Placemats and grace: My grandma’s pasta sauce

I could go on for chapters about how amazing my Grandma Eunie is. I’ll try to keep it brief.

strawberry pickingWhen my grandma was a girl, she farmed alongside her dad, mother, brother, and sisters. When the snow was too deep for a horse or the car, she used cross-country skis to get to school. Jeans were what you wore to the barn, she said. Not to town.

During World War II, she inspected inner tubes for tires on a hot conveyor belt in a Minnesota factory. After the war, they hired two men to replace her. (I wrote a paper on this in college; original source material.)

She went off to Colorado to college on her own. She met my grandpa on a camping trip with college friends in Washington state.

She raised five children and then after the youngest ones (twins, 11 years older than me) were grown, she got her real estate license and embarked on a very successful career. (Women who are considering leaning in, picture this: she bought herself a ring with three empty settings and wore it that way. With every self-imposed sales goal she met, she bought herself a diamond. She showed me this when I was a girl and some were empty; she still wears it and I’ll never forget it.)

My grandma is retired now, but retired is a term I use loosely, since she is a connected, active leader in her church and with two national ministries. She consciously makes friends with people younger than herself to keep connected and busy. She travels, writes, Googles, reads, Facebooks. This summer, she’ll turn 87.

She’s pretty much a rock star.

She’s also the absolute bomb as a grandma. When I was born (I’m the oldest grandchild), she had grade-schoolers at home. But I remember playing with her. Really playing, as in grandma down on the floor, making dolls and stuffed animals say and do things. Building with blocks. Digging holes. Finding rocks and shells. Taking hikes. Teaching us games. Picking raspberries in the woods. Taking us to the pool and actually swimming, not sitting in a lounge chair.

Thirty-some-odd years later, she does the same with my sons. She plays way better than I do.

game timeNoah learns to play “back up three” with Grandma Eunie and Uncle Dylan.

A couple of memories are relevant to this recipe, and then I’ll save the rest for a few dozen more posts about how amazing Eunice Minerva Stumpf Thorson is.

First: When I was a child we always went to their house in Fargo for Christmas Eve. For many years, my grandma would research a different culture’s Christmas traditions and then we would eat, play, and decorate accordingly. So I have memories of wooden shoes for Sinterklaas, acting out Las Posadas with my Uncle Scott (something about youngest son and oldest granddaughter? Why were we paired?), a dinner table set with Swedish flags. I couldn’t have been very old, but I did seem to realize how cool this was.

Second: When my son Owen was born 9 weeks premature and weighing only 1 lb. 15 oz, we weren’t at home. We were at the lake in Park Rapids, and I took an ambulance ride to Fargo, where he was born and stayed in the NICU until he was stable enough for the air ambulance trip home. After I was discharged from the hospital, Scott and I stayed with my grandparents. There’s absolutely no better place I could have been. Quiet, safe, loving. Zero pressure. And fed. Really well fed.

Which brings me to this recipe, almost.

One thing I love about eating my grandma’s is that the table is always set, for an ordinary dinner, not just holidays. And I mean set, like you learned in home ec. Placemats or tablecloth, napkins, water pitcher, and the meal served family-style out of serving dishes. The meal is always several components: bread, vegetable, salad, fruit, main dish, or two main dishes, one meat and one starch. Sometimes candles or a centerpiece. Always with grace, said and unsaid.

I have this vision that that’s how their family of seven ate every night for the 25 years they raised their kids. Maybe they didn’t, but it seems to be such a reflexive habit of my grandma’s that I would believe it. And that’s how it was, every single night we stayed with them in Fargo. We were so exhausted, so scared, so numb, so overwhelmed — what better way to love us than a pot roast and cake, served on real dishes with pretty napkins and grace.

You’re with me that my grandma’s the bomb now, right?

A few weeks ago my family stayed in Fargo/Moorhead for a couple days, for our annual spring visit to my grandparents. And she made us dinner, of course, with flowers, tablecloth, pink napkins, fruit salad, bread, and this pasta sauce, a new recipe she saw in the paper and wanted to try. (The other night we were there they took us to their favorite Chinese buffet, where my grandpa eats dessert first and Noah naturally followed suit. Rock stars.)

This sauce is delicious — I had seconds and then a little more — and it’s simmering away in my crock pot right now. If you make it, set your table and serve family style. Say grace, in whatever way works for you. You will feel loved. And possibly like a rock star.

Grandma Eunie’s Pasta Sauce

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground beef (I used ground turkey, but make sure it is not ground turkey breast; you need some dark meat)
1/2 lb. Italian-seasoned chicken sausage (I could not find this bulk, so I crumbled a couple links; if you like pork sausage I’m sure that would taste awesome)
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled
2 medium onions, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 medium zucchini, cut in half moon slices
2 14.5 oz. cans fire roasted tomatoes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 14.5 oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 cup capers
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

Brown the meats in the olive oil, then add the whole cloves of garlic and cook for a couple more minutes. Put the chopped onions and carrots in the slow cooker, then add the meat and garlic, then the zucchini, tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, capers, and spices. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Serve with a hearty noodle, like penne rigate or rigatoni.

bill and eunice at the beach

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  1. Carolyn says:

    I love this story, Jen. And I love how you love your grandparents! I know–they’re pretty darn easy to love, but writing such a tribute as this is a real gift to them! I, too, love and admire Eunie and Bill. How can you not??