The foods I most remember — the ones that grip me tightly somewhere between my heart and stomach — are the ones I enjoyed in my great-aunt’s 19th-century duplex in New Haven, Conn. She shared the house with my grandfather Lou, and that was where our family gathered to celebrate special occasions and holidays, and to savor the meals I would forever associate with feelings of comfort, warmth and, later, longing.
It was in her tiny kitchen with its yellow linoleum floor and temperamental oven that I ate my first solid food: a meatball. My favorite food, though, was her blue crab sauce, a simple yet extraordinary dish that I make year-round, to this day.
Phyllis Ruggiero Lenzi was first-generation American; her parents, my great-grandparents, emigrated from the Naples region of Italy during the big U.S. immigration wave of the early 20th century. At that time, New Haven’s population swelled with Italian laborers and farmers seeking a better life.
At 5 feet tall and always “starting a diet on Monday,” Aunt Phil would greet every guest with a hug and a kiss, quickly turning to tend a boiling pot or worry aloud about whether she had enough bread. She’d put a few stuffed mushrooms on a plate for my father, her nephew, all the while scolding the rest of us not to spoil our appetites before dinner.
She and her husband, George, never had a lot of money. But she knew how to stretch a dollar. Her crab sauce was not Italian, but rather a distinctively Italian American creation, made with foods that were cheap and plentiful. The recipe makes a vast amount — enough to easily serve 20 or more — which is really at the heart of the matter; it’s meant to be shared.
During the winter and on Christmas Eve, my aunt made her sauce with frozen blue crabs. But during the summer, when my grandfather showed up with freshly caught ones, she’d clean them in her sink, removing their top shells, aprons and innards.
My mother would then get a call: “I’m making crab sauce. Come over!”
We weren’t the only ones she alerted. Upon arrival, we’d join an inevitable assortment of relatives and “strays,” including May, the Scottish woman who was my grandfather’s upstairs tenant for 32 years; my Aunty Judy’s best friend, Sue, who was both a nurse and an ordained minister; and two sisters who drove a Cadillac and happened to be former nuns.
Although I never saw Aunt Phil clean the crabs or make her sauce, she taught my mother how to make it, and my mother later taught me. My aunt started the sauce with a lot of olive oil, by the cupful, to saute the crabs slowly until they turned red. Next came lots of garlic. After a few minutes, in went canned, whole San Marzano tomatoes — more than 10 pounds of them, blended — plus canned tomato puree, which my grandfather always bought by the case when he found it on sale. Salt, pepper and dried oregano went in last. She let her sauce simmer on low heat all afternoon, its aroma infusing every square inch of the house.
The crab sauce was served over pasta, with lots of bread (for dunking) and butter on the table as well as antipasti, stuffed peppers and steamed broccoli with lemon. Uncle George had the patience to suck the meat out of the sauce’s crab legs and claws. My mother would sneak Parmesan onto her sauce — a sacrilege everyone attributed to her being half-Irish (she married into the family). There was a lot of laughing, yelling, swearing and crying. And eating.
Today, members of my family serve variations of Aunt Phil’s sauce, which are the inevitable and delightful consequence of passing a recipe along, and marrying into other families’ traditions. My cousin Anne Marie makes hers after her husband goes crabbing on Long Island; she likes her sauce a little less smooth, so she breaks up the whole peeled tomatoes with her hands and adds a can of finely chopped anchovies to the olive oil and garlic. Cousin Lori makes hers the way I do, but her mother never uses oregano and instead adds lots of crushed red pepper flakes, and tomato paste instead of a canned puree. Phyllis’s niece, Carol, makes her sauce taking “a little bit from this one and a little bit from that one,” using white wine, anchovies, fresh parsley and basil. (When I called her for this article, she was getting ready to make it for friends from work who were coming over the next weekend.)
Everyone agrees that the sauce tastes best when you make it in advance. My son’s barber, Frank, told me, “Be sure to tell ’em to let it sit for a day!”
My friend Jessica’s mother, Louise Suraci, learned to make it in her mother-in-law’s East Haven, Conn., kitchen on afternoons after Louise’s husband and father had gone crabbing. After she sautes the crabs, Louise pulls them out while the sauce simmers, adding them back in at the end and seasoning the sauce with parsley. She doesn’t use as much olive oil as my aunt did, but then again, she tells me she doesn’t measure.
At August restaurant in Philadelphia, owner Maryann Brancaccio makes her “crab gravy” with dried basil and parsley, and serves it with lump crabmeat for diners who don’t want to get messy. (Maryann takes the crabs home to eat with her family.) I met Albert Mostrangeli on Bluecrab.info, a Web site and forum devoted to just what you’d expect. Al fell in love with blue crab sauce during the summers he spent as a kid “down the shore” in New Jersey. He’d catch the crabs with his grandfather, then hand them over to his grandmother, who used anchovy fillets, clam juice and red wine in her sauce. These days, when Al makes it for Sunday dinner, he tells his children about the old days and gives thanks to his grandparents for “instilling the family bond and love that sauce is so much a part of.”
Whenever I come across someone else’s blue crab sauce and hear their story about its tradition in their family, I feel that I’m part of a larger community, unbound by geography, related by shared culture. The recipe variations are interesting, yet I’m not tempted to make any of them myself.
For me, there’s only one way to make blue crab sauce. I don’t alter Aunt Phil’s recipe. I always have a container of it in my freezer, ready for a night I don’t feel like cooking or to give to a sick friend. It’s as ordinary a dinner to my children as hamburgers.
Alzheimer’s disease took my Aunt Phil years before she died in 2007, at age 93. Since then, death, divorce, estrangement and distance have scattered the people who used to gather at her lace-covered dining room table. We see each other at wakes, where we reminisce about old times — and where, I realize, the thread that binds my family’s diaspora is made not just of memories, but of food.
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