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Spaghetti Sauce MAG
In the vast, clanging whirlpool of Kiplings, Mozarts, Picassos and Curies, standing in the center with flat red slippers and highlighter-blue eyes was Mrs. Olivia-Jean Sarber Newcandy, known to me as Ma.
Ma could have climbed Mount Everest without shoes, swum across Lake Michigan with her hands tied behind her back, eaten 13 boxes of Godiva two-pound assorted chocolates and not gained even a fraction of a pound. She could run a marathon, discover Atlantis, catch a fairy in a jar, find a needle in a haystack, write a novel, end starvation in Africa, and still make it home in time for lunch.
But most of all, she could cook.
The food Ma prepared would make you drool at the mere mention: sizzling fish fillets, chicken Parmesan, beef stroganoff … even a conventional meatloaf was enough to make the President want to visit our home. She had a way of making meals so delectable that when Julia Child flashed on the television screen, all you could do was laugh.
Spaghetti was an exceptionally fine treat, especially for such a lugubrious Saturday evening as the one when I turned seven. Ma was in the kitchen humming the last few bars of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” while taking out the plump tomatoes from the 99¢ fruit bowl we’d bought at a flea market. Her wooden ladle clattered against the simmering pot as my shriek shattered the air.
“What is it, baby?” she cried, turning away from the stove, expecting to see me with a severed finger or gasping on the floor in wild convulsions.
“I almost reached the Notorious Nelf-Droid, but Xamagag came out of nowhere and attacked me!” I whined, shaking the control pad in frustration. “I was this close!” I pinched my fingers together to let her know how thin the distance was between me and the evil Nelf-Droid, nightmare of Belipolya, threat to my kingdom and my most honorable adversary.
“Zamma who?” Ma asked, not doing too good a job hiding the exasperation on her face as she turned away.
“Xamagag, the Nelf-Droid’s evil minion who’s actually a good guy, but he got hypnotized and now he thinks that he’s the Prince of Belipolya, but really he’s just …”
“Thass nice, sugar,” Ma drawled, stirring the cauldron of boiling secrets and hidden miracles within the syrupy tomato mix. “Why don’t you put down that game and help me with the spaghetti, huh? Whatdya say, baby?”
“Okay, Ma,” I consented, and switched off my player. We’ll meet tomorrow, Nelf-Droid, I thought heroically. You won’t get away with your evil doings – not when Crista the Calamitous is around! Ma started calling me “Crista the Calamitous” about three months ago, after an unfortunate catastrophe involving me and an innocent pair of scissors. It had taken Ma an hour to even out my hair, and still I looked like a boy. But, it was then I’d discovered the luscious new vocabulary word “calamitous” and, although I hadn’t the slightest inkling of the definition, it was still extremely delicious to say.
“Here now, see this bunch of mushrooms I chopped up? Put them in the big pot, that one right over there.” Ma pointed, and with as much obedience and dignity as I had, I brought the mushrooms to the pot, climbed up on a stool and poured them in. The scarlet solution sizzled and bubbled for a minute before swallowing the handful of spring dreams I’d delivered.
Immensely pleased with my job, I skipped back to the dinner table. Ma stopped me.
“Not so fast, dumplin’,” she said. Ma had a voice as smooth as lemon
pudding, but at the same time as stinging as a triple slap across the face. “Ain’t over yet, I still got a few more things for you to do.”
Ma was notorious for her tendency to understate. “Stir the sauce!” she said, and I did. “Pour in those peppers! Get me the meatballs! Pour some of those in, too. Careful not to burn yourself! Keep stirring the sauce – no, no, stir clockwise, Crista, clockwise – didn’t anybody ever tell you the other way is bad luck?” Nobody had, of course, but I’d learned long ago that parents like to be right, and it was always best to make them feel good about themselves, so I didn’t argue.
The more I poured into the sauce and the more I stirred – clockwise, of course – the higher the steam rose, and the more divine it smelled.
Fish of goblin, eye of newt, I chanted to myself while stirring, liver of codfish, fingers blue … which of these will make the stew? I cocked my eyebrow mysteriously, just like the witches did on the Halloween Channel when they were cooking up something insidiously delightful to serve to the King of Spain, just to watch him writhe.
The heavenly perfume fully attacked my nostrils, entering through my ears and mouth and filling my head. The shimmering steam was all around me now, whispering, “Taste me, somebody, taste me,” in a way that was as tempting as a newly unwrapped grape lollipop. How was I to resist? I couldn’t stand another minute without a taste! Just one finger full would do – just one dipped finger and my desires would all be curbed, my wishes all fulfilled.
Before my conscience had time to step in on my thoughts (that conscience was awfully tricky – you had to act quickly before it ruined everything), my finger had dug a small tunnel in the concoction.
