"This would be great if you added some vegetables. Also, cheddar is a little strong, what if we used parmesan instead?"
I stared at my new boyfriend in horror.
It was early in our courtship and I'd never cooked for a man, or anyone, really, other than myself. My new boyfriend was confident in the kitchen—his mother had put him on the counter to observe and assist from the time he was a small child. I marveled at the ease with which he sorted ingredients and chopped vegetables, and I vowed to be as confident, but I knew only a few recipes.
My first offering was a dish my family called "baked spaghetti." Baked spaghetti consists of four ingredients:
Two large cans Hunt's tomato sauce
One hunk extra sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
One package spaghetti
This is the recipe:
Line casserole dish with butter.
Layer three times in this order: spaghetti, cheese, tomato sauce, scattered pats of butter.
Invert the cheese and sauce in the last layer, so the top will crisp.
Bake at 400 degrees until the top and sides are dark brown and crispy enough to be difficult to cut.
Serve piping hot.
Consume greedily, refrigerate remainder and eat it cold for breakfast the next day.
Take some wrapped in aluminum foil in bagged school lunch.
Beg mother to make it again soon.
Flashback to 1945: In a classic six on the East Side of New York City, a grandmother lived with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Her name was Frances Wolfe, but her granddaughter, my mother, called her "Mooca"—nobody knows why. Mooca had been born in the midst of a record-breaking blizzard.
She married my great grandfather after a slow courtship. Theirs had been a true love affair. Mooca told my mother that her future husband had waited months to touch her in any way, and then one day, while the two were seated on a park bench, he wrapped his arm around her. They sat in companionable silence. When they got up an hour later, she noticed his hand was swollen and purple.
"Arthur, what happened to your hand?" she asked.
"A bee stung me, but I was so happy to have my arm around you that I ignored it," he replied.
He had said he felt "a little ill" on the night of their wedding anniversary and he would make it up to her the following week. He died a few days later, in late 1918, of influenza. Frances went on to be an insurance saleswoman, and she moved in with her daughter upon retirement, to help raise the children, in the 1940s. Frances Wolfe lit a candle every Friday for her husband.
Her baked spaghetti was a Depression-era recipe; it was cobbled together from cheap ingredients and meant to last for many meals. Frances helped run the house so my grandparents could work full time. She prepared the family meals, got the children dressed for school, sewed my mother's skating costumes—my mother regularly performed at Rockefeller Plaza by the time she was 8—and provided counsel for my lonely mother.
And it's for these reasons that Frances Wolfe's recipe for baked spaghetti is non-negotiable.
I informed my boyfriend in 2005 that no one would be adding vegetables or fiddling with the type of cheese or—worse yet—taking the noodles out of the oven early to avoid "too much browning," as he had suggested. He hasn't objected since.
We are now married nine years. In 2017, our daughter sits on the counter and helps me layer the wet noodles, spreading them carefully with her fingers, distributing the tomato sauce and grated cheese evenly across the tangles of spaghetti. She never saw the sunny little kitchen overlooking Third Avenue in which Mooca cooked, nor does she know what her own grandmother, who made this dish for me countless times, is really like, because a hemorrhagic stroke replaced my mother with a fragile, dementia-addled lost soul a few years before my daughter's birth. My child and I sit and sort the wet noodles, as though they were strands of my family's DNA.
I mentioned baked spaghetti in a Facebook post not too long ago, and was stunned when a friend commented that she'd seen a segment about it on a morning chat show.
"Is that what they called it, though?" I asked, shattered that this was not a dish invented almost 100 years ago by my great grandmother.
"Yes! Baked spaghetti!"
It turns out that baked spaghetti has many recipes, although I have not seen one that limits the dish to four ingredients, with an insistence on extra sharp cheddar and deep browning. Baked spaghetti recipes resemble those for lasagna, with the addition of ground beef and vegetables, and the use of parmesan or mozzarella as the primary cheese.
Baked spaghetti is essentially a casserole. Macaroni and cheese is the casserole's earliest incarnation, with a recipe recorded in Latin as far back as the 13th century. Thomas Jefferson brought the recipe, along with a pasta machine, to the United States after a stay in Italy in the late 1700s. Parmesan was likely the first cheese used in casseroles, to be replaced with cheddar in later iterations. (Turns out my husband was onto something.)
It isn't easy to accept that a dish does not belong to your family. I am territorial because baked spaghetti is to my mind an historical document, and a tasty one at that. It is a tradition, and tradition is to a family kitchen what a constitution is to a functioning government.
Because Frances Wolfe sewed Easter bonnets and skating costumes for my young mother in the 1940s, because she brushed her hair for school and taught her about romance and sex, because she was a young widow who became one of the first female salespeople for New York Life Insurance, her recipe for baked spaghetti must not be altered.
Because my mother made baked spaghetti for my sister and me, because we wrapped it in aluminum foil and packed it for school and salivated until lunchtime, the recipe for baked spaghetti must not be altered.
Because my mother has dementia and cannot remember baked spaghetti herself, nor her grandmother's name, nor mine on most days, the recipe for baked spaghetti must not be altered.
Because my kindergartner jumps up and down when she gets home from school to find our West Side apartment filled with the aroma of baked spaghetti browning in the oven, its recipe must not be altered.
My husband, the man who suggested altering the recipe so many years ago, takes the largest serving at dinner. Those spaghetti strands, like DNA, tie my spouse to my family's history. Our daughter's devotion to the dish will, I hope, translate to a sacred sense of custodial responsibility.