"Best sauce ever this year, Mr. Quinn!"
Huh? I was running up the stairwell at St. Agatha's School on Monday with my 4th grade daughter trying to beat the second bell. A mom was at the bottom of the stairwell waving at me with enthusiasm generally reserved for your own child's send off.
"It was really, REALLY good this year, thank you SO MUCH!!!" Her grin was now beyond her jawline, cheeks pinching her eyes, all 32 teeth present, still waving like she was signaling an aircraft for rescue.
"Umm, thanks and uh...thanks for coming! " I puffed at the top, rushing to Mrs. Johnson's classroom door. We made it.
Three of us 'made it' on Saturday, too: 150 lbs of Italian sausage and 20 gallons of Tomato Sauce with toasted fennel and balsamic vinegar. All created by a chef of Irish heritage, a naturopath from Santa Cruz and a guy named Dominic from the Phillipines for our annual Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinner held on the third Sunday of each October.
Funny, as we become more 'convenienced' as a culture, we have less time to give to one another. Years ago, we'd have 10 or 12 guys in the kitchen, drinking wine and eating fresh sausage at 11:00 in the morning. Times change and, I suppose, we deal.
The lads arrived as scheduled and we assigned tasks; the first thing to do was to cut up the mire poix, the veggies for the sauce. Pat and Dom set up their cutting boards and began dicing onions, celery and carrots while conversation began...
..."So, BQ, whaddya been up to? How's the fam? Do anything fun this summer?" Patrick asked. The guy is a workhorse and has lent his hands to many projects in the kitchen for the few years they have been at the school. His wife, also a naturopath, is an organizing machine at the annual school auction.
"Well, the highlight I guess, was that my college-bound son Brendan and I did a complete tear off of our roof and re-shingled in a week. That was a bee-otch in 85-90 degree weather. Good thing was I lost 8 pounds in 7 days! Told Brendan it was part of a family duty to assist, but, I kicked him 5 Benjamins when we dropped him off at Oregon State in August. Shoulda seen his smile!
We hired a couple amigos from the day labor pool for the tear off which was the toughest part. Brendan swears he'll never do that again..."
"Oh, sweeeet dude..." he laughed, "Dominic, how 'bout you? Anything fun this summer?"
Dom is a quiet guy, early 30s and all business. I see him at drop off in the morning with his kids and the man is always dressed to the nines; even has those dress shoes that kinda turn up at the toe. Shirt and tie, suit or sport coat, not a hair outta place.
"We took the kids to Disneyland...." he stated and continued dicing, head down and focused, "Brian, is this the right size for dice?" he asked.
"Perfect," I confirmed.
We waited for follow-up details, but, none were forthcoming. He wasn't angry or sad, he just doesn't say alot.
"Pat, how 'bout you...anything special?" Younger parents live much more adventuresome lives and I knew there was a story waiting to be told...
"Dude! I went on a SURF trip to indo-NESIA!" he beamed, "been saving for a long time and Leanne said it was time for me to do it, so, I met a buddy in Sinapore and we just traaaa-vuhlled, ate a-MAZ-ing food and surfed all these spots I've dreeeeamed of..." Patrick's 'surf-speak' accent really comes out when he's talking about waves and breaks.
"Shut-the-front-door!" I exclaimed, "that musta been a helluva trip!?"
Pat went on to describe his dude-venture when Dominic chimed in,
"I like Indonesia...been there a few times. Very orderly..."
His family are all in the Philippines and suddenly, he and Patrick are exchanging impressions of shared places, food and weather of the South Pacific...mostly food.
"Brian, you kinda pissed off my wife that time," Dom offered looking up from his diced celery, "you know when she said she would make lumpia for you and then she didn't see you at drop off for a week..."
Ohhh, busted. The Student becomes the Master...Ethel's Lumpia (little fried egg rolls) are delicious and to be offered a dozen from the family coffers is a great honor, as any Philipina woman worth her fish sauce keeps her freezer stocked at all times.
"Yeah, ummm...seemed like I was in and out all week and our paths never crossed. They didn't go bad, did they?"
Dominic looked up from his cutting board, grinned and an confirmed that lumpia never go bad; they get eaten.
Pat started bustin' up, "Dude, he's breakin' your cajones! Nice to see you took it seriously and twisted in the wind...Hah-HAH!" The boys fist bumped from across the table, grinning and nodding.
Good to see the lads having a laugh at my expense, keeps things on an even keel.
I had the meat cut into strips within the next 30 minutes, spices measured and casings rinsed. The guys were saute'ing veggies in bacon fat and adding the minced garlic, commenting on doneness and asking when to add the tomatoes. Once tomatoes were added, we reduced the flame to medium and diverted our attention to sausage stuffing.
"So, what ex-ACTLY are the casings, Brian," Patrick asked. When you tell people 'hog intestines' they have two very distinct reactions; one is revulsion, the other kind of matter-of-fact. Pat wasn't phased and just said, "Sweeeeeet! It's like everything gets used..."
"In the Philippines, they say you must use everything on a pig but the 'Oink'. Only we don't say 'Oink.'"
The boys watched me do the first batch, explaining the finer points of running a commercial meat grinder and passing the mixture back through in the casing attachment. Of course, Quality Control is exercised at every critical point (when we're hungry); Pat and Dom were impressed with our efforts and a quick rinse of red wine confirmed our good spirits.
"Duuuude! This is SO a-MAZ-ing!" Patrick said, "and it's SO easy to do!" (fist bump).
"Meatloaf in a tube..." I replied, "if you can make meatloaf, you can make sausage."
The guys proceeded to knock out 100 lbs of cased Italian sausage, stirring 20 gallons of sauce while I did a clean-up and organized for the following day. This was kinda nice, actually; having the students run the show and my being able to step back in a supporting role.
"So, Brian, we can't be here tomorrow for service but, I hope we did OK in helping out..." Pat stated as we wiped down counters and put chef knives away, "it's always fun to work with you in the kitchen...I learn things..."
"Right!" I said, "I learned that 3 guys who are focused can do more than 10 men wandering around. This was GREAT today! We're ready for 300 guests tomorrow."
"Ummm, Brian," Dominic queried, "what about the noodles? We didn't cook the noodles. There's 60 lbs stacked up in those boxes over there..."
"Shit!..." I murmured, "a minor detail...I'll tackle it early in the morning."
"Yeah," concluded Dominic, "kinda need spaghetti for the spaghetti dinner..."
Pat chuckled, Dominic smiled, they fist-bumped for the last time that day.
Take care, God bless and remember,
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"