Have I Got a Ragu for You


The sauce was red, runny, and pungent, with bits of tomato-esque matter and oregano floating in it.

I was reading the other day in The Daily Beast about Mario Batali’s friendship with Jim Harrison and their “search for the genuine.” Harrison’s final book, A Really Big Lunch, a posthumous collection of his madman essays on food and drink, was about to be published. My mind turned to a favorite subject and my search for the genuine.


You might say I have been immersed in ragu for decades, since marrying a woman from San Marino, which is roughly an hour’s drive from Bologna. Bologna and surrounding towns in Emilia-Romagna are the rich beating heart of ragu country in Italy. After joining the family, over the years I learned to love her mother’s ragu; then, after he retired and approached the stove, her father’s ragu; then, at her relatives’ trattoria in Spadarolo, at the edge of Rimini, her cousin Marco’s ragu. Eventually, having eaten around San Marino and the valley of the Marecchia for a number of years, I fashioned my own approach to that staple of the Romagna table.

So I was eager one night to have Alberto Alberti over for dinner. He was one of my wife’s work associates, an Italian temporarily in the U.S., from Cento, just north of Bologna. I imagined him wandering the local foodscape, looking for a decent dish of pasta, knowing that pasta in American restaurants is almost always a disappointment–overcooked, sticky, and wet.

spag and balls

That night I thought we would present Alberto with something close to home, a dish of tagliatelle al ragu. Let your search for the genuine in the Detroit area end, I could tell him, here at our table.


He brought a bottle of Lambrusco, red wine from his part of the country. I stifled my urge to comment: Yick. (Unfairly or not, I will always associate Lambrusco with swill imported from Italy in the early 70’s, immortalized in a slick ad campaign featuring an Italian dandy named Aldo, who, surrounded by adoring women, ended every commercial burbling the ad’s tagline: Chill a Cella!) For fifteen minutes or so, we sipped the slightly sweet, slightly frizzante, slightly chilled wine and rolled slices of prosciutto and mortadella onto breadsticks. When at last I brought the platter of pasta from the stove, Alberto Alberti looked startled.


He pushed back from the table. “What’s this?”

“Tagliatelle,” I said.

He shook his head and waggled a finger over the dish. “I mean this…sauce.”

“Ragu,” I said.

He shook his head and announced that he couldn’t eat it.

Years of apprenticeship at Romagnolo tables, both here and abroad, had gone into the making of that ragu. I was surprised, flummoxed. A little bit pissed.

“I don’t like tomato,” he explained. He added, to my horror, that what I had cooked wasn’t really ragu.

“Of course it is,” I said.

Well, he said, whatever. It wasn’t real ragu.

Real ragu. Is there such a thing?

Ragu, from ragout, from the French ragouter, meaning “to revive the taste of,” has graced European tables for hundreds of years. Until recently, especially in the English-speaking world, it was a dish in search of respect.


Where ragout is concerned, if there was a recurring theme, it’s anything goes. In Francatelli’s The Modern Cook, first published in 1846 at University of Leeds, along with a common vegetable base, tasty ragouts feature a variety of animal proteins: roe of mackerel, lobster, crayfish, eel, chicken wings; and by today’s standards, some oddities as well, such as cockscombs, larks, ox palate, calves head, sheep’s tongue, and sheep’s feet. The Compleat Housewife, an 18th century compendium of good culinary practice, includes recipes for ragouts of pig’s ears and lamb testicles.

As a college student I recall encountering the term “ragout,” perhaps for the first time, in Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal,” a satirical take on the problem of poverty and hunger is 17th century Ireland. Oddities, indeed. Swift muses, “A young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragout” (my emphasis). (Of course Swift wasn’t really saying eat the children of the poor; he was saying for the love of God feed them, and feed the rest of the poor, too, while you’re at it.)


Another recurring theme: stews and ragouts were foreign, a confusion foisted upon the proper English eating population, a “kickshaw” (from the French quelche chose). In The Memoirs of a Femme de Chambