When I was five or six years old, my mom, dad, and I occupied the second half of a duplex that my grandparents owned and lived in. As a newly minted training wheels graduate, I would ride a red BMX bike outfitted with checkerboard foam pads (remember those?!) down the side the sidewalk in front of that house, to the apartment complex near the end of the block, and back.
During one of those circuits, at a point where my confidence surpassed my abilities, I decided to attempt some sort of skid out turn. The result of this finesse move was my chin sailing over the handlebars and meeting the pavement with the force of my entire body behind it.
I didn't actually realize I was in pain until I spotted the large red drops forming on the sidewalk below and instantly began to panic. I can still picture my mom sprinting towards me, and I can picture the way she and my grandpa sat me on the kitchen counter, trying unsuccessfully to swab my chin with paper towels.
It quickly became clear that a trip to urgent care was inevitable.
As I recall it, I sat on Grandpa’s lap in the waiting room. I must have been in a tremendous amount of pain for a young child, but oddly, I don’t remember any pain. I remember my grandfather’s voice, low and soothing in my ear. I'm uncertain if it is just be an invention of my imperfect memory, but as I recall it, he told cowboy stories and sang indian songs.
Ray E. Wilson, Jr., son of a train conductor, was raised in the dusty border town of Douglas, Arizona. Perhaps it was the specter of the untamed west that must have been ever-present in that place that gave rise to his faux connection to cowboys and Indians; I can't say for certain. At 17, he was shipped off to World War II, and was rewarded with two Purple Hearts, a Navy Cross, a GI Bill education, and a long career as an aeronautical engineer and math teacher; he was by no means a cowboy, and to my knowledge, has no Native American ancestry.
But that didn’t stop him from telling stories and performing for his grandsons—activities he relished—as though he actually had those occupational or ancestral connections.
In that waiting room full of people who were writhing in pain or wincing through illness, I was calm. A caring grandfather softly chanted fictional powwow songs low into my ear. Too young to be bashful about this display or perceive any potential for cultural insensitivity, I simply felt comfort and safety.
My chin ended up requiring five stitches, but instead of grimacing or flinching with each pass of the needle, I was meditative—in fact, nearly asleep—Grandpa’s hand holding mine, his voice continuing to hum softly in my ear.
To say my grandpa was affectionate with his family, especially his grandchildren, would be something of an understatement. Well into adulthood, he addressed his three grandsons with all manner of pet names that might otherwise be reserved for an infant daughter or perhaps an orphaned miniature panda: baby, babydoll, honeylove, and any other combination thereof.
As adolescents, we bristled at these expressions. These pet names, especially when used in the third person with waitresses or store clerks, would inevitably cause fifteen-year-old me to want to flee the room to prevent further indignity. At that age, too wrapped up in middle school insecurities and feigned aloofness, I'd forgotten the comforts that his caring nature brought me throughout our earlier childhoods.
As we became adults, we shed that veneer of bashfulness. No longer embarrassed by public expressions, we saw our grandpa’s love for the asset that it was. By no means were we alone. The loving and nurturing qualities my grandparents expressed drew to them a collection of surrogate children and grandchildren—people of no relation whose pictures were kept on refrigerator as if they were extended family.
Grandpa passed away in Janurary, 2014. The family felt funeral didn’t befit his spirit, so instead, we threw a memorial party. All of those varyingly lost and found souls that discovered comfort and warmth in the presence of my grandparents poured into the now empty home. From the outside it may have looked a motley crew—hippieish handymen who they'd help support with business over the years, school teachers whom they'd befriended 40 years ago when they made the decision to move to the rougher district on the other side of the city, even the beachbum kid from the apartment next door who'd never really met them but enjoyed listening through the window to my grandpa holding court on the front patio—but that diverse outpouring provides evidence of the indiscriminate nature of my grandparents' affection.
As a family, we were consoled and proud that, at least for a night, the affection that Grandpa was famous for was, on this occasion, overwhelmingly directed back at him.
