My mom’s dynamite spaghetti sauce

Photo by Munch n' Crunch via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Munch ‘n’ Crunch via Flickr Creative Commons

MY MOM,  who died in 1984, wasn’t  much of a cook, so don’t look for this to be a nostalgic column about my mother’s wonderful homemade dishes.

I blame some of this on the fact that her own mother died when she was 6 and she didn’t have a mom role model growing up. But her father remarried when she was 12, to a nice woman with whom she got along well and called “Mama.” My grandma was a great cook, and 12 is prime time for girls to start taking an interest in cooking. So I can only conclude that my mom just wasn’t that interested.

I learned character, not cooking

While I didn’t learn lots of cooking tips and recipes at my mother’s knee, I did gain a lot of important character traits from her. Among those are:

My mom with her younger sister, circa 1931

My mom with her younger sister, circa 1931

Inclusiveness – My mom never disparaged people who were “different” from her, and made sure her children behaved the same way. She would not countenance racial or ethnic slurs, which were very common in the 1950s and 1960s, even among educated people. Although we lived in an all-white neighborhood – the integrated neighborhoods my parents would have preferred were beyond their budget – she made sure we attended multi-ethnic summer camps.

Progressiveness – My parents were staunch liberals and imparted the same values to my siblings and me. Mom was proud that she voted for Henry Wallace, the hopeless Progressive Party candidate, in the 1948 presidential election.

She was morally offended when government failed to help the most downtrodden segments of society or supported any form of censorship; the McCarthy era must have been very difficult for her. She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

She never crossed a picket line – except in 1972, when there was a long teacher’s strike in Philadelphia. She had qualified as a teacher late in life, after her children left home, and she felt the children had a stronger case than the teachers so she returned to substitute teaching before the strike was settled. (After that, she didn’t get many calls to sub.)

Mom voted for Henry Wallace for president in 1948; photo by Tim Lang via Flickr Creative Commons

Mom voted for Henry Wallace for president in 1948; photo by Tim Lang via Flickr Creative Commons

Curiosity – Mom was super-intelligent. She skipped at least one grade in elementary school and graduated from high school at 16. She liked to learn about lots of different things. She was always reading – not books so much as newspapers and magazines, including Life and Time and the Reader’s Digest. She wouldn’t just breeze through an issue, she’d read it cover-to-cover, absorbing every article. She imparted the same love of reading and curiosity about the world to me and my siblings.

Thrift – Born in 1921 in Poland and brought to Brooklyn at the age of two months, my mother was poor even before the Depression hit. She grew up learning how to make a little go a long way, and her children learned to be frugal as well.

Long before paper towel manufacturers created half-sized sheets, she’d slice a roll in half down to the cardboard tube so that we would use less. She taught us to save gift wrap and ribbons to reuse – but she’s the only person I know who washed and reused plastic wrap, something at which I draw the line. She clipped coupons religiously, something I do as well, though these days there are rarely any worth clipping.

The Gansar Girls: my mom (on left) and her sisters, 1948

The Gansar Girls: my mom (on left) and her sisters, 1948

Mom was one of the first people in Philadelphia to buy those coupon books (ours was called the Metro Passbook, similar to the Entertainment book), and we rarely went to a restaurant for which she didn’t have a coupon. She would have loved Groupon!

Forthrightness – My mom had strong opinions and never hesitated to let anyone know what they were. My friends and family say I am the same. In my earlier years I was often far too outspoken for my own good. I like to think I’ve learned some discretion and tact since then.

Keen hearing – My mom could be in another room, hear something someone would mutter under their breath and pipe up with a response. My husband tells me I’m just as bad.

How to fold pillowcases  – There’s only one correct way to fold pillowcases, and that’s to fold the short edge in half, then fold it lengthwise in half, and then again in threes. That’s it, end of discussion.

Even if Mom wasn’t a great cook, she fed her family well. We always had meat or chicken (or, rarely, fish), potatoes (or pasta or rice) and a vegetable (canned or frozen, never fresh) at every meal. We drank three glasses of milk every day, just like all the child-rearing experts said we should.

A dynamite spaghetti sauce

The best thing Mom cooked was meat sauce for spaghetti. This was back in the day when you couldn’t get decent sauce in a jar. All of us kids loved it. She always made enough for two meals.

I tinkered with the recipe a bit, substituting fresh garlic for the garlic powder Mom always used and diced tomatoes for tomato puree, which is hard to find these days. And olive oil wasn’t trendy; she used plain old vegetable oil. Times have changed, but this meat sauce is still better than anything you can get from Prego or Ragu.


Remembering my father with a recipe for Vegetarian Philly Cheesesteak

My parents, Minnie and Harold Naidoff, on their wedding day in 1945. My father was 23.

My parents, Minnie and Harold Naidoff, on their wedding day in 1945. My father was 23.

Sue Holliday

Sue Hollliday

This piece was written by my sister, Sue Holliday, for her blog, Memory Smoothie: random memoir-type stories she is writing for her two sons.

