Customer Service (featuring Bolognese Sauce)
“Good afternoon, this is the West Hollywood Bristol Farms! How can I help you today?” Her tone had the syrupy twang of insincerity that I associate with awful jobs in retail service. I knew I was about to make her terrible job terribler.
I sighed and responded with an unintentional Darth Vader tone of seriousness. “Hi. I’d like to order some food to be delivered, but it’s…”
“That’s no problem!” She said, abrasively cutting me off with kindness, “What can I get for you today?!?”
It was a cold rainy evening in December of 2008 and I was sitting in front of my desktop in my dark New York apartment, a half-empty wine glass to my right, a half-full ashtray to my left. My labradorgie, Dexter, was playing a game of statues with me from the door leading into the hallway. I had been hugging him intermittently since the call came an hour before and he knew something was wrong.
“Here’s what I need,” I said into my phone. “I’m looking to have some things delivered to a friend of mine, but I need to write a note to go with the order and it’s going to be a long note. I’m so sorry but I can’t figure out how else to do this.” I’m a chronic apologizer, but I was trying to enlist this grocery store worker’s help from a place of desperation rather than demand.
“Sure, ma’am. That’s no problem. What can I get for you today?”
I stared out my bedroom/ office window at the non-view of my building’s brick airshaft and thought of the palm trees swaying on Fairfax and Sunset outside the small gourmet grocer that I had called. I could almost feel the California sun on my shoulders as I stuck my thumb through a hole in my vintage cardigan.
“May I please order a bottle of olive oil, a pound of unsalted butter, a yellow onion, some celery, a bag of carrots…” I paused to make sure she was getting it all.
“and a half a pound of ground beef, preferably a ground beef with a high-fat content. Don’t give me a 95% lean beef, I want at least 30% fat.” Suddenly I was sounding more like the average demanding asshole clientele.
“No problem, ma’am. Anything else?”
“Yes, I’d like a half-pound of ground pork, a pint of whole milk, a large can of whole peeled tomatoes—preferably San Marzanos if you have them. A thing of nutmeg, a bottle I guess, not ground please, whole nutmeg. And some spaghetti- a pound. And a bottle of white wine- like a… Sauvignon Blanc- nothing that has any heavy citrusy lemon or grapefruit influences. Something dry but not too dry.” I pretended to be savvy about wine but knew that if the girl could see through the phone and behold the cheap crap I was drinking, she’d probably hang up.
But this order wasn’t for me.
This was for my amazing friend whom I’d left behind in Los Angeles when I’d moved to New York the year before. This was for my gorgeous, brilliant, hilarious friend Colleen, whose pug, Isaac, had passed away earlier that day. When we met, Colleen and I had instantly bonded over our shared interests- food, wine, and the almost obsessive adoration of our respective canines. Earlier that day she had called to tell me about Isaac but was too devastated to say much more than he was gone. I felt the distance between my friend and I more at that moment than I had any other time. If I paused too long to think about it, the emotions would overtake me again so I continued with the task at hand.
“Ok, that’s all for the order. I need to send a note with this. Can you take down what I’d like to say? Again, it’s going to be a little long, so I’m sorry, but it’s really important.”
“Sure, I think I can write it. I have a big pad here.” Her chirpy tone made me think she was happy to have something to focus on other than issues in the store.
“Good. All right, um, here we go.” I took another deep breath. “Colleen, If I was still close by… No, not that. Sorry. Ok, um… Colleen, If I was there, I would do anything to try to make you feel better. I would sit with you and listen to stories about Isaac and fill your glass with wine and cook you a meal so delicious that you would feel whole again for just a moment. But I can’t be there so, and then do a dot dot dot,”
“Ok,” the girl said quietly on the phone. Then a pause. Then, “Did someone die?”
“Yeah, this is for one of my best friends. Her dog died today and I’m in New York so I can’t be there for her.” My tears had resumed.
‘Oh my god, that’s terrible,” she was getting emotional too, “but this is really sweet.” She paused and I thought of her standing in the back of the grocery store weeping on the phone with some stranger. She cleared her throat. “Ok, I have dot dot dot.”
