In my family, shell spaghetti is a sacred meal. It’s not sacred because we put a lot of time or Grandma’s canned tomato sauce into it. It’s sacred because at some point in my youth, it became tradition that my dad would make his shell spaghetti whenever the family got together — including every Christmas Eve I can remember.
By “make” it, I mean he cooks two pounds of ground chuck — sans any spices — in a fry pan, pours in a jar of Chunky Ragu and then mixes it with over-cooked pasta shells. We top it all off with loads of Kraft Parmesan from a can. I always add gratuitous amounts of salt, pepper and the hottest spice I can find, which is not always easy because my step-mom is from Western Kansas and thinks black pepper is “too spicy.”
No, this sacred shell spaghetti is not really very good. In fact, one might even call it bad. But I love it. Because it’s tradition. And, as cheesy (or strangely preserved cheese product-y) as it sounds, it tastes like home.
My family’s most traditional meal might have begun in a more refined and flavorful manner if I’d had grandmothers who gardened and preserved. The closest thing I can remember is my mom’s mom making “raisin juice” in an old plastic peanut butter jar and then offering me some as we watched PBS from her twin bed, where she had a plastic tray covering her feet to block the TV’s radiation.
Alas, my culinary roots are firmly planted in the middle aisles of the grocery store. Preservatives are in my blood (not just metaphorically, I’m afraid) and gluten may very well be the glue that keeps my family together. But I’m not ashamed, and I’m sure as hell not too much of a snob to eat my dad’s sacred shell spaghetti. And lots of it. I always gladly eat a generous bowlful and usually go back for seconds (thirds in a more shameful and unattractive period of my life).
I’m sure as hell not too much of a snob to eat my dad’s sacred shell spaghetti.”
I am too much of a snob to actually make this dish for myself. But I made something similar that was nearly as easy.
Last night, when I had big, beautiful tomatoes to use and a rumblin’ in my belly, I made a new-and-improved version of shell spaghetti. I whipped up a quick red sauce with two large tomatoes, a small white onion, a clove of garlic and some basil, oregano, crushed red pepper, salt, black pepper and a little sugar. I cooked it down, mixed it with perfectly al dente quinoa pasta shells and topped it off with some probably-expired-but-not-yet-moldy “fresh” mozzarella. It was the perfect base for the too-much craft beer I proceeded to drink as the token female in a secret-but-not-so-secret beer club.
My dad would have hated it.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, I turned down the “raisin juice,” I won’t go anywhere near those shriveled, ugly-ass grapes and I have not had my radiation levels checked.