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. This was a touching and beautifully written piece. I’m so sorry for the loss of your cat. We rely so much on pets for comfort and comedic relief in times of turmoil. Sending positive vibes to you and yours!

  2. I’m sorry for your loss of Ragnar. I appreciate the beauty you’ve conveyed in the gentle act of his purring in your lap. Peace.

  3. Dear Hank,
    God bless you during this sad time in losing Ragnar. Our animal companions bring dimensions to our lives and hearts that other humans cannot. I always feel sorry for people who never have that special connection with an animal. I know part of your heart went with him, but he will always live on in your heart and your memories together. I know he’s in a good place but he sure will miss you and your cooking! Take heart. One day, when you scarcely expect it he may come walking back into your life once again. I’m sure he’s got some more of his eight lives left. It’s a terrible time to lose a friend, but we’re all thinking of you. Your brighten our days and give us always another recipe to relish the experience of creating. With thanks for what you share during the world’s difficult crises.

    Lynell and my Saluki companion, Belinda, from Scotland

  4. Dear Hank & family–love you all, love your story, & even though I’m primarily a “veggie” gal, I love your comforting, straight-from-the-heart, “soul-food from the woods” recipes–I can “tweak” them to fit my vegetarian lifestyle. I also totally mourn with you in the loss of a feline friend. I lost my Tigger one year ago on the same day–April 2nd–in the wee hours of the morning. He had seizures from November 2018 until 4/2/2019 when he crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Even though he got very skinny & couldn’t walk a straight line half the time, he would straddle my knees and let me hand feed him on his “good days”–when he could eat w/ no seizures. He’s not my first loss–had 13 precious “rescue” kitties at one time in my life–& a rescue dog–lost so many along the way–and lost a dear husband who loved his “babies”. Have been blessed w/ a wonderful new hubby of 5 yrs–but, also, recently “blessed” with more stray babies that need rescuing. In this Coronavirus infested world, wondering–how on earth can we take care of all of them??? Please keep sharing your inner thoughts (and recipes!)–too many people try to sugar-coat life–won’t face reality–unfortunately, we all have to “keep it real” right now, especially given the current situation. Life isn’t all “lolly pops”–sometimes you just have to face facts–& facts can hurt–like losing a beloved pet. It “ain’t” pretty–it’s just a fact. Sometimes sharing those unpleasant facts is the only way to cope. God bless you and your entire family.

  5. lost a cat friend a few years ago
    when he first came to me, I brought him home, he wouldnt come out from under the bed for 2 days. I made lasagna and that got him to come out. I was set to use fish the next day. turns out garfield has truth. thank you for sharing

  6. Sorry for your loss. We also took in a big shaggy stray many years back, who sounds like a kindred gentle spirit with your Ragnar.

    And, while my reaction to the current events mirrors yours in most ways, I find that the term “comfort food” takes on new meaning, not just the end product but the comfort taken in the process of making it. Your recipes in particular have been a blessing as I work through the fortunately ample supply of wild game in our freezer. Hang in there and keep them coming.

  7. Hello Hank, I can so relate to losing a cat. My cat also is doing a slow decline and we are in the same ‘waiting’ mode. Being home every day all day seems to have staved it off a bit, but the decline is obvious. My heart goes out to you. Remember the sweet times he gave you. You have inspired me to make my own pasta. Thank you for your post.

  8. I’m so sorry for your loss,
    Both my grandparents are in hospital with covid battling pneumonia and I don’t feel it’s remotely wrong for you to love and grieve, I can’t imagine how we’d be if our dog died on top of everything.

  9. Hank,
    Sorry to hear about Ragnar. Having survived the passing of numerous childhood pets and guiding my girls through the loss of their pets growing up, I understand how tough it can be.

    My best to you during this time. I am currently up in Maine spending three nights a week with my dad at my sister’s house, watching the storm roll across biddeford pool. I am optimistic that I can be getting some surf clams and steamers when my next shift with my dad arrives next wednesday.

    Till then, be well and enjoy the red sauce.

  10. As I am crying over the loss of Ragnar, so recently a member of your family, I too have had this experience often with my beloved pets. Presently, am relating especially close with a sick dog we’ve loved for almost 10 years, now with a failing heart. Your description of red sauce is a bright spot in these certainly troubled times. I thank you for that as well as the caring comments made by those posted here. Keeping connected to others does matter, especially at this time of loneliness. Take care and know others are understanding and share some of your emotions.

  11. Don’t be sad think of all the lovely times you had with your cat, I am sure you will feel better. Take care during the lock-down. Antoinette

  12. I’m sorry for your loss. Cherish the memories. Hopefully this time brings healing.


  13. Been There … Done That ? brick nose tabby guys … I’ve had 2 … or they had me ? They are my favorite cats ? Purrsonality Plus ? I am sad for you guys to lose your family member . Ragnar Great name for a big Tom ?? When a loved one leaves … two or 4 footed … one’s heart ? seems like this year … this season has been one of loss 🙁 Hang In There !!! (made Sicilian red comfort sauce the other day too … supposed to be gizzards but our kids ranch burger is so good. )

  14. The hardest losses are those who unexpectedly sneak into our hearts. Farewell, Ragnar. You sound like an incredible sweet friend.

  15. Hi. Loosing one of our fur babies is terrible; but think he now has no more pains and has gone over the rainbow bridge where he meets up with other ones. Now you have memories Of Ragnar that no one can take from you . When the sun goes down we always look for tomorrow’s sunrise – it can only get better and it will. Hugs and good wishes from an unknown friend. Btw, your Sugo con vino Rosso – superb. Ciao from nonna Uschi

  16. I felt compelled to leave a comment after seeing your heartfelt and painful account regarding the loss of your cat and with your struggle that comes from the isolation from the virus. I was fortunate enough to meet you several years back when I drove up from Southern California to hunt with RJ for Sea Ducks and Geese. I don’t recall you to be a religious man, so I don’t want to moralize!

    Rather, I would just like to remind you that what seems to come through in your work and life is love. Love of the outdoors, nature, and connecting with people to help them be their best seems to be a hallmark of yours. Now, this love appears to extend to pets and I am not surprised.

    However, the problem with love is that you know you will eventually suffer for it. The hardest part is making sense and finding peace as you go through the ebb and flow between love and suffering.

    The only unsolicited advice I can give is to ask for you to see through new eyes what your blog, essays, and passion for all things outdoors and cooking brings to people. You truly bring out the best in others and this no small feat in a world like ours since too few people use the avenues available to them to inspire others. I truly pray for you to find peace during this difficult moment and hope that you use this time to reflect on all the things you do have that maybe you need to see on a new light. You have amazing talent that enriches others, a great partner (who seems like a great photographer!), other pets, and the sun will set on this virus and the outdoors will beckon again.

  17. Hey, Hank;

    First, God Bless Ragnar, may he cross the “Rainbow Bridge” with STYLE and APLOMB, due to your family’s LOVE!

    Lost a beauty of my own, a year and a half ago. Know what you are feeling…

    Wanted you to know that I love your site, have referred it to friends, and others.

    THANK YOU, for all you do for us, your readers!

    God Bless, Ragnar!