“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.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 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.
While 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. Everyone 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.