[Dear classmates, I just want you all to know that I am SO sorry to be missing our final class. As I write this I’m in Virginia celebrating my father’s 85th birthday. While in a grocery store here I found a sale on whole Virginia Smithfield hams. I bought a 15 lb one and will be smuggling it home in my suitcase! Thanks to each of you for your kind support of my writing during this class. It has been a real pleasure to meet each of you and to savor your lives through your food memories. Please keep me on your lists and if there is ever a reunion of our Food/Writing group I’ll be there. With appreciation,
p.s. My assignment #4 was written on my flight east.]
Fifteen Quarts of Sauce
By Patricia Ryan Madson
The University of North Carolina was well known as a “party school” in 1965. Being invited down for a weekend date from Westhampton College, where I was a sophomore, was the nearest to heaven a girl could get. My date was a tall Sig Ep (Sigma Phi Epsilon member) and on Friday night of this October weekend a gang of us showed up at Al’s apartment off campus in Chapel Hill. Beer, boiler makers, vodka and orange juice, 7 and 7 and scotch whiskey were in abundance.
I’d volunteered to make dinner for the rowdy, horny brothers of the frat, and with a scotch and soda in hand I commenced to make a robust spaghetti sauce. I chopped a dozen onions (tearfully), ten green peppers, a bunch of celery and added all this to ten pounds of ground beef. A humongous pot of grayish meat and translucent veggies began to stew. Next came the long line of cans of tomatoy things: whole tomatoes, chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste. Fifteen cans in all. My fingers ached from the tiny, insufficient can opener which was the only implement available in this bachelor pad.
Things were smelling good. Now for the spices. I surveyed the narrow kitchen shelves and dark cupboards. Garlic salt—excellent! A half cup of that would be good. Some oregano—a fistful—pepper, salt, and mother’s secret—a heaping tablespoon of sugar. Stir well. It was smelling divine, and there was a LOT of it. I’d guess there was fifteen quarts of meat sauce on the simmer. Bright eyed frat boys, seduced by the smell, wandered in to steal a spoonful.
As I nursed my third mixed drink I was feeling on top of the world proudly stirring the huge kettle of Italian sauce. I tasted it, and it was pretty good; however, it lacked something—a distinctive taste. What could I add to make it memorable? Rummaging through the cupboards a last time I came upon a slightly rusting yellow tin of something: curry powder. How interesting. I’d never used it before. Upon examination it appeared to have a promising exotic taste. “That will do it,” I thought. So I dumped the curry powder into the steaming red mix. I didn’t measure it, but figured since it was a considerable volume of sauce I would need it all. I’m guessing now that there was nearly a cup of it.
What happened next is likely known already by any readers who understand the most basic mystery of curry . First, the aroma of the steaming mix began a dramatic change from its friendly, Italian smell of garlic and tomato, to something indescribable. The smell was complex, strong and exotic. “Wow, perhaps I have truly created a masterpiece,” I thought. And then I tasted it. The very first impression on my tongue was more strange than unpleasant. It was clearly not spaghetti sauce as I’d known it anymore. The curry had entirely wiped out all recognition of previous seasonings. There was no taste of onion or tomato or oregano—only this powerful new curry taste and the residue of the texture of the meat sauce. Moments later the curry’s mystery kicked in and a fiery weirdness overcame my palate. My eyes began to water, my nostrils gorged, my tongue burned and tingled with the foreign and overwhelming taste.
Water! I rushed to the sink for water. It had only a momentary ameliorating effect. The burning sensation, now approaching numbness continued unabated. I stirred the huge kettle of sauce, hoping against hope that I’d just gotten a “bad spoonful” somehow. The aroma intensified. Oh, no. I tried adding things to change the taste or dilute it: sugar, salt, some lemon. Absolutely nothing made the slightest effect on the triumphant curry assault. Curry wasn’t a spice, it was a nuclear weapon.
Frat brothers, drawn by the new smell, wandered into the kitchen. Praying that it was “only me,” and that my taste buds were somehow shot I watched hopefully as several of the guys grabbed a spoon to taste the brew. Each of them, to a man, had a similar reaction. His face screwed up into a grimace, eyes began to water, an expression of disgust and then an epithet such as: “Phew, . . . what IS that?, or other reactions that aren’t printable here.”
The Sig Eps drank well that night. The hard part was getting rid of the fifteen quarts of inedible sauce. I truly can’t remember how we disposed of it. I know we didn’t eat any of it. I felt so bad about the loss of all that food, not to mention my reputation as a cook. I think we ordered a half dozen pizzas at about 11:00 PM when we were all really starving.
It was over thirty years before I would try anything with the word curry in its title. If there is a “David” (of the David and Goliath story) of spices, then clearly curry powder is such a one. It is not a suitable flavoring for spaghetti sauce. Take my word.
Patricia Ryan Madson