Domestic Goddess

By Paige Cokos Rienzo ’97 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
Some of the reddish-greenish-blackish blobs were simmering; the rest were eyeing me disapprovingly. Garlic, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and ground beef—what should be an olfactory sonata was more like fifth-grade band practice. This was a pitiful excuse for meat sauce. I called my grandmother. She answered in a deep, expectant, “Hullo?”

“Hi, Grandma—it’s Paige!”


“Grandma, my sauce isn’t turning out—it has no flavor, it’s too tomatoey …”

“O-kaay …” she said, gravely, “how much ground chuck did you use? And how much sausage?”

I have never bought sausage in my life. Perhaps by ground chuck she meant ground beef, the way Fridgidaire means refrigerator. And yet I am sure it’s not the same as the “99% Fat-Free Ground Beef from Organic Flower-Fed Cows” purchased at my uppity market of all things not grandmotherly.

“You need the chuck with plenty of white marbling, and real Italian sausage…”

“Gotta have the fat!” my grandfather hollered in the background, assuming that she, as well as fat, needed support.

If she only knew it was the uniform fuchsia flesh that had seduced me in the first place. I came into focus as she was urging me, “… let it simmer, uncovered, for a few hours … never mind what your mother says about leaving things on the stove—”

My grandmother is eager to usher me into her domestic empire. She’s got her work cut out for her, as our sauces illustrate. Mine was all new-fangled, low-fat, impatient winging-it. Hers is legend; refined over a lifetime of stoves, where patience and authenticity always trump calorie counting.

Before hanging up, I came clean. Against her better judgment, my grandmother instructed me to add a little sugar, bouillon, and dried garlic. My sauce could at least pass.

Grandma’s tomato sauce and lullabies were magical, her pies the kind men dreamt about between Christmases. Her way was to soothe and pacify a crying baby, a hungry family, or a holiday table, where mouths were no doubt better served savoring apple pie à la mode than talking politics. I can almost hear her inspiration: Fill their mouths with pie and I don’t have to hear about how everyone is a Republican these days.

Being a wife and mother nourished my grandmother. Now those roles are more or less dormant. I see her uncomfortable with the medicines and regimens that have crept in and taken the place of sauce-stirring and baby-calming. What to do when there are no clothes to make, no fussy babies, no need for a two-gallon tub of homemade sauce in the freezer, just in case?

As I contrast her life to mine, I sometimes wonder what time, if any, she gave herself and her dreams. I’ve been encouraged my whole life to pursue my dreams—ever reminded that women before me lacked the opportunities I have. When I imagine a life lived behind a stove, sewing machine, or ironing board—a life dedicated to caring for others—I think: Is that what I went to Brown for? This puzzles me until I am in my grandmother’s presence.

Now that babies and hungry crowds no longer dominate Grandma’s life, I watch her wrestle to pull them back. She relishes the chance to share her knowledge, knowing better than I the satisfaction that nurturing others with good homemade things can bring. I realize, as I see her look wistfully at her dusty sewing machine in the closet, her recipe book on the top shelf of the cabinet, or the pots that mostly see boiled water these days, that perhaps she was living her dream and the only opportunity she wishes she had is to live it again.

Paige Cokos Rienzo lives in Washington, D.C., and writes the “Married Life” column for
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January / February 2004