Getting down to what really matters – the roaster

Mark Derry

I’ve been thinking about this column ever since my father died in 1998 and my sister, brothers and I went through the house and made “our picks” of the things we wanted to keep.

Every Mother’s Day for many years it creeps into my consciousness. But I guess some column dishes take longer to marinate than others before they’re ready for public consumption. After 14 years I think I have the necessary ingredient: a seasoned perspective.

The theme I’ve known for some time. Here it is:  It’s a funny thing what ends up being  truly “valuable.”

In this case, it’s the Wagnerware roaster.

The all-purpose aluminum pot didn’t make my “picks” team until the bottom of the ninth inning as we went around the house making our choices. A framed photo here, a piece of furniture there, oh, there’s that signed Joe Montana print, and that knick knack that Uncle Jim gave mom, or the area rug that came from Nana’s house. On it went for hours.

There are a few things, like the matched trio of small, three-dimensional, delicately carved wood wildlife depictions that hung next to Dad’s desk which I admired since childhood, and still enjoy gazing at now. And the old family photos are indeed priceless, but nothing quite touches my heart like the Wagnerware roaster.

Who could have guessed?

It’s been 14 years since Dad left the earth, and an surprisingly fast 25 since Mom passed. She died far too young, but she cooked up a storm in that Wagnerware roaster that her kitchen-loving Italian parents, both wonderful cooks, gave her. What a smart gift.

It’s quite well seasoned – the cook’s vernacular for a pot that doesn’t ever get shiny clean, even after a good scrubbing – and it shows. And that just makes it more “valuable” in my eyes because every time I wash it, or Miss Jenny uses it to steam up some fresh artichokes or whip up a tasty baked chicken dinner, which she does regularly, I think of Mom. She used it so many times – not just to fill our bellies, but to fill our hearts and our home with the love that comes from the kitchen.

She cooked with a Mom’s touch, understanding that sitting down and eating together makes a real difference in family life. To butcher a Hunter Thompson quote, “Half of family life is just showing up at the dinner table.” And without Mom, the table would have been empty most nights. Never mind that on the rare occasion when the dish just didn’t turn out right, I’d sneak from my chair to the window and quickly pour the leftovers to my waiting and ever-faithful dog, Maverick. See how it works – Mom even made the dog happy.

Everyone makes mistakes, and Mom did in the kitchen now and then. Those mistakes, and the forgiveness she practiced, are a key ingredient that she stirred into her recipe for life, however, so that’s part of how the pot reminds me of all that she was and is.

It hits me every time the Wagnerware meets my eyes – the kitchen smells, the smile, the warm hug after the bike ride home from school, the cheery demeanor that brightened so many days, the happy “How ya be?” greeting, the standing on her tiptoes to hug me after I grew to 6 feet and she stayed at 5-foot-and-a-twinkle, the goodness in her heart that could just reach out and touch you …

People lit up when they talked about her. The pot brings it all back to me at first glance, sometimes in a boil that brings a mist to my eyes, other times in just a little whiff. But that pot just shouts “Mom loves you” every time, whether it’s steaming on the stovetop under Miss Jenny’s smiling watch or waiting to be put away on the counter. It’s a Momomatic reaction.

She would get a laugh out of the ad posted on eBay for the “Vintage Wagnerware Magnalite Aluminum Roaster 4267-M” that garnered 7 bids and sold for $47. Her witty sense of humor, and ability to poke fun at herself and others, could carry the day and jumpstart the conversation. You always wanted to talk to her and couldn’t wait to see her. It’s eerily similar to how people naturally react to my wife, Jenny, but I suppose, when I think about it, that’s really not surprising at all.

I bet there are some well-used Wagnerware roasters floating around in Gilroy kitchens, and I bet they’re still in use.

So, in my mother’s honor, I’m going to share a recipe. You may have to hunt around to find the ground veal. It’s a staple in many old Italian family recipes, but in these days of microwave this and pop-the-pot-pie-in-the-oven that, it’s not an everyday item.

The sauce takes time, so make it on a lazy Sunday, and get your family – especially the kids – to help with the prep. Make extra, can it in glass and put it in the freezer.

Your house will fill with the aromas of a mother’s love. It’s Mom’s magic, and it’s meant to be enjoyed with family and friends in a relaxed atmosphere around the table. It’s a good thing to have fond memories, just as it’s a good thing to eat Spaghetti Bolognese just like Mom, and grandma, made. Mom, I miss ya, but I have the Wagnerware pot, we’re using it, the spaghetti is still great thanks to Miss Jenny who has the recipe down to a tee, and I wish you were here to hug your two great grandchildren, Jackson and Tyler. No worries, though, we’ll teach them how to make the spaghetti sauce, and about why the Wagnerware pot matters.

Editor’s note: The recipe for the spaghetti sauce is a bit long, so the best place for it is online, alongside this column. You’ll find it there Friday afternoon. Go to Opinion in the blue navigation bar at, hover down to Mark Derry and click. Mangia and Happy Mother’s Day.

Reach Editor Mark Derry at [email protected]

1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup butter
One large onion
1 cup of carrots, diced fine
1 cup of celery, diced fine
3 pounds of ground meat – 1 of beef, 1 of veal, 1 of pork
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups milk
2 28 ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 cups water if needed
~ Heat oil and butter until foamy
~ Add vegetables and sauté 10 minutes over medium heat
~ Add meat, cook until lightly browned, breaking into small pieces with wooden spoon (very importante!)
~ Add wine, cook until absorped
~ Add milk, cook until absorped
~ Add remaining ingredients. Simmer 2 1/2 hours, adding water as necessary. Consistency should be thick and soupy.
Enjoy over pasta. Great the next day. Make extra and freeze it. Taste test tip: A hunk of good sourdough bread.

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