Mmmmm…my whole house smells like the best meal you’ve every had at your Nonnie’s house. Some friends are coming over for dinner tonight, and I’m making macaroni and gravy. Not pasta and sauce, mind you. That’s an entirely different thing.
See the difference?
In my Southern Italian, Northern NJ world, macaroni was macaroni. There was no “pasta” when I was growing up. I’ve since come to define the difference as such: macaroni is the dried product, while pasta is the thing you find in the refrigerator case, or make fresh. The internet disagrees with me. It says pasta is the dough, and what you make out of it comes in many shapes and sizes, and they’re all called pasta. It also tells me that macaroni is a particular shape–the elbow kind usually found in macaroni and cheese. Tell this to my Grandma Grace, or my Nonnie. They’d look at you like you had spaghetti growing out of your ears, hit you with the wooden spoon, and tell you to put the water on. As it is, they can only roll over in their graves.
In my Southern Italian, Northern NJ world, gravy has meat in it. It cooks for hours and hours and hours. Low and slow. You use regular olive oil, canned tomatoes, and dried herbs (oregano, basil, garlic) because fresh would never hold up. You need the kind that will lovingly, languidly give up all those essential oils. Fresh herbs would lose all their flavor long before the meat became fall-apart tender. Garlic can go bitter. After letting it barely simmer for three, four hours, you add a bit of red wine, a knot or two of butter, let it simmer another fifteen minutes and take it off the heat to spend the next couple of hours melding all that deliciousness into the zesty, hearty, unbutton your pants because you’re definitely having seconds dinner later on.
In my Southern Italian, Northern NJ world, sauce* is typically made with all fresh ingredients, because you’re not cooking it for more than half an hour. Sauce is lighter, more delicate, and loves to slather itself all over clams, shrimp, scallops. It likes vermouth or white wine better than red, and extra virgin olive oil better than the regular kind, or butter. Though, lets be honest, there’s really nothing on the planet butter can’t make better. In this kind of sauce, you can add a little lemon to impart that acidic zing, a zing you’d never notice in gravy’s ponderous deliciousness.
Sauce is far more versatile. It’s a better vehicle for creativity. It allows other ingredients to shine, while keeping the starring role. “Oh, wow,” you’ll hear. “Are those capers? Do I taste fennel?”
Gravy is a powerhouse. It shares the limelight with no one. It’s that thing you long for on cold winter nights, or after a long day doing yard work. No one is going to remark on all the layers of flavor, or your subtle use of thyme. There will be a lot of grunting, plate licking, and bread dipping, though.
I’m aware that my Southern Italian, Northern NJ versions of gravy and sauce aren’t everyone’s, but I am curious to know what yours is, if you care to share.
*Sauce doesn’t have to be tomato based, but this is the one I’m talking about.