Sauce, Not Gravy!
by Rebecca Snetselaar, Folklife Specialist, Nevada Arts Council, 2019
Foodways are one of the easiest kinds of folklife to find. Recipes that families brought with them when they came to the United States are treasured and passed down through generations. They may have secret ingredients (not to be shared outside the family). Some evolve over time, adapted to changing tastes, the availability of ingredients, and the creative impulses of a new generation of cooks.
The Eldorado’s annual Great Italian Festival in Reno includes a friendly competition that invites families in Nevada and neighboring California to share a family recipe for Italian sauce. This year (the 38th annual) there were about two dozen families, each manning a booth emblazoned with the family name and the region of Italy they were representing. Some families have been participating for decades.
Contestants provide their shopping lists in advance, and the Eldorado delivers the requested ingredients to the family booths on Fourth Street. Then the cooking begins: chopping, sautéing, stirring, seasoning, tasting. It’s a family affair, with all ages taking hand in the work. Family and friends continue to arrive from near and far, greeting each other warmly, catching up on each other’s lives.
“We tried to get grandma’s recipe but we could never get her to write it down,” one contestant told me. “And she never measured anything: a handful of this, a pinch of that, a little less, like this.” So, the family weighed all the ingredients before she started cooking, and then weighed them again after her sauce was done, in hopes of being able to replicate the mouth-watering results she invariably achieved.
By noon the sauces are cooked and the servers are poised behind their pots, with ladles at the ready. The Eldorado provides the pasta. A $5 bill buys four generous scoops in a foil muffin tin. Then the tasting begins. E’ favoloso, e’ fantastico! Molto Italiano! Lines snake through the crowd as people queue up for their favorite, or to try something new.
Meanwhile, behind the booths, families and friends gather to feast privately on special treats prepared just for them: I saw antipasto and caprese, zeppole and cornettos, prosciutto and soppressata, tiramisù and panna cotta… How many Italian words do Americans use to describe food? Quite a few! And wine, to wash the food down and toast the cooks. Salute!
Grazie mille to the Eldorado Resorts’ Carano family for supporting this community event in downtown Reno for nearly 40 years (first held in 1980), and to the families who participate. To see more photos from my foray to the 2019 Eldorado Great Italian Festival Sauce Cook-Off, visit the Nevada Folklife Archives on Flickr.
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