My uncle Rejean took his life in 2000, and that’s where his story ends.
Sorry. A little morbid on that count. I just didn’t want to throw that in at the end. Because that’s not exactly what this is about.
But I do want to talk about him.
An addict, alcoholic, troublemaker, womanizer, and general source of bad luck, Rejean was once, according to my mother, handsome and talented. I can only owe it to the fact that they were closest in age that she gave him so many chances in life, or that she forgave him for the heinous crap he put the whole family through. If bad things were to happen to someone, they would happen to Rejean; and if bad things happened, it was probably him, too.
Which, thankfully, is not what this post is about.
This chapter is about Rejean’s spaghetti, and by extension, my grandmaman Alice.
Uncles and grandmothers are people for whom writers so often wax poetic. They are the kindred spirits, the spoilers, the parents-that-would-be. Not so in my case. In my mind Rejean and Alice are very much extensions of the same kind of person. They both had a sort of resolute steeliness and wiriness about them, at least by the time I met them. Skinny bodies, dark, dark eyes, strong noses, cigarettes always in hand. Mother and son. She smoked Delauriers and he smoked rum flavored cigarettes with little filters.
Alice showed her affection by conveniently “forgetting” I could speak French and mentioning to my mother that I looked like I was getting fat. He showed his affection by showering my sister, his god-daughter, with outlandish presents while he should have been feeding his kids. And drinks were often shared together, Canasta cards were passed, and while Rejean was in and out of jail and jobs, he’d live with my grandparents. My memories of them honestly blur at this point.
But they both cooked spaghetti sauce. Which isn’t French-Canadian in the least, but has always been a dish everyone in the family cooks.
Maybe there was a point where my grandmaman Alice was a good cook, but I only got to sample bits of it toward the end of her life, and much of it was burned or otherwise maligned. I mostly remember her strawberry preserves, essentially strawberries submerged in corn syrup and then spread on toast. I ate so many one time — sugar bomb, hello! — that I vomited them all up during a trip to visit my aunt. I never wanted to eat them again. Alice also had a perpetual stash of little mints, and if she was in a good mood she’d give me one when I asked. She also really enjoyed eating clementines, and had at them, toothless, in her pink nightgown, at breakfast every time we visited. While farting copiously and half-heartedly apologizing, lest we forget we were the guests in her house.
Alice’s spaghetti sauce rarely made it to the table without a major scalding at the bottom. I’m sure the rest of the recipe was tasty. But the properties of tomatoes change on a deeply molecular level when burned, and the rest of the sauce spoils beyond belief with the introduction of mineral, burnt carbon. Never a kid to turn down a meal, and certainly terrified of my grandmother’s ire, I ate it without question, gagging on every bite or two. It’s just what you have to do.
Rejean, however, made amazing spaghetti. For a royally broken soul, that man had talents, as my mom always insisted. He could dance and draw, and he could cook.
My grandparents never lived in a big house. Mostly apartments that somehow all their 20-odd grandchildren could pack into during holidays, squeezed into long tables like cattle at a trough. So when someone cooked dinner, the whole house smelled of it.
For Rejean, cooking for us — the family of his favorite sister — was an honor. I remember the pride in his eyes. I think he was trying to get sober again, after ruining a third marriage. And he approached that pot of sauce with confidence and pizazz. For a moment he was in control, and the energy and exuberance coming from him was palpable even in my tween myopia.
I didn’t trust him. To be honest, he terrified my sister and me. But when I tasted that spaghetti sauce, studded with carrots of all things, I had to think twice. It was spicy, flavorful, complex. Bay leaf and red pepper and tender beef, all cooked together. Fresh basil, too. It surprised me. For a moment, I was proud of him.
When my mother went to his apartment to clean up after he’d died, she took one thing: his rolling pin. It still makes her cry when she holds it.
It’s true, I don’t spend much time thinking about Rejean since he died. But he’s family, he’s part of me, even if we were never close. But there is something we share: that magic sense of accomplishment when you feed your family and they deem it good. I’m far from Holly Homemaker, but feeding people with good food makes me absurdly happy. When I’m feeling my worst, being able to step back and nourish people from the inside out, that’s closer to the meaning of life than anything else I know. I think he knew it, too. And so did my grandmother.
Of course his recipe had V8 juice in it, because that’s tradition in my family. So I’m including it below in my closest approximation of Rejean’s spaghetti.
- 2 16 oz. Cans diced tomatoes
- 1 can tomato paste
- 1 qt. can of V8 juice
- 1 diced onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 4 carrots, cubed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp basil
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1 lb beef
Sweat the onions, garlic, and the carrots together in a large pot or stock pot. Then add the beef and brown together.
Drain fat if necessary and add herbs.
Add tomato products and bring to a low boil. Bring down to a simmer and let cook for three hours. Serve on plain white spaghetti noodles, slightly overdone, and a loaf of white bread and margarine. If you have access, try iceberg lettuce with Catalina dressing as an accompaniment.
[Top image: By Pink Sherbet Photography from USA (Happy Pasta free creative commons) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
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