I’ve been thinking about my dad as his birthday approaches, and thought there could be no better tribute than this one, which she wrote three years ago; my dad would have been 93 this year. In addition to being a testament to the love he had for my mother, this letter provides an interesting look a day in the life of a U.S. sailor as he waited to be released from duty after World War II.

It wasn’t easy to relate this to food! My dad was not a cook, but he was comfortable in the kitchen. Every Saturday night was my mother’s “night off” from cooking and he would make dinner. It was almost always hot dogs or steak sandwiches – occasionally chicken pot pies, all meals we kids really looked forward to!

There’s no trick to making hot dogs, and the chicken pot pies were always frozen, not homemade (who even heard of such a thing in the 1950s and 1960s?) So I offer an interesting recipe for a vegetarian version of a Philly cheesesteak as a good way to honor my father’s memory, both because of our steak sandwich dinners and because he was born and bred in Philadelphia and lived there until his mid-50s. It’s quite tasty, and if you can find original Philadelphia Amoroso’s hoagie rolls, it’ll be almost as good as the meat version.

My father, Harold Naidoff, would’ve been 90 years old today, January 11.

When he moved into a new house after he remarried in 1998, he sent a box of old photos to me to be shared among his children. Several of the albums had belonged to my mother before she married, but others are from his early married life and our childhoods, plus some from trips my parents had taken together. Many of the old photos on this blog are from that box.

My dad, the sailor

My dad, the sailor

Stashed among the photo albums were two files of the letters he had written my mother when he was in the Navy, serving as a coppersmith on a repair ship during, and after, World War II. My mother appears to have kept them all, in chronological order.

I hadn’t read any before now.

Some may think that sharing these letters with family and friends betrays my father’s trust. I like to think that he would not be embarrassed by his feelings for his wife expressed in the letters. And while he could have tossed them as he did so much other stuff when he moved, I think he included the letters with the photos because he wanted them to survive.

A letter from China in 1946

Here is one, transcribed from my father’s hand.

[Aboard the U.S.S. Kermit Roosevelt]

Tsingtao, China

12 Jan. 1946

My Dearest Darling Wife,

I love you; the first thought of you that is always in my mind. I love you; a phrase that has become the theme of my life.

Today was wonderful, tiring, joyous, irritating, and beautiful. How can it be all these at one time; well I shall try to explain.

My parents in 1944

My parents in 1944

The morning began as usual, and then a wonderful thing came to pass; the ship received about 50 bags of mail, all packages. The entire morning was devoid of work, and devoted entirely to opening boxes, fondling the contents, nibbling on candy and cake, and having a great time indeed. I received 3 packages from home, 2 of yours, and one from Mom, and everything arrived in very good shape. Now our cupboard is full again. With our own packages, and those of the fellows who have already left, the food locker is again crammed full with various delicacies, and we shall be eating supper in the shop until it is exhausted. You had perfect timing on your birthday gift box, it arrived only a day late, excellent considering the situation. Not only for its contents, but for the way it was presented made it even more enjoyable. Thank you my Dearest. The brushes are very good and I have already used the hair brush. The clothes brush will find plenty of service, but I am afraid the hand brush will be a little neglected. Do you mind very much? The bottle of brandy, most heartily appreciated, will be saved until I learn that I am definitely on draft for home, then it will [be] consumed with a happy heart; the right mood for a good liquor.

The morning passed easily and happy, but then it began. No sooner had work begun in the afternoon when it all began. Dan is sick with a cold and took the afternoon off, on the Q.T. of course, and I took over his job. Then some Marines came in for a rush order for some stovepipe and I had to get them started on that job. I made them do their own work or else they would not get it. They worked. Then George came over and told me to come right over to the Jason so I could pick up my Jap rifle, so I dropped my work, and off I went. Rushed right back, and tried to regain lost ground. First over to the Marines who were having a little difficulty, then back to my own work. One of my strikers was given a job of painting the bulkheads and bitching like hell, making things miserable for me. Then more work to be done in a hurry, and by the time the afternoon was half over I was thouroughly irritated and disgusted. Was I glad when it came time to knock off work. I was never so glad to see a day end, and was more tired than I have been for a long time. One thing I did accomplish was to check my gun at the armory and get one of the carpenters to make me a box so I can mail it home. Guns can now be mailed, so it will save me the task of carrying it. The gun is in poor condition, but that can be remedied when I have it home.

I lay down for awhile and had just fallen asleep when Dan woke me for supper down in the shop. Our meal consisted of delicious fried eggs, bread and butter, coffee, and canned cherries for dessert. Not bad for the shop. Now I have just come from the shower, and I am much relaxed and at ease as I write to my sweetheart.

Tomorrow is holiday routine and early liberty. I am going ashore to take pictures. That fellow Hirsh had a package and among its contents was a camera with 16 rolls of film. Before he left, he gave us permission to open his boxes and only return items of value. Dan was appointed custodian by Hirsh before he left. The camera shall be returned, but we are going to use up the film, and send a letter of explanation to Hirsh.

I hope it is a nice day as it will probably be my last liberty.

Now the day is almost at an end, and whatever difficulties there may have been, it certainly was a most beautiful day, full of memories and love.

Your husband,