Giving Up Sunday Gravy: A Lost Food Tradition

| April 19, 2008 | 60 Comments

Have you ever given up a long-held family food tradition? I have. Years ago I gave up Italian Sunday Gravy, which is basically manna for Italian Americans. Although I stand by my decision, I often regret it as well.

Like many other Italian-American families, my mother made Gravy — a rich tomato-based sauce with numerous cuts of meat — each Sunday. It was almost always served with pasta, eggplant Parmesan, and other dishes and we ritually ate it each Sunday at around 2:00 p.m. (we had to eat earlier because we would then be full for hours). It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how time consuming it was to make this enormous meal each week. My mom would start cooking by 7:00 a.m., first seasoning the meat for the meatballs and chopping the onions, parsley, and garlic. I would then come downstairs and eat a freshly cooked meatball for breakfast.

While she cooked, she would often reminisce about the long and wonderful Sunday Gravy dinners of her youth. These were spent at her Grandparents house in the Bronx and almost always had more than 20 people in attendance, with aunts, uncles, and cousins crowding around tables in the back garden or basement dining room table. When my parents moved from New York to California when I was four, the tradition of intergenerational family Sunday dinners ended for us. My mother continued the custom for the five of us in San Diego, making this enormous meal on her own each week. I loved those Sunday dinners, but often wished I had cousins and other relatives to play and eat with, as my mother had.

My love for Sunday Gravy faded once I became an adult and had to make gravy myself. Gravy’s incredibly high fat content – it has pork butt, chuck roast, meatballs, braciole, and Italian sausage in the mix – places it in the “special occasions” category for me, not the “weekly” category. I also like to sleep in on Sundays while my husband makes us steel-cut Irish oats (which is probably healthier than a meatball for breakfast, although not as delightful). I think the main reason I gave up Sunday Gravy, however, is that I am too culturally removed not only from Italy, but from the even closer New York Italian American traditions of my mother’s childhood. I also do not have a large local family community to create the experience that seems the natural partner of this meal, so making the extra effort required to keep this custom going for a family of four just seems insane. My mom and I occasionally make her Sunday Gravy recipe, which was passed down and tweaked generation after generation, but now only occasionally on Christmas or in larger family gatherings.

Although I am fine not eating Sunday Gravy each weekend, I realize that its absence is a reflection of how different family life is now than it was when my mother was a child. The sense of community my mother felt while gathered with her grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins nourished her more than the gravy itself, while the respect for traditional foods made from local ingredients is something she learned in her grandmother’s kitchen, and then passed on later to me. I know, however, that although I love what Sunday Gravy represents, it’s not really a part of my life anymore.

I am wondering if anyone else out there has family food traditions you’d like to share. If so, do you regularly take part in them, or have you also given them up? Why and do you have any regrets?

Note: Although I would love to include my mother’s (and grandmother’s and great grandmother’s Sunday Gravy recipe) I have been told that it is a family secret and so it’s off limits for publication. I’ve found a few Sunday Gravy recipes online and have listed them below. None of them seems equal to my mother’s Neapolitan masterpiece, but I am a good Italian daughter and so therefore quite biased:

This site says the recipe is for the Soprano’s Sunday Gravy.

Here’s a Sunday gravy recipe from the Food Network that seems the most authentic to me.

The Chicago Sun Times lists this Sunday gravy recipe.

Epicurious lists this Sunday gravy recipe.

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, holidays and traditions

About the Author ()

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise's Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.
  • Anonymous

    What a fabulous way to grow up! I wish those traditional pasta stores were still around. How wonderful that you are continuing the tradition with your grandchildren. I bet your ravioli is amazing. Thanks for sharing your story here.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Bea — I agree that you definitely grew up in a very special time and place. Thank you for telling us about it here. I love the image of you walking down your block and smelling everyone’s gravy. What a great sense of community you must of had growing up in your wonderful Italian Brooklyn neighborhood.

  • Anonymous

    An Italian father who cooked! I love it! How wonderful that you keep the tradition alive each week. Thanks for posting.

  • Anonymous

    My family was from the Bronx too and it was always GRAVY!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Tony — Feel free to link to the photo here :-)

  • Anonymous

    An Italian father who cooked! I love it! How wonderful that you keep the tradition alive each week. Thanks for posting. 

  • ducklucky

    Sorry, a latecomer here. Was looking to improve my marinara and get some tips, and did, thank you all. Sure the meat is the key, with the bones where all the flavor comes from, and not much else. My maternal gram was off the boat from Hungary, and our Sunday dinner was chicken paprika with homemade, agonizing noodles, like spaetzle. We had to take turns making the dough for the noodles which was nothing more than flour and eggs and lots of them. The dough had to be hand mixed with a wooden spoon, and it was very thick and gummy, almost impossible to stir, think each of us could only last 5-20 minutes. It had to be perfect, with absolutely no lumps, and so very thick you could hang the bowl upside down and it would stay put.

    Then they had to sit for at least an hour or two, and more mixing. A HUGE pot of salted boiling water, and then we would take turns spooning the noodles. Only a dinner teaspoon was allowed, and the noodles were spooned out one by one, and could only be the size of the edge of the spoon., just a sliver, and all the same size. There were words when you tried to cheat and make the noodles larger to get it over with. Hours…and hours, and backbreaking. By the time the last noodle was in the water, it was time to drain them, put a stick or two or three of salted butter in the pot and add the drained noodles back in. Stir, stir, so they wouldn’t stick, but every noodle has the yummy (back then homemade) butter. Another hour, the noodles had absorbed it all and had, as Gram said “dried out” a bit because they had absorbed every drop of butter.. The noodles would be in a huge bowl passed around, then the chicken paprika which had a rich gravy that had been finished with plenty of sour cream. There was never a noodle left over. Of course there wereus 5 kids, parents, Gram, guests of my parents, and ALWAYS a stray or two. No one was allowed seconds until everyone had their share of the first helping, and that was monitored so everyone was equal.
    An exhausting meal, and yes, I still make it on those cold snowy days,, it is comforting to stand over a warm stove and humidify the house. Gram made all of her noodles from scratch, many days spent rolling, rolling long noodles out paper thin on the white linen tablecloth and hanging them to dry all over the kitchen. Although it was a lot of work, the whole family participated, and those who didn’t show up in time to help got to do the dishes. Sure wish families werre still all like this, truly that is what we have lost here. Everyone is so busy running this way and that, and timing has to be everything to have these special Sunday dinners. You just can’t be late for something like this! It is unfortunate that the younger families these days will never get to experience this.

  • Andy

    How sad for Italy!

  • Donna Marcantonio

    Hi Denise. I realize it is now many years since you posted this piece. I found your piece via a photo search for a blog posting I am putting up on a similar theme. Yes. I miss the community of those Italian dinners.
    Is your photo available for me to use on my posting?
    Best wishes,

  • Nancy Drigotas

    This brings tears to my eyes. I made gravy this Sunday, definitely one of my best. It always brings back the memories you are describing. The photo accompanying your article is so familiar. As for recipes, I don’t share either. Besides, it never turns out the same twice. Depends on the herbs and the meats. I doubt that I’ve ever duplicated precisely. And my family’s braciole is slightly different than most I’ve eaten elsewhere. The braciole browning by itself can evoke so many emotions and memories because of the mixture I use. Sunday gravy is a great story for all of us.