“Oh!” I almost cried. The heat sent shocking sensations up my hand. Ma was behind me, rummaging in the cupboard for a pack of noodles, singing, “Someone’s in the kitchen with Di-nah, someone’s in the kitchen I kno-o-o-ow.” Determined not to let a suspicious detail loose, I kept my lips tightly closed, my agonized cry muffled and sounding more like, “Omrhmf!” I twisted my head back in fear; Ma hadn’t flinched.
I split my lips apart and stuck the damaged finger in my mouth, letting the soft tomato goodness roll over my tongue. Oh, rapture! Heavenly taste of tastes! Had Jesus eaten even a mere finger full of this at his Last Supper, He would most definitely have changed His mind about being crucified. The essence of it all … that moment was purely indelible. I was dancing on air! I was waltzing on a cloud, skipping into the sunshine!
And … I craved more.
No, no, a finger full wouldn’t do this time, it most certainly would not! I wanted to fill the ladle with heaps of sauce, mounds of it! Just one, insignificant, miniscule ladle – oh, perhaps two – and I would never ask for anything again.
I lifted the wooden spoon, filled with hot, steaming joy, and brought it to my lips, tipping the savory contents down my throat. I had hardly gasped for air when a second ladle was brought to my mouth, another mouthful of sauce sent spilling down my tongue.
I was erupting in spaghetti sauce delight. The flavor! The indescribable, unbelievable, supernatural taste! I had to have more!
I whirled around, half-filled ladle in hand, thin traces of tomato juice trickling down the sides of my mouth.
“What on God’s green earth are you doing?”
I blinked. “I – I’m testing the sauce for you, Ma,” I replied, trying to muster a sweet smile I knew would look irresistibly adorable accompanied by the tomato smeared across my chin.
The smile failed. “Crista, do you know how many germs you have in your mouth and your hands? You don’t do that, you never taste a sauce before it’s ready. You’ve ruined it now, you’ve ruined my sauce. Get out of the kitchen, Crista. Go into the living room.”
The grin dropped from my face like eggs spattered onto a floor. Shock filled my innards. Ma had furious creases cut down the sides of her face, her dark brown curls flared out from her scalp. Her hands were plastered on her hips, and the steely blue eyes burned into my flesh with rage. She was … she was angry. My throat had gone dry, my mind stripped of things to say.
I gulped and climbed down from the little stool.
“I just wanted a taste,” I whispered as I rounded the corner.
Ma went to fix her sauce, no longer singing, and I played my game in the living room. Suddenly, the thought of encountering the Notorious Nelf-Droid didn’t seem so exhilarating. I sat in silence until Ma called me for dinner.
I trotted into the kitchen, hands in my pockets, and sullenly accepted the plate she gave me. She plopped on a wad of noodles; I liked to pretend they were worms and give them names before I ate them. Now, however, I just looked at them and sighed.
Ma walked over to the stove and gripped the ladle. She swished the steaming mix for a bit before picking up a spoonful and preparing to spread it over my noodles.
“I won’t be having any sauce, Ma,” I said quietly.
“What?” Ma looked at me, her eyes blazing, cheeks beginning to flush.
Don’t say it, my conscience warned me. Don’t say it – you’ll only get into trouble!
“I won’t be having any sauce,” I said again.
“You mean you’re just going to eat plain noodles and cheese?” Ma asked in an icy tone.
I nodded timidly. Ma had a crazy look on her face, like she was going to hit me with the ladle, or cuss, or else yell at me that there was no logical reason why I wouldn’t have any sauce because she spent a fat lot of trouble making it even without me messing it up and I didn’t appreciate what I was given, and that back in her day she’d always eaten her meals and thanked the Lord for what little her poor starving family could afford, plus she had to walk six miles to school in the snow with no shoes.
But Ma simply put the spoon back in the sauce, placed her hands on her hips and stared into the air.
“Well,” she said slowly after a while. “That sounds like a mighty fine idea.”
I blinked many times and stared wide-eyed as she put the lid back on the pot and carried her plate of plain noodles to the dinner table. I followed her, intrigued and a bit frightened. Mrs. Olivia-Jean Sarber Newcandy, eating spaghetti without the sauce! I’d sooner expected the Apocalypse.
Ma took the jar of Parmesan cheese and sprinkled it on her noodles. She handed me the cheese, and I did the same.
For a nanosecond before either of us had a taste of our naked noodles, my eyes matched up with hers, green pitted against blue. Hers smiled at me, sparkled and gave a tiny mischievous twitch; mine responded in kind. Our eyes instantaneously fell back to our plates. As she bit into her first morsel, I twirled Sammy, Frank and Georgina around my fork.
I was certain of it now: my ma could balance the world on her shoulders, fly to the moon with paper wings, do a triple-axle without even putting on skates, read War and Peace in less than an hour and make the best spaghetti sauce in the universe, even if nobody even tasted it.
But then, who couldn’t?