MY FEELINGS TASTE LIKE: Tomato Sauce And College Nostalgia

Making tomato sauce always reminds me of college -- hearts, obsession, all-nighters, thigh high boots and The People's Court. Here's why.

Sep 4, 2013 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

My senior thesis in college -- an attempt to deconstruct the iconography of hearts (is there any more self indulgent time than college?) -- involved a lot of red. Red glaze, red paint, red dye -- the last few months of college, our bathtub where I washed out silkscreens frequently looked like a homicide.

My roommate Tara, also tightly wound due to her own thesis, would walk into the bathroom and back out without stopping, purse her lips and say “FIX IT” with all the emotion of Daria, then chain smoke until I had scrubbed it out.

That last year of college we both had our feet halfway out the door -- mine with a boyfriend in a nearby town and plans for marriage and work in Boston, and Tara with her Italian boyfriend back in Rome waiting for her. We were biding time. We were poor, sleep-deprived and completely and totally over the bullshit of school. We had dinner parties where we’d steal chairs from classrooms and build tables out of whatever we could and make huge feasts out of nothing for 20 friends where, as a group activity, we’d use our industrial design and sculpture skills to conspire to rob campus vending machines.

We drank hard liquor like it was being discontinued and wore outfits that Miley Cyrus would take a pass on. When Tara and I talk about that time now, I often say to her, 

How could you let me leave the house in that?”

“Lady, I was DRUNK.”

“IT.WAS.UNDERWEAR!!!”

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Despite a photo major roommate, between us we have almost no photos of our college years. Since I went to college before cell phones and selfies, you’ll have to accept this b/w portrait taken by Tara. Don’t I look appropriately XOJane angsty? Grrrrr…. art school!

I spent that year painting hearts. I was trying to take something lovely and make it scary. Months and months where I would spend the whole day painting insanely tiny hearts onto plates and tiles and wallpaper and chairs rushing to get done with Judge Wapner on the TV in the background. There was a certain exactness to each one that friends couldn’t replicate.

Tara would come up to me on her way out and ask if I wanted to go get a drink. A coffee. See a movie. Walk around the block. Just leave the fucking apartment for a bit. But I was resolute on getting every single patch of white covered. My professors, who visited the apartment to critique the thesis late in the spring, suggested that I should seriously be using my own blood instead of paint if I wanted to convey obsession.

That night, I went to see a movie.

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I think of that time in my life, the hearts, the cooking, the meals, and most importantly, the bathtub each year when I make tomato sauce. I refuse to do it more than once, because it, too, is a little obsessive. So every August, I find a weekend, collect all the tomatoes and garlic and garden miscellany and spend it cooking enough tomato sauce for an army, which I then piece out into small, individual freezer bags. Enough for one a week, plus the occasional dinner party.

The tomatoes, little specs of red pulp flying off the food mill, stain the walls and my face in a way that Dexter would find very pleasing, reminding me of those hearts. The juice stains the tile grout on the counters, and crusts onto my utensils. Somehow, 20 years after college, I’m again in a tiny, tiny kitchen, reminding me of the vastness of space the bathtub provided.

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"This tomato was clearly bludgeoned from behind with a sharp knife.” “Poor bastard, never even knew who juiced him"

Tomato sauce is a weird thing. You start with good intentions and the obvious ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil -- and you end up with a watery mess that slips off your pasta and sends you back to bottles of the store stuff. People are resolute about their recipes -- my friend M. insists it can be no less than a 48-hour cook, suggesting a meth-like quality to his stuff.

I use my mother’s recipe, and it's a golden one. Really amazing sauce was one of the things she did best, and unlike other recipes I’ve tinkered with over time, I have found absolutely no way to improve upon hers. 

Homemade Tomato Sauce (for an army*)

1. Tomatoes. It's the right time of year to find fresh tomatoes by the pound, and if you can, you should. They are both less expensive than the canned kind and generally speaking more delicious.

If you’re buying fresh, you are looking for Roma tomatoes, plum tomatoes, sauce tomatoes -- they’re called all kinds of things but they resemble an oval more than a circle. We use them because they have more flesh than slicing tomatoes, those huge monoliths we use for sandwiches, which are all juicy ooziness.

