This week I was reminded how words can mean such different things to different people, how easy it is to think someone else knows what we mean, how words are so little yet encompass so much.
Two little words: sauce and cheese. You know what I mean, right? I don’t have to say more. If you would look in my freezer and see a plastic container labeled sauce, you would know what is in that container and what it goes with. You would know how often I make it, how often we eat it and what else would be on the table with that meal. If we were at the table together and I was eating soup and I said This would be really good with cheese, and got up to get it, you would know before I returned to the table what I was getting. You would know what color it is, what has been done to it since it was purchased and how and where it is stored. We would understand each other, right?
When I was growing up, we ate pasta three times a week. We did not call it pasta. We called it macaroni. You boiled the macaroni in a big pot on the stove, and in another smaller pot you heated the sauce. On Wednesdays for dinner (5:00ish) and on Sundays for dinner (1:00ish because you ate Sunday dinner after church) we had our macaroni with a red, meat sauce, a.k.a. sauce. We had it so often that there was no need for modifiers. Seriously we ate this every Wednesday and every Sunday of my childhood. That’s 104 times per year x approximately 18 years, or somewhere around 2000 times. The very same meal.
My mother made sauce (not the sauce, mind you, just sauce) on a regular basis such that we were never out. It would be inconceivable to not have sauce ready to go on Wednesdays and Sundays. I am quite sure my mother would never have let that happen. The basic ingredients were the same every time, but if we had had a pork or lamb roast recently, she added these bones for flavor. Here is the recipe exactly as I wrote it many years ago when I decided it needed to be in my cookbook for reference. I did not need it myself of course. The recipe is etched in my mind’s file. But someone else might need it.
This recipe is perfectly clear to me. You could follow it, right? You would know how many onions and how finely to chop them. You would know what chop meat means and what percentage of fat content was normal. You would know to put these first two ingredients together in a large, heavy pot over a medium flame and cook them together until the onions are clear and the meat is browned. You would know what size the cans of tomatoes are, what brand to buy, and whether they are whole, plum, chopped, diced or pureed. You would know what paste is, and how to get it all out of the can — even the parts that stick stubbornly to the sides — and why you need two cans of water per. You would know to dump all of this over the meat and onions at just the right time and stir it up. You would then know to add just the right amounts of s&p, garlic powder, oregano and basil. Strictly following tradition, it would not occur to you to use fresh garlic, oregano or basil. You would shake these out of jars you bought in the store and you knew the perfect quantities to shake and how big each little pile would need to be as it sat on top of the tomato-meat mixture in the pot. You would stop shaking when each pile was the right diameter and height. If you had leftover bones from a recent roast, you would add them in at this time. Then you would mix it all together and turn it down. You would know how low to turn the flame down, and you would let it cook for a few hours and walk away and do something else. You would know by the smell that it was done. The smell was normal. This was home. Every Wednesday and every Sunday we had our macaroni with sauce for dinner.
On Fridays for dinner (5:00ish), being Catholic, we had our macaroni with a non-meat sauce, maybe red and maybe not. The non-meat red was called marinara and the non-meat other could be onion or ceci (you know what those are, right?). In my memory we ate all macaroni meals with a salad. We did not additionally (and it never occurred to me until much later that others might) eat long thin loaves of crusty white bread. On Sundays, however, you might also have meatballs (either softened from having been taken from the freezer and heated up in sauce, or crispy from having been freshly fried in oil) or a veal or eggplant parmesan or a roast (beef, lamb or pork) on the side. Thus the leftover bones that might go into the next batch of sauce.
Onto any of these macaroni dishes you put cheese. You put imported, finely grated, sheep’s milk peccorino romano stored in a little glass jar which had little holes in the chrome screw-on lid. This jar was stored in the cabinet, by the way, not the fridge. You turned this jar upside down and shook it, and cheese landed on your macaroni. At some point prior to the meal someone had taken the four-sided stand-up grater out of the cabinet and stood there holding the fist-sized hunk of cheese in one hand and the handle of the grater with the other hand, and with well practiced vertical up-and-down motions, pressing the hunk against the sharply perforated side of the grater, created tiny, slightly curly shavings of this ivory colored, aromatic, aged wonder. I did not think of it as a wonder. It was just cheese. Cheese went on macaroni. Macaroni had sauce.
The conversation about sauce came about because Samuel was fishing around in the freezer and found a container labeled SAUCE. What kind of sauce is this? he asked. What kind of sauce? Is there another kind? I see SAUCE on top of a plastic container in the freezer and I know exactly what is in there. But he doesn’t. Oh.
Can it be that he wouldn’t know what I mean when I use a simple word? I thought everybody knew what that word means.
What about cat?
Surely he knows what those are. Surely you do.
Words evoke images. Do you have a lithe, grey feline in mind, one that snags large moths and bats them around until they give up? A white clapboard Cape Cod with three dormers set up on a hill with a large stand of maple trees behind it? A lot of well dressed people in a small room, holding fancy drinks and trying to hear one another above the loud music? Or do you imagine a tiger, a brick ranch, and a wild frat house?
This gets harder when the images associated with the words are not so concrete:
It’s no wonder we get tripped up sometimes. I am sure you know what I mean when I use certain words and you are sure I know what you mean. But do we really? John Durham Peters in his Speaking into the Air, says that there are hints and guesses in communication, which “at its best may be a dance in which we sometimes touch.” Thankfully we use lots of words to fill in the mental pictures, and usually manage to understand and be understood. Usually.
At least we are now clear about sauce. After Samuel fished it out of the freezer and I explained it and thought I knew what we were having for dinner, he asked another question: What’s onion sauce? Ah, onion sauce!
Chop three large onions. Saute them slowly (I mean slowly) in butter until they are soft and golden. This will take at least half an hour. Turn on the pot to boil the macaroni in only when the onions are almost done. In the meantime, finely dice that wonderful aged peccorino romano till you have a handful or so. Once the water is boiling, put small macaroni like ditalini in there with some salt and stir to make sure they do not stick to each other. When the macaroni is almost done, put the cheese in with the onions and butter. You don’t want to melt it, just soften it. Some ground black pepper and a little bit of cream in there with that rounds it out nicely. By now your macaroni is done. Put your colander over the bowl you will serve this in. Pour out the pot of boiling water and macaroni so that the water ends up in the bowl and the macaroni ends up in the colander (this makes the bowl hot, which keeps the food hot on the table longer). Dump the water out of your serving bowl, put the macaroni in there, top with the onion mixture and stir it all together. The word for this is divine.