Grandpa's spaghetti with meat sauce
Meat sauce adapted from Mario Batali's Neapolitan Meat Sauce
Neither Grandpa nor Grandma were what you'd describe as skilled cooks. Especially as they got older, our favorite pizza place would provide the vast majority of our meals for family visits. But I have a strangely strong recollection of being a youngster and us heading over to the Wilson household to eat Grandpa's spaghetti. I can't recall if it was just my mom's recipe that Grandpa adopted or vice versa or how exactly it all came about—as far as I know, Grandpa could otherwise cook toast and literally nothing else—but I have some recollection of spaghetti.
It was a very no-nonsense spaghetti. It was meaty, with mushrooms (which seems somewhat unorthodox but it's what the Wilson's have always done with our inauthentic spaghetti) and that serious umami that comes from the addition of tomato paste.
There is no Wilson family spaghetti recipe that has been passed on to me. My mom may have been able to provide insight, but I wanted this concoction to simply be the result of my attempt to coax out flavors that I remember. It's my riff.
It's also important to note that this is my first ever attempt at fresh pasta. I'm loathe to admit I had general cluelessness working against me, in addition to a "pasta maker" that is really not up to the task.
But! Fear not; it all turned out quite lovely. I encourage any newbie with crappy equipment to dive right in and see what you can do. The worst that can happen is you'll need bust open a 99-cent package of the dry stuff.
For the pasta
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
For the meat sauce
- 1 pound Italian sausage (recipe below)
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup red wine
- 1 (28-ounce) can peeled San Marzano tomatoes and juices
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes and juices
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Pinch hot chile flakes
For the sausage
- 1/2 pound beef chuck, cubed (pre-ground may be substituted)
- 1/2 pound pork shoulder, cubed (pre-ground may be substituted)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
- 1/8 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
Preparing the sausage
Combine all spices into a small bowl, mixing together.
Using a meat grinder with coarse plate attached, coarsely grind beef and pork. Place into a large bowl and sprinkle evenly with seasoning mixture. Massage spices into ground meat thoroughly.
Pass ground meat through grinder with coarse plate once more to distribute spices and ensure good texture. Place into bowl and cover with plastic wrap, refrigerating until ready to use.
Preparing the sauce
Set a dutch oven over high heat. Combine sausage, mushrooms, onions, and oil over high heat, cooking until mushrooms release their liquid and meat juices begin to evaporate. If necessary, use a spoon to discard extra juices more quickly.
Add wine, pouring evenly over meat mixture. Cook until meat darkens and liquid is mostly evaporated, about 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes, salt, and chili flakes, breaking up the peeled tomatoes with a large wooden spoon. Simmer on a medium-low heat for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally.
Preparing the pasta dough
While meat sauce is simmering, fit the bowl of a food processor with a metal blade attachment, add flour and salt, then pulse to combine. Crack eggs into a measuring cup and add olive oil. Slowly pour egg mixture over the top of flour mixture in food processor. Process the egg and flour mixture until evenly combined, approximately 15 to 20 seconds.
Transfer dough ball to a lightly floured surface and knead until texture is pliable and no longer sticky, approximately 6 to 8 minutes. (Note: I tried this a couple of times since I'm a newbie. One time I kneaded for no more than about 30 seconds and, at least for my purposes, the dough was much more difficult to get to cooperate. I recommend kneading longer, at least five minutes, so that it's more elastic. But to reiterate: I'm clueless.)
Shape dough into a rough ball and cover with a large bowl at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.
After dough has rested, use a dough knife to cut pasta dough ball into smaller pieces. Run small pieces through pasta maker of your choice. (Hopefully it works better than mine. Mine seems to require a lot of labor pulling the pieces apart and dusting them with flour so they don't stick together, then making a big messy pile. Maybe my dough just needed more flour? Not sure. Isn't that half the fun?)
Putting it all together
When the meat sauce is ready, bring 5 or 6 quarts of water to rolling boil in a large pasta pot. Add fresh pasta and cook for 2-3 minutes to al dente. Strain in a colander.
Combine pasta and meat sauce, mixing thoroughly, and plating. Pour a large ladle of meat sauce over top of each pasta mixture.
Serve garnished with fresh basil and fresh grated parmesan.