If you’re buying canned, they are always Roma tomatoes and it won’t matter if you get whole peeled, crushed or pureed. You just want it without seasoning. I buy 15 lbs of tomatoes to make 20 qts of sauce.

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2. Throw the tomatoes through the food processor or just chop them well and put them through a food mill. If you don’t have a food mill (a great 30$ investment) then you’ll need to skin them, which means scoring them, throwing them into boiling water for 60 seconds, dunking them in hot water and peeling the skin off. So I’m saying, get a food mill. Then throw them into the big pot.

3. Saute 1 head of chopped celery in a pan w olive oil and salt and pepper. Should take 8-9 minutes, stirring occasionally, so you get some nice brown bits. Into the pot!

4. Repeat with one bunch of peeled and chopped carrots.

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5. Repeat with a very large onion or 2 medium onions and 2 whole heads of chopped garlic. Into the pot it all goes.

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6. I roast a melange (YES I SAID MELANGE) of peppers, peel them, seed them, chop them and they, too, go into the pot. At this point, you can add whatever veggies you like: squash, eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms. Mostly I go classic and skip the additions.

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7. Add a bottle of red wine. Cheap red wine is fine (others would say different, I say it doesn’t matter. I go with a malbec or merlot to feel fancy).

8. Add a good handful of sugar.

9. Optional, but I like it: add 1 quart of stock. If you’re not vegetarian, go with a beef stock.

10. Spices: I like the fresh stuff, but the dried is just fine, too; oregano and basil are musts. Anything else I leave up to you. Some people feel passionate about red chili flakes. I do not. I smite the chili flakes. Add a Parmesan rind or just a goodly sum of Parmesan.

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11. Cover and simmer. (And a simmer is NOT a rolling boil. It is a rolling boil that is immediately brought down to a simmer on a medium low or low. If you’re stirring the sauce and it's sticking to the bottom of the pot, IT'S TOO HOT.)

12. CTFO. Cause you gots about 6 hours of simmering in front of you. After the first hour, remove the lid from the pot so all that extra liquid can simmer off. Stir occasionally, but really, it doesn’t matter. Taste occasionally. Need salt? Do it. Too bitter? Sugar.

13. Allow to cool and then take your stick blender (or regular blender, just do it in batches) or food mill because you don’t have a stick blender or blender or food processor or Amazon wish list and blend everything together. This will help thicken it.

14. Freeze it. In bags or containers. Whatevs. But it freezes amazingly well.

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crazy lady, party of one

15. Start scrubbing your entire kitchen of the tomato murder scene. This may take longer than the sauce. Take a really long fucking nap. Convince someone else to make meatballs and sausage and pasta and enjoy sauce before it takes a frosty slumber. Because congrats, you are FINALLY DONE.

I remember how I felt the weekend of graduation and thesis presentation. My professors said things I don’t remember because the noise of unmitigated glee in my heart at being FINALLY DONE made me deaf.

The apartment was in boxes, Tara was packing the two bags she could bring to Rome with essentials, mostly a pair of thigh high fuck-me boots and whatever fit into them. Our closets were filled exclusively with chairs from school we didn’t know how to return.

Before Facebook, before everyone had cell phones and email, there was a finality grads today don’t understand. We left with a sense that there were many people we’d never talk to again, people whose face you’d seen every day or recognized and chatted with, but not enough to ask for a number or address. We were all scattering to the winds with the naivete and idealism art students require to exist.

Three hours after our last final, Tara was on a plane to Italy and I was in my big empty apartment, alone. That night my boyfriend and I ate our last meal in the apartment as friends filtered in and out to say their goodbyes and have one last meal.

I made tomato sauce.

My heart was in it. My blood was in it. And it was lovely and scary, both.

*Recipe for A Normal Person

  • 10 Roma tomatoes or 1 32oz can of crushed/peeled/chopped tomatoes (up to you)
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 1 small onion
  • 3 cloves garlic handful of basil leaves or 2 pinches of dried basil or Italian seasoning
  • 1 cup of red wine
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 2 Italian peppers, anything but green bells
  • 1 cup of stock (beef or rich vegetable)
  • 1 tbsp of red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan or 1 Parmesan rind

Follow directions above, with amended amounts. When you’re sauteing vegetables in the pan, you can do them all at once if they fit in your fry pan.

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My college roommate and best friend of 15 years last month. We have really never adjusted to selfies.