Even though a little more than a decade separates the youngest and oldest among the us, there are certain experiences at Grandma’s house that all the kids in my family share, even if they didn’t happen at the same time. Things like: not wanting to sit on Santa’s lap on Christmas Eve, playing “bar” in the basement (behind the real bar), playing “church” in the basement (with the real organ, which actually shared a room with the bar, so it was an interesting service), riding on the Sit N’ Spin until we were nauseous, and, of course, playing in The Crawl Space.
In a house that was full of fun toys, plenty of crayons, a big backyard, a dog to play with and a real live organ, ask any of us and we would probably tell you that our very favorite place to spend a morning at Grandma’s was the 4-foot high storage space lined with fiberglass insulation. It was itchy, and using that old desk lamp with the bare bulb was probably dangerous, but it was the coolest place ever! Well, not literally… depending on how many of us were crammed in there, the searing hot light bulb + body heat + insulation could make things uncomfortably toasty pretty quick. The crawl space was filled with treasures, but none inspired our play as much as the boxes and boxes of wooden pencils left over from my grandfather’s days of working at the railroad.
I don’t know what these green pencils had to do with a railroad at all, actually, but I do know that they were perfect for games of School and Office. We’d spend hours filling out “forms” for our imaginary small business, and completing school “assignments,” raising our hands the best we could in our low-ceilinged classroom all the while being careful not to touch the scratchy walls. We’d then emerge for lunch, red-faced, itching, and quite possibly dehydrated. The only rule of the crawl space was that you had to remember to turn the lamp off, lest you burn the whole place down.
Once the light was turned off and the door to the crawl space closed, lunch would be served. For most of my late 80s and early 90s childhood, I remember Grandma giving us Chef Boyardee and oleo. She always had the newest, coolest pasta shapes — Smurfaroni, ABCs & 123s, or my very favorite, Roller Coasters (my sister and I decided you needed to swallow the noodles whole to get the true Roller Coaster effect… and I suppose the oleo gave them a little extra gliding power). Grandma would let us pick whatever kind we wanted, and she’d heat it up with a healthy dollop of oleo in a small pan on the stove. It was delicious.
There are several compelling nutritional reasons to not return to a diet of canned pasta and margarine, but Grandma was really onto something with the flavor combination of tomatoes and butter. I was reminded of a recipe recently that is totally delicious and while not exactly a re-creation of Rollercoasters and Oleo, definitely includes the two most important flavors.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter has been called “the most famous tomato sauce on the internet” and for good reason! It is incredibly tasty and could not be easier – 4 ingredients that you just simmer in a pan. In that respect it’s not too far off the spirit of Grandma’s original — a quick way to feed 3-5 kids before All My Children came on at 1:00, hit on a few food groups, and please even the pickiest eaters. I think this would be the perfect dish for anyone who spent a long day at school or the office (although I’d recommend a shower first if you are covered in fiberglass insulation). Enjoy!