Scent Memories (or Spaghetti)

Regular readers of the blog (aka friends) know that a few months ago I lost my grandfather. The only thing I asked for from my Papaw’s house was the pot he used to make his spaghetti sauce. I can’t explain what it is about the way he made his sauce, but it was one of my favorite meals as a kid. The taste, the texture, everything about this sauce with the spaghetti was the most Italian of cuisine this southern man could have made.

While at home, in between my recent travels that is, I’ve been able to prepare my own dinners and not eat out. This has been great for me, because I am happiest in the kitchen. I don’t mind cooking and preparing dinners – so ladies, take note.

My Papaw was a great cook – he knew how to make many different dishes, but his Spaghetti and meat sauce was a meal that I used to look forward to on Wednesday nights, because that’s what was for dinner at his house and I’d always have a standing invitation.

Remembering that I had asked for this pot, and I decided to make his spaghetti sauce. I called my mother to make sure I got everything right, the only thing I didn’t add was the onion, because I forgot to buy one.

I put the pot on the burner, adding a little Ragu and tomato paste. I let that warm and then mixed it together, adding just a little salt and pinch of oregano. I browned the hamburger and added that to the mix, gradually stirring to a very reminiscent consistency.

Then it hit me. Well, technically my nose.

I could smell the sauce. The aroma filled my kitchen the same way it filled his house when he made spaghetti and meat sauce. And in that moment of scent memory, I was mentally transported my childhood, sitting at his kitchen table watching him over the stove. A medium sized hand towel thrown over his shoulder, his left hand stirring the boiling water with pasta, his right stirring at a different speed in the sauce.

He would always ask how school was going, or how my soccer season was. Sadly, 10 year old Ben didn’t really have detailed answers to generate further conversation. I would usually say “yes,” or “good,” to both questions and that’s it. To be fair, I’ve always had better inner thought processes as compared to my actual social responses.

Still waltzing in my memories, time flashed forward to the last time I saw him. I had called him to see if he wanted anything for dinner and he said that KFC sounded good. I couldn’t disagree, as it had been a long time since I had enjoyed KFC. I had brought both of my dogs with me, which typically he was not a huge fan of dogs, but he didn’t seem to mind Sydney or Sadie. Which, look at them – who could really say no to them?

Christmas with the girls
Christmas with the girls

We both sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our chicken dinners and each other’s company. I noticed while he was eating, a few scraps fell to the floor and we both knew it. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m sure if I don’t get to it first, Sadie will have eaten it up…” and before I could finish that, Sadie was under his feet licking up the scraps off the floor.

He looked at Sadie and growled at her. I laughed to myself.

“What if I wanted to eat that?” he asked out loud.

I then laughed at that – because that’s who he was. This was the same man that when he had a bandage on his finger, if asked what happened, he’d respond: “Oh, I was picking my nose.”

I cleaned up the kitchen table and sat with him in the living room for a little bit. It was quiet around the house. My grandmother was moved to an assisted living home. We talked for a little bit, Sydney laying down right by him, Sadie in my lap. He asked me how I was liking work and if I liked traveling. 29 year old Ben wasn’t as limited in his social interactions, so I was able to interact with him a little more. I learned a lot from my grandfather and how he can remember the few times he had to travel for his job, but it was rare for him to ever have to go somewhere else for work.

I think the only thing I regret saying during our conversation was when he tried to give me a $20 bill for picking up dinner. A few years ago, I might have taken him up on that – but as I told him: “I’m not that hard off for money, Papaw. Maybe it’s just a treat for me to be able to provide for you for once.” But that old man was sly and quick – because when I got home I reached into my pocket and there was a $20 bill. I later gave the bill to my mother asking her to make sure it finds its way back into his accounts or possession.

And then the false reality broke down. I was no longer in his house, Sydney and Sadie weren’t near me. I was back in my home, standing over a pot of boiling water and simmering sauce with a towel draped over my shoulder.

Often imitated, never duplicated.

That’s the slogan to my Papaw’s spaghetti sauce.

The end result of my cooking was pretty close. I think the pot was the missing ingredient after all these years, because I know that my mother was making the same recipe for years. She just didn’t have the magical cast iron pot that had the memories and culinary knowledge of excelling on a good sauce.

What I think is important is that I now have an heirloom. To you, it’s just a cast iron pot and a simple spaghetti sauce recipe. But to me, it’s something of my grandfather that is still here in this world that allows me to recreate his brilliant culinary works, and remind me of the times on Wednesday evenings with him.

Just like he'd make
Just like he’d make

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