“Some day, we’re gonna look back on this and laugh.”
Who comes up with these little chestnuts?
What, pray, tell, what could be coming down the pike that will make some events seem funny by comparison?
When we were waist-deep in water from Hurricane Agnes years and years ago (I was about 17 or 18—the Dark Ages) somebody tossed that phrase out as they paddled down the middle of the street, watching neighbors standing outside their open doors, surveying their ruined carpets and furniture. Power was out for days, so the perishables in the fridge were in danger of … perishing.
People set barbecue grills up on the hoods of their cars and cooked up everything in their freezers. We shuttled between houses for days, trading grilled burgers, dogs, and steaks and passing needed ingredients from house to house. We kids learned the best delivery routes over submerged chain-link fences and across formerly manicured lawns that it was worth our lives to traipse across in drier days. (Okay. That was kinda fun. But still.)
We set pots on the grills to make stews and soups from the veggies and meats in the fridge before THEY spoiled. We made every flavor of Hamburger Helper we’d ever known and hated on Girl Scout camp-outs.
Mom made the biggest batch of her World Famous Cream Cheese Dip that I’ve ever seen (yes, this is the dip that gains me entrance to parties of complete strangers; no, you can’t have the recipe till I’m dead), and the whole neighborhood brought chips and veggies for dipping. PAR-TAAAAY! (Okay. That was fun, too. Still.)
We got a glimpse into each others cooking secrets, including how to create a spaghetti sauce that is sweet, not acid-y.
We learned, too, that staging the sauce makes a difference. Nobody planned on staging it, mind you: People were constantly being interrupted to deal with the emergency of the second, so on Day One, when someone made spaghetti sauce, it went like this:
- Take stock: Ground beef—lots of ground beef, shrooms, sweet onions. Canned tomato sauce. Spices. Paddle around the neighborhood announcing the future spaghetti sauce, and asking for things to add to it. Invite the neighbors to dinner.
- In a medium frying pan, caramelize the onions, with liberal amounts of garlic and oregano. Somebody has basil? Go get it! You have nutmeg? Sure, we can use a little bit. Parsley? Sage? Bring the whole damn song! Toss in a package of mushrooms and keep cooking. The dog just did what? Oh, hell. Recruit a reasonably responsible neighbor kid to watch and stir … no, I’ll add the ground beef when I get back.
- After fishing the dog out of the neighbor’s yard, dry him off and get back to the grill. Discover that even the spices are caramelized, but hey. Smells good. Doesn’t look bad. Drain the fat and move the mix to a big bowl and get a pound of ground beef and … somebody has sausage? Bring it! Add the ground beef and sausage to the frying pan and … hell. Who has my tomato sauce? Great. Manual can opener? Yesss! Slippery hands take a little longer to open the unusually small cans, but … This is tomato paste! Okay, toss that in with the ground beef and sausage, stir it up, and add more spices. Heavy on the garlic. We’re all friends today. Leave the reasonably responsible neighbor kid in charge of stirring again, and run off to find someone (several someones) with tomato sauce.
- 40 minutes later, come back with everybody’s stash of tomato sauce, puree, and diced tomatoes, and extra boxes of uncooked pasta (all types; we’re going Bohemian) because the neighborhood’s coming to dinner. This is beginning to be the post-hurricane version of Stone Soup (storytellers will get the reference). Oh, look! The tomato paste cooked right into the meats. And … more people are coming, so add more meat. Stir, stir, stir.
- Discover the frying pan is too small for the meats that keep getting added. Transfer to the “I’m never going to need this” sized frying pan that came with that great TV deal a few years ago. The size that can feed a wedding reception … or a neighborhood without electricity. Decide to use both frying pans to handle the volume. More ground beef! More sausage! More tomato paste and spices!
- Add enough canned tomato products to each frying pan to cover the meats. Add more spices, too, because the extra tomato sauce, puree, and diced tomatoes kinda drowned them out. Stir, stir, stir. How did Jimmy get on the roof? Here, reasonably responsible neighborhood kid, stir this …
- Three quarters of an hour later, with Jimmy grounded for life, discover that someone dropped three whole cans of black olives (drained) and a couple different varieties of mushrooms into the mix. The mix! The onions and mushrooms that were cooked up earlier! Hell, no room for all this. Somebody get a stock pot! (It, too, came with the TV deal.)
- The over-full frying pans are emptied into the stock pot, and there’s obviously too much “stuff” and not enough sauce, and not nearly enough to feed all the neighbors who are coming by to check on the progress. More tomato sauce! More meats into the frying pans! More spices! (It’s a big stock pot.)
- Some of the water is receding, it’s only up to our mid-thighs, now, and the spices and sauces, meats, and veggies are … the veggies! The ones we cooked up earlier! Forgot about them again! In they go and ahhhh! What an aroma! Stir, stir, stir.
- About this time, the local police and fire/rescue come driving through in their monster trucks, sending WAVES of water to inundate us yet again. The whole neighborhood swears furiously, holding empty bowls aloft as they converge on the Community Spaghetti. The emergency workers know a good thing when they sniff it, so they stop and join us. Recruit more bowls …
- Decide that the tomato paste, cooked into the meats, was a good idea, and, since we have so much to work with, cook more sweet onions, mushrooms, olives, and … yes! Yellow and red bell peppers! in with them, too. Stir, stir, stir. Shoo the neighbors off because now we’re cookin’ with … charcoal, and we’re zeroing in on a sauce of epic proportions, here. Nobody samples it till it’s done! (Except the cook, of course! Gotta maintain QC.)
- Four hours after starting the sauce, the second (third? fourth?) batch of meats and veggies, more sauce, more spices, more STIRRING … all have combined to create this totally radical spaghetti sauce. Somebody has cooked the pasta: the spaghetti, the angel hair, the egg noodles, the macaroni elbows … several somebodies put garlic bread on their own grills, and added the foil-wrapped loaves to the makeshift tables we set up on a high-and-dry porch.
- The waters are lower, now, and people can wade easily enough. Several families rummaged through their fridges and got creative. We had a truly impressive (and huge!) salad, a couple of bakery pies (minus one or two pieces) … a regular feast!
We didn’t have power, but the relationships we forged that day went well beyond acquaintance and were a powerful testament to what a community can do when we work together. Oh, a couple of kids got in each others faces, but that was quickly resolved over our seat-of-our-pants meal. We traded jokes and swapped stories. We brought out candles so we could continue talking late into the night, as we watched the water pull back into the bay and leave us with God-awful messes to clean up starting the next day.
That spaghetti sauce is now one of my specialties (I was the reasonably responsible neighbor kid, and saw the whole process, from start to finish), and it takes about three hours to make my way through all its stages, with no hurricane-induced interruptions to deal with.
The caramelized veggies, the simply sautéed veggies, even some raw veggies added in the last 30 minutes of cooking, give the sauce layers of flavor. The tomato paste cooked into the meats, with more added for thickening, is a nice touch.
Every time I serve this meal to someone new, I feel a need to tell its story, and I can’t help but look back and —
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