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.