“Right, so go to the next line and write, Chop the onion, 2 carrots, and 2 stalks of celery. Put 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 3 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan and heat until the foam of the butter has gone away. Saute the onion first with some salt, until it turns translucent. Then add the carrots and celery on medium heat and cook until the vegetables get soft- maybe 10 minutes. Add the beef and pork, salting again to make sure the meat is seasoned, and cook down on medium heat until the pink of the meat has cooked away. Then add 1 cup of milk and let simmer down, stirring frequently. Grind some nutmeg (maybe ½ teaspoon) into the sauce. Add 1 cup of wine, let simmer more. Squish the tomatoes with your hands and add the whole can with the juices into the pan. Give the sauce a good grinding of pepper, turn the heat down, and simmer for 3 hours, uncovered, checking regularly to make sure that the sauce isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan or reducing too fast. And then on the next line write, Or just drink the wine. Next line, I love you so much, Alison. Just one L in Alison. Got it?”
“Got it, Alison, with one L.” She was smiling, I could tell. “I’ll make sure that this goes out right away. Uh, this was really cool. Thanks for… thanks for this.” I could hear the reality that she was still at work creeping in as I gave her the delivery address and credit card info. Though I knew we had shared a moment of sincerity, the syrupy sweetness returned, “Thank you for shopping at Bristol Farms, and have a great day!” Click. I gave Dex another big squeeze. I know that Colleen appreciated the care package, though I don’t know if she ever made the sauce.
I remembered this story when a friend asked me to write something comforting for this long winter stretch of the pandemic. I guess, as a chef, I’m in the business of comfort. If I could, I’d come to all of your homes and cook you a meal so luscious and soothing that you’d forget about how hard life can be.
But since that sounds like a really exhausting endeavor, let me empower you to cook that comforting meal for yourself. Or just drink the wine.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 medium yellow onion, minced
- 2 celery stalks, minced
- 2 carrots (not huge carrots), minced
- 1/2 pound ground beef, preferably with a high-fat content
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 can imported Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano – because they fall apart perfectly) squished or cut up with their juices
- 3 tablespoons butter
- While it’s not the only way, I love to use the food processor to mince the vegetables. First pulse the onion into little bits but not into a juicy pulp. Put the chopped onions into a bowl, then pulse the carrots and celery together- fine, but not liquidized. In my opinion, the smaller vegetables infuse the sauce much more effectively than a larger chop so it’s worth it to pull out the ol’ cuisinart. I also pulse the tomatoes in their juices since I’ve got the machine out and dirty.
- Put oil and butter in a pan on high heat till the butter’s froth subsides and they are both hot and almost smoking. Add the onion with a pinch of salt and, if you’re naughty like me, a good pinch of sugar. Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent, then add the chopped celery and carrot and a bit more salt to bring the flavors out. Cook for about 10 minutes on a medium heat, stirring the vegetables to coat them well.
- Add the ground beef and pork, and season well with salt and pepper. Let the meat sear for a minute or two before breaking it up in the pan. Cook until the meat has lost sign of any pinkness.
- Add the milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently until it has bubbled down. Grate in the nutmeg (about 1/2 tsp.) and stir.
- Add the wine and let it simmer away for a while but keeping an eye on the amount of liquid in the pan. It’s just important not to let it simmer all away. There’s good stuff in there.
- Add the tomatoes, turn the heat down and let it cook uncovered for about 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. Once again, it’s important that the sauce not become too dry, so add 1/2 cup water if it is reducing too much. Season to taste.
- Stir in the butter. Sometimes, if I’ve got some on hand, I’ll add a tablespoon or two of cream. This meal is about hitting all the receptors on your tongue- sweet, bitter, sour, salt, umami, and FAT. All the bells will be ringing, which is what you want in a meal.
It’ll be better the next day, too.
And there’s no garlic in it traditionally so it’s sometimes nice with garlic bread on the side. Sometimes I get wacky and add a clove or two of chopped garlic after the onion is nice and soft. Do as your gut tells you.
I like Bolognese with spaghetti or another long noodle but do as you wish. I always cook the pasta VERY aldente, meaning I cut the boiling time in half, saving about 2 cups of starchy pasta water when I drain it. You won’t need all of that, but it’s good to have too much rather than too little. Then I put the undercooked pasta into the sauce, and add the reserved pasta water little by little. This will infuse the pasta with sauce as it finishes cooking.
Have a safe, wonderful Valentine’s day and don’t forget to hug the ones you love– especially the ones with paws.