack of recipes found a folded piece of paper with a note from you talking about the weather and something dad had done for you. Over a year after you left us, I opened my last envelope from you. I placed the note and the recipes back in the envelope and put them in the large box of recipes I’ve amassed from you over the years. I likely will never throw away any of the recipes you sent me. They and my memories are all I have left of you.
I don’t know if you ever knew how much you meant to me when you were alive, so I wanted to make that clear to you now. You were my home away from home as a child. You were like a second mom to me. You gave me enough love and memories in my childhood to span lifetimes. I pray my memories of you never fade. I think of you almost every day. When I think about the many ways in which we are alike, I smile because you are love to me. Thank you for everything you did for me and gave of yourself.
I never got to say goodbye to you, and maybe that’s for the better. In the recesses of my mind, I know there is no such thing as “goodbye.” I’ll see you in another place and time.
Love you always,