The Culinary Saga of My Godmother’s Lasagna

Over five decades ago, in a kitchen I’ve only seen in my imagination, my young mother learned to make Italian food. With children crawling at their feet and babies on the way, best friends Mary G. and my mother stood side by side creating red sauce, meatballs, clam sauce, and lasagna; dishes that would have seemed so foreign to my meat-and-potato-raised mother from Maine. The scents, smells and stories of Mary’s large Italian family must have contrasted greatly to my mother’s own insular, small family life.

The ties that bound these two young mothers were so tight that my mother chose Mary to be my godmother. I like to think of my godmother and my mother sharing recipes and responsibilities, supporting each other through those difficult early months with new babies and dreaming of my future while layering lasagna noodles and stirring sauces. Although my mother lost touch with Mary, she never lost her recipe for lasagna or her desire to tell the story of those times in their neighboring kitchens.

I grew up in the days of disco, afros, and puka shells. The 1970s were also the days of casseroles with optimistic names, overcooked vegetables, and an energy crisis that kept families firmly at the kitchen table every night for dinner. My family was no exception: “sunshine” casserole, chicken supreme, hamburger soup, and molded Jell-O salads were standard fare in our neighborhood. In defense of my mother, she was a thoughtful cook: every meal included bread, a salad, and a home-baked dessert. She loved to prepare food and a great deal of care and love went into every meal. But it was the early seventies and there wasn’t much new happening in the kitchen. My godmother’s lasagna was a welcome and exotic change from the usual day-to-day meals.

Meatball for lasagna filling

This dish was not an easy one to pull together; it couldn’t be thrown into a crock-pot or hastily mixed together in a colorful, sunshiny CorningWare casserole and tossed in the oven. It took days to make proper lasagna. The smell and sight of the sauce reducing, the sausages frying on the stovetop, and the steam from the noodles being boiled drove me into a mouth-watering state of anticipation. No tuna casserole here; my mother was creating my godmother’s lasagna!

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

The secret was time: hours to simmer the tomato sauce before adding the hand-rolled meatballs, which had their turn in the now redolent gravy until cooked through. On another day, hot Italian sausages were thoroughly cooked and sliced, fresh mozzarella shaved, and ricotta mixed with eggs and Parmesan cheese. Large pots of rolling water held lasagna noodles, which, once soft, were laid out on sheets of aluminum foil to rest before being lovingly layered with the other ingredients. A foil roasting pan large enough for a Thanksgiving turkey was filled to the top with layers of pasta and cheese and finished with a healthy dollop of sauce. Into the oven the lasagna went for an hour of tantalizing, delicious baking. More sauce was made and the pre-cooked meatballs slipped into the reduced mixture. My godmother insisted that lasagna never be rushed. The joy of the dish was in its creation; it was in the time spent chopping, slicing, layering, inhaling the aromas, and—of course—nibbling.

Once the lasagna was out of the oven, it had miles to go before it was eaten. It was cooled, covered with fresh aluminum foil, and plunged into the depths of the refrigerator along with the second batch of sauce and meatballs. Here they sat for days, taunting me as the ingredients melded and the flavors gelled.

Waiting for the lasagna to be prepared, stored, reheated, and brought to the table seemed to be an eternity. In my young mind, it felt like years passed between that first day when the sauce was started until that last day when my mother would heave the aluminum pan out of the oven, proclaiming, “Can you believe it? A pound of sausage, a pound of mozzarella, a pound of ricotta, and a pound of noodles—come feel how heavy this is!” And then more waiting; the darn thing had to set. Set? Would we ever get to eat the lasagna?

Time passed, and it was my turn to make my godmother’s lasagna. The knowledge that her “authentic Italian lasagna” was actually an Italian-American hybrid in no way diminished my fondness for it. Oh, I tried to cut corners, fiddling with the recipe, but nothing ever was quite right unless I gave it the time and attention it deserved. Making lasagna has always linked me to the past; to a place where my mother was young and my godmother was a part of my day-to-day life. The sights and smells carry me back to my mother’s yellow and orange flowered kitchen in the seventies where this one meal took days to make and only minutes to enjoy, yet created memories to last a lifetime.

Lucky Lasagna

In my twenties, my boyfriend and I decided to host a pre-Thanksgiving gathering with our friends. Knowing that everyone was destined for a traditional turkey dinner, we decided to make lasagna as a fun and delicious alternative. We set the table for twenty and gathered our friends and a few young relatives who lived nearby to celebrate. My boyfriend sat at one end of the table and I sat at the other, playing hosts for our proud gathering. I had devoted the time and love to the lasagna as I had learned it, and it was stellar. Everyone was enjoying the tall, cheesy layers when from across the table I heard, “Michelle, if you keep making lasagna this good, I’m going to get you a ring.”

A hush fell across the table. Was that a pre-marriage proposal served up at the pre-Thanksgiving gathering? Thankfully, mouthfuls of lasagna were there to fill in the awkward silence. Life resumed, the holidays came and went, and many months later, my boyfriend became my fiancé. Yes, amidst professions of love, devotion, and promises of forever, he requested that I make my godmother’s lasagna at least once every year of our marriage.

No fewer than twenty-five lasagnas later, reflecting on that romantic time in my life, I have come to recognize the impact that my godmother unknowingly had on my life. Although she was unable to be by my side and guide me through my spiritual life, I feel her presence at my table when I gather my husband, children, siblings, and my mother to share her recipe.

When not at her desk job, Michelle Roden Conway gobbles up recipes, cooks up a storm, randomly writes food articles, and invents culinary adventures for her family and friends. Like so many family recipes, this one has never been written down but was shared elbow to elbow in the kitchen.