Mom’s Tomato Sauce, and the Magic Spoon Theory

Heh, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?… And a little bit o’ wine. An’ a little bit o’ sugar, and that’s my trick.

— Clemenza, in The Godfather

“I’ll show you the family tomato sauce recipe, but it will taste different when you make it back at school.”

— Mom

It was the summer after my sophomore year at MIT, and I had decided it was time to learn how to cook. Who better to learn from than Mom, and what better recipe to start with than the tomato sauce recipe that had been in the family for at least three generations.

It’s an idiot-simple procedure, unlike Clemenza’s recipe for boiled beef:

  1. Brown some sausage, beef, and pork in a pot.
  2. Pass two large cans of plum tomatoes through a strainer, discard the pulp and seeds, add the resulting puree to the pot.
  3. Add one large canful of water and two cans of tomato paste, stir.
  4. Add a few whole garlic cloves, and about a cup of red wine.
  5. Simmer over low heat until thickened to the desired consistency, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

The most important step in the recipe, Mom warned, was preparing the tomatoes. You had to use canned, whole, peeled plum tomatoes and pass them through a strainer. The pulp and seeds, if added to the sauce, would make it bitter. Using tomato puree was forbidden, as was tossing the whole tomatoes in a blender (making your own puree), since both incorporated the bitter components.

For the next fifteen years I dutifully followed the recipe to the letter, cursing every time I had to haul out the wire strainer to crush the tomatoes. I would invariably wind up with a sore arm and scraped knuckles, but the sauce was always worth it.

Then I discovered this in the local Italian grocery:


Parmalat of Italy had heard my complaints, and had rewarded me with pre-strained tomatoes in a box! No more bruised knuckles, and, as an added benefit, I no longer had to add tomato paste – the boxed tomatoes created a thicker starting base to which I just had to add a little water.

The sauce did taste a little different, but I was willing to trade of the diference in tase for the sigificantly reduced effort required to make it.

Yesterday I had a “why didn’t I think of this before?” moment. I finally managed to connect a few facts together:

  1. Mario Batali has asserted that imported canned San Marzano tomatoes are as good as, if not better than, fresh. I always keep a few cans in the pantry for use in other non-sauce recipes.
  2. At the end of every summer, I buy 10-20 pounds of roma tomatoes from the farmer’s market and cook them to make a simple sauce that I put up in jars for the winter. I pass the cooked tomatoes through a food mill to separate the skins, seeds, and pulp.

It took two years for those two idea particles to colide and generate the obvious conclusion: Use the food mill instead of your hands and a strainer to separate the canned tomatoes for the sauce recipe.

Time to revisit mom’s original procedure. Here’s what I started with:


From left to right, back to front: red wine (Charles "3-buck Chuck" Shaw Cabernet), 2 cans Cento tomato paste, one can of whole peeled SanMarzano tomatoes, one can of diced, two pieces of beef blade steak, three cloves of garlic, and six pieces of sweet Italian sausage.

I filmed the bottom of a small stock pot on medium heat with olive oil, then added the meat to brown on both sides:


While the meat browned, I passed the tomatoes through the food mill:


The diced tomatoes were much easier to work with; the whole tomatoes had to be broken up to keep them from just rolling around in the mill.

Tomatoes, paste, wine, garlic, and a large canful of water were added, along with a generous pinch of salt and black pepper. The pot simmered for three hours. (That’s why the extra water is added – the long simmer is necessary to absorb the meat flavors, but the sauce would get too thick if not diluted first.) Here’s the end result:


The photo doesn’t do it justice, but this sauce was as close to Mom’s in taste as I can ever remember. It was brighter, more acidic, with a much more pronounced tomato flavor. I attribute the difference to how the boxed tomatoes are processed. All shelf-stable products are UHT (ultra high temperature) pasteurized, which cooks the contents more than simple canning. (Parmalat UHT milk has a slight caramel undertone, from the heat degradation of the milk sugars.)

Mom’s sauce is a bit sweeter, but I already know the fix for that: add a piece of pork to the meat at the browning step. In her neighborhood you can find “sauce mix” at the supermarket meat counter: a half-pound chunk each of beef and pork, and a few sausages. I’ll have to check a few neighborhood markets around here for something similar.

I have this liquid love stashed away in the fridge for a few pasta dinners this week.

The Magic Spoon Theory

I am certain that if I used the same meat, same tomatoes, and the same wine that Mom uses, and replicated her measurements of wine, water, and garlic exactly, that my sauce would still not taste the same as hers. After years of thinking about this anomaly, I have come up with the only reasonable explanation, the only variable over which I have no control: Mom’s sauce spoon.

Mom has, as I have, a wooden spoon that she uses only for stirring the sauce. It’s as old as I am, misshapen at the edge, and almost black from decades of scraping and oil absorption. My spoon looks like this:


It’s only ten years old, but you can see how the edge is no longer symmetrical, worn down from years of scraping the pot bottom.

It’s Mom’s spoon that adds the final flavor to the sauce. I imagine that much in the same way the pioneers traveled across the great plains to settle the west, bringing their sourdough starers with them, the great wave of Italian immigrants brought their sauce spoons with them in the hope that they would be able to recreate the tastes of home.

I have explained the magic spoon theory to Mom, and while it makes her laugh, she won’t discount it completely. When I was visiting over the holidays, watching her make sauce in her tiny kitchen, she told me that she was leaving the spoon to me in her will. That’s a tacit confirmation of my theory, isn’t it?

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