Under the Broom Tree: Food, Cooking & Carmelite Spirituality–Sunday Gravy


sammy.WEBgraphic400x223“You should’ve been a chef, not a priest!” my father once said to me. Though he was joking, I now believe the comment was only partially in jest. Growing up in my large, extended Italian family, food—both the preparation and the consumption of it—was central to our lives. After entering religious life, my formation as a Carmelite was paralleled by my growing love for food and cooking. I didn’t realize it until later in life, but there was a lot of overlap between the role that food and gathering around the table played in our family life and my vocation as a Carmelite priest.

Family meals were where we gathered together weekly and (hopefully) laid down our differences. It was where we laughed, shared and celebrated with each other while nourishing ourselves for the week ahead.

Before I discovered the kitchen, my family life revolved around the dinner table. Here I am at a Sunday dinner (age 3) sitting on my mother's lap, flanked by my aunts and grandmother.

Before I discovered the kitchen, my family life revolved around the dinner table. Here I am at a Sunday dinner (age 3) sitting on my mother’s lap, flanked by my aunts and grandmother.

Though it may not have always been spoken, love was evident in every aspect of our Sunday dinners in Jersey. The food was prepared with everyone in mind. The way it was served—with the patriarch, my grandfather, served last—reflected the deep sense of responsibility for the family that permeated our ethos as a family. But most importantly—though we certainly weren’t well off—like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, there always seemed to be an abundance at our meals.

In their own way, our family gatherings had much the same sacramental feeling as the Eucharistic meal I preside over on the altar. Both are real and nourishing but in very different ways.

For Carmelites the notion of being fed for life’s journey is a deep part of our tradition dating back to Elijah in the Old Testament.

Like Elijah, we are called to trust that God will provide for us… It is in that spirit, that I want to share some of the stories, recipes and memories that continue to sustain me during my own journey.
Elijah lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. 1 Kings 19: 5-8

Like Elijah, we are called to trust that God will provide for us and that we will be sustained through the joys and struggles of our lives. It is in that spirit, that I want to share some of the stories, recipes and memories that continue to sustain me during my own journey. My hope is that by sharing some of these reflections readers will not simply have some good recipes to consider trying but that they will offer to share some of their own stories, recipes etc that have nourished them.

This week I want to share the story of my family’s Sunday gravy.
sauce.stoveWhile most kids rose to the smell of bacon and eggs on lazy weekends, the aroma that drew us out of the warmth of our beds on Sunday mornings was my family’s Sunday gray. With my mother at the stove in the early morning hours, sautéed garlic and onion wafted through the hallway of our small apartment in Jersey and the richness of tomato permeated every room, sparking the anticipation of the feast to come later that night.

Sundays were a family day. If you left the house at all, you were going to another family member’s, where Sunday gravy, inevitably, was on the stove there too. We started off the day with mass, then came home and played, waiting for my uncle to read the Sunday comics to my brother, sister, and I, and sneaking dips of Italian bread into the simmering sauce throughout the afternoon.

Passed down through my family over generations, Sunday gravy always fills me with the warmth of tradition whenever I stand at the stove to begin the preparation process. mannicottix200Everyone in my family has their own variation of the signature sauce, and I always encourage others to get creative. My family could not always afford meat, so my grandmother added a large, white, peeled potato to help thicken the sauce. When the pasta was finally served in the evening, my grandfather always received the coveted potato, now infused with the gravy’s medley of flavors.

Over my years as a priest, I’ve been able to see the Eucharistic connection with my family’s staple sauce, the food that never failed to gather us together in community. We sensed it was something we wanted to be a part of – something sustaining and wonderful. Just like the rich smells of gravy brought us out of our beds and into the kitchen, the Eucharist touches our senses, drawing us out of our sleepiness to the table, where the ultimate banquet awaits.

We welcome your comments, recipes and reflections below.

Fr. Sam’s Sunday Gravy

Sunday gravy always fills me with the warmth of tradition whenever I stand at the stove to begin the preparation process. Everyone in my family has their own variation of the signature sauce, and I always encourage others to get creative.

red-sauce

Ingredients

  • ½ c olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 29oz. cans tomato puree
  • Salt to taste
  • Italian seasoning to taste
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 6oz. cans tomato paste
  • Basil to taste
  • Pepper to taste
  • 1 stick cinnamon (or sub ¼ tsp ground cinnamon)
  • 1 tbs sugar

Directions

  1. Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat until onion is translucent. Add tomato paste to onion and garlic. Add 6 tomato paste cans of water. Allow this to cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often. Add 2 cans tomato puree and 1 ½ cans water using the tomato puree can. Mix well. Add the remaining ingredients. Reduce heat and allow the sauce to cook slowly for about 1½ hours. For a thicker sauce, place a large, peeled potato in the sauce while it’s cooking. Serve over pasta.
  2. For meat sauce: Sausage, meatballs, spareribs or pork all work well. Brown the meat, add 1 cup of wine (never cooking wine, always something you’d want to drink!) and finish cooking in the gravy on low heat for several hours until the meat is cooked through.
Fr. Sam Citero with Jennifer Sawyer
Fr. Sam Citero with Jennifer Sawyer
Fr. Sam Citero O.Carm. is the pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux parish in Cresskill, NJ. Prior to coming to St. Therese's he was the vocations director for the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary (PCM) of the Order of Carmelites.Jennifer Sawyer is a writer, producer, and culinary enthusiast. Some of her credits include "The Martha Stewart Show," "Martha's Cooking School" and BustedHalo.com. She is a graduate of Fordham University and lives in New York City.

9 Comments

  1. Lois Ann Lachtara

    Fr, You make all this sound so appealing! Being of Danish, Polish and French descent, we had our own traditions and foods. However, I was raised in an Italian neighborhood. You bring back so many wonderful memories of all those Italian kitchens and the fantastic scents coming from them. I recall our own family dinners at Grandma and Grandpas’ house. Somehow, in todays society, we have lost that gathering as family. It does happen in Church but I really wish we could somehow return to that wonderful connection we had as family on Sunday. God bless you, Father for bringing back such sweet memories!

  2. mammyb@optonline.net

    Padre, I want your autograph, you are becoming a star.I know just what you are talking about, I am waiting for the gravy to cook as we speak. “The Cooking Padre” you are famous for being a great pastor and now for being a great cook. Now, I’m going to real nervous when you or Mom and Pop come over for dinner. I am sure, I can’t hold a candle to your cooking, but you know I will try my best. I think we can join forces and publish a cookbook, and I am going to get you on the Chew show. Maybe we can start a food network show. Fr. Pat can watch the house while the tv show is being filmed.

    We are honored to know and love you.

    Edo and Maryann
    mammyb@optonline.net

  3. Elizabeth Jarvis

    I just “happened” on this blog…… thank you. I have to tell you this is an affirmation- a blessing- to me. I just “e-published” a story (fiction-Summer of ’68) that I wanted to mirror our Czech culture with the meal as the center of family life…

  4. Lou Bivona

    I have had the pleasure of Frying it up with Father Sam and it is a treat that we should all cherish. However, reading Fathers words and those of Lois and Elizabeth makes one think of the great traditions we have lost in our culture of Sunday dinner with our Grand parents. It was the glue that kept us all on the straight and narrow, it was the push to stay in school and get a good job. It was learning how and who to respect. It was learning manners and our faith that kept us all together. It made you want to be good. God forbid if you were not there because sure as the day is long you were the topic of dinner conversation! LOL!
    While I’m writing down these thoughts I can hear at the same time the TV in the background go on and on about gun control laws and mental health. Yet at the same time not one word about what is truly missing in our culture that has precipitated these ugly acts against one another. I say it is as simple as going back to breaking bread on Sunday that will help keep us all safe in our communities. It was a family culture, not just yours but also those that Lois talked about, the whole neighborhood! Everyone had to look out for one another. Where has that Sunday dinner gone?? Where is the core values that we all need to build a healthy community around? I believe this is where we have to focus our energy, in building character in our young people. It is not the governments responsibilities but the faith community who will lead the way and who better than Father Sam to create the right recipe for Saint Therese’s. Food is the great equalizer and while a lot of our children have moved away after high school or college we still need to keep a part of the old traditions for them and their children. But I say let’s start new traditions with in our faith community. Perhaps we invite our neighbors for Sunday dine a rounds.

    So Father when are you cooking a Sunday Pasta dinner for St Therese?

  5. Eileen Garcia

    Hello Fr,
    I found your blog through the Carmelite Review. I am a lay carmelite living in Tampa, Fl and I love to cook!. Finding a site that combines Carmelite sprirtuality and cooking is great joy to me and another example of how much God loves us!
    In Carmel!!

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