The first dinner party I ever threw in my life was a disaster.
Early in my nineteen-year-old, away-from-home-for-the-first-time epoch, my girlfriend, Dianne, and I shared a small apartment in a funky West End house in Vancouver.
It had an equally funky wooden plaque over the front porch: "El Rancho" it said, along with an illustration of a cowboy riding a bronco. Our place wasn't a far stretch from a ranch hand's bunk, and enjoying our newfound freedom, we felt like cowboys riding bareback. That included inviting pals over for a wild party.
I'll make spaghetti, I said. No big deal — I'd watched my mom throw some sauce together (or that's how it looked), boil up a pot of spaghetti, and toss up a salad. Everyone loved it, and how hard could it be?
Flying sans recipe, and sans experience, I knew some kind of tinned tomato stuff was involved, so I got the biggest tin of Hunt's tomato sauce I could find (no such thing as pre-seasoned sauce). Plus I recognized those tiny tins of tomato paste, so I grabbed a couple too.
Once home, they all got dumped into a big pot, along with some minced onion. Honestly, it must have been, like, two tablespoons; after all, mom had warned, don't use too much onion.
I think Dianne added garlic, since she was half French-Canadian and knew about such things. And oregano was Italian-ish, so in went some of that, along with a sprinkle — note the word "sprinkle" — of salt and pepper.
By now our spaghetti sauce had a few dark flecks floating in it, which looked pretty good, and a few whitish ones. It was kind of thick-looking, though, so we added water. Since all the tomato stuff looked pretty cooked, we simply warmed it all up, and not very long at that.
Lord knows why we never thought of tasting it before serving, but we didn't. So, if you can, picture eating what amounted to watery tinned tomato sauce slathered over starchy spaghetti noodles. Who knew you needed more than a quart of water to boil a whole package in?
After such a gross disaster saved only by way too much Ruffino Chianti — the favourite cheap-o wine of 70s beats/bohos/hipsters because it came in a bottle in a basket that made for great candle holders — I became a little more circumspect with my cooking.
I asked my mom for her recipe for spaghetti sauce, one she happily wrote out onto a recipe card, now much tattered and stained. It was from my uncle, who really is Italian. I remember being shocked at how many ingredients went into such a seemingly simply thing, and at how long you were supposed to simmer it to pull out all the flavours.