Black Mood, Red Sauce


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A bowl of homemade pasta and sauce.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

I have a confession to make: I’m not handling this whole isolation thing well.

For one of the first times in my life, I am unmotivated to do much of anything. I find myself sitting in silence, looking out the window. It’s been hard to get out of bed in the mornings. I’ve been drinking an extra nip of Scotch to sleep at night. Rinse, repeat.

Aside from all the obvious reasons for feeling down during an otherwise lovely spring, our old man cat Ragnar, a/k/a Big Row, is dying. He was old and decrepit when we took him in 18 months ago, but now it seems his time is ebbing away faster every day. It’s been a decade since I’ve lost a cat, and it won’t be another after we lose him; our sister cats, Giblet and Harlequin, turn 13 this month.

Big Row the cat
Photo by Hank Shaw

Yeah, yeah, it’s just a cat, I hear you. And you’re right. Some of you reading this have relatives or friends in the hospital. A few of you may even have lost someone. Not to mention all the other assorted horrors that happen to half the world on a daily basis. But still. He is my friend. And I love him.

Even feeling as I do, my Yankee upbringing won’t allow me to sit idle for too long; I can thank my mother for that one. She’s from New England, but I am from New Jersey. I tell you this because whenever despair grips me, whenever I want to bawl my eyes out and dig a hole to lie in, I make red sauce. Old school, New Jersey Italian red sauce.

No, I am not Italian, but most of my friends were growing up, and even mom made a damn good red sauce. I’ve made mine for going on 35 years, and not always when I am down. But I’ve never written the recipe anywhere. That’s because there isn’t one.

I make this sauce without thought. The motions, the sounds, the smells and flavors of it are all imprinted on me. It has, over the decades, become an instinctual sauce, as much a part of me as the click in my left wrist — a lingering reminder of that day it shattered on the ice, so many years ago.

My sauce sits, simmering slowly, as I write this. Bill Evans is playing on the stereo. I always find him sad and soothing at the same time. His piano helps me grieve, helps me endure. The aroma of tomatoes and red wine, oregano and garlic and meat have begun to permeate the house.

This sauce is not a quick one. It starts its life as a soup, and simmers down into the sort of intense pasta sauce the Italians call either sugo or ragu, depending on which Italian you happen to be talking to. It always starts with olive oil and ground meat. Historically beef and pork, but now always ground game. Today it’s venison.

Sometimes a little cured ham finds its way in, sometimes pork “country ribs,” which are really just strips of shoulder. Today there’s a bit of ham I made from a javelina’s hind leg. It’ll do.

After the meat sears, in goes a minced onion, maybe two. I know to move to the next step when the timbre of the sizzle rises. A low sizzle means there’s still lots of water in the mix. A higher tone means the meat and onion are finally browning. I stir well, then let it all happen again. Always a flat-edged, wooden spoon to scrape the pot with. Always.

Overhead view of simple Italian meat sauce over fresh pasta
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

At some point, I decide to toss in thyme, minced garlic — I am almost to the end of last year’s garlic harvest, alas — a handful of bay leaves, a pinch of red pepper, and rather a lot of oregano from the garden. I dry it as whole leaves, crushing them between my palms over the steaming pot. The aroma calms me.

Another stir, then in goes at least half a bottle of red wine. Nothing as precious as the 2001 Barbera we plan on drinking tonight (tough times require good wine), but a drinkable bottle nonetheless. I let this roll until it reduces. If I happen to have any red vermouth or brandy, I add a shot to the pot.

A can of tomato paste. Sometimes two. It gets mixed in, and finally the pot begins to look like red sauce. I save the can and add some homemade stock to it, cleaning the inside to get all the tomato goodness out. In it goes, along with a full quart of the stock, as well as fire-roasted tomato puree from last summer’s garden tomatoes.

And now, we wait.

When I am tired, I simply cook dried pasta from the store. But today I needed something to take my mind off the world. So I made the pasta. Just flour, and lots of eggs. Pasta-making, for me, has always had a zen-like quality to it. It cannot be rushed, and it requires a quiet mind, a touch of care, and love.

fresh pasta on wooden board
Photo by Hank Shaw

I like to make the pasta shortly before eating it, so it barely has time to dry out. Tossed into a cauldron of boiling water so salty it tastes like the ocean, it will cook in less than a few minutes.

Finishing this dish is as automatic as making it. Pasta goes into a huge, wide steel bowl, along with a ladle of sauce. Toss. Grab with tongs, plate with a twist of the wrist. Grate as much Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese as you like over it all. Eat. Drink red wine. Repeat.

Ragnar the Cat has curled into a ball in the corner. His breathing is slow, labored. Will this be the night? Can the news on the radio be any worse? Will I get a call that a friend, or a family member, has fallen ill? All of that may happen. Some of it definitely will.

I wish I could say that making this sauce, this pasta, this meal, has healed me. I can’t. To do so would be a lie. But it’s better than nothing. And it’s what I can do today.

POSTSCRIPT: Ragnar, Big Row, a/k/a Big Handsome, died on April 2 at about 11:10 a.m. We don’t know how old he was, but we think about 14. He came into our life 18 months ago, starving and abandoned. We took him in and he stole our hearts. By far the most affectionate cat I’ve ever lived with. We are left feeling empty, wondering about the life he had before us and what he was like in his prime, which we never got to see. I miss his big saber teeth, his giant paws, his gloriously floofy tail. But most of all I miss him sitting on my lap, purring for hours. He was a sweet boy. My heart is broken.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. I am very sorry that your beloved kitty has passed on, we have our own “pet cemetery” out back… our 20-year-old Molly still has some great days, sometimes has a bad day, most are in the middle. She’s on high blood pressure medicine, can you believe that?!

    I just wanted to share that the “stray” animals that a person/family “rescues”/adopts never forget that someone has given them a home and are very thankful. My first 2 cats were “store-bought”, but since then, “strays” or those born under someones porch have shared their love & affection with our family. If there’s a next cat/dog, it’ll be rescued from someone/somewhere, too.

  2. I went from reading a great cooking method for bolognese/ ragu to crying at work.

    We lost our elder cat to cancer last year and to this day, refer to him as our ‘sweet boy’. You rang a couple of bells for me.

    Thanks and all the best

  3. Thank you for sharing your recipes, your love, your sadness, your humanity-something our world really needs today more than ever, Hank! Bless you and yours, and above all, thanks for “keeping it real”!

  4. Loved your article. In my mind I could picture the whole scene. The kitchen, the ache in your heart and the tears behind your eyes as you cook. I smelled your red gravy and felt your pain. Thank you for sharing this moment and the recipe.

  5. So sorry for your loss…animals are such a comfort always and especially now. He’s now looking down on you and purring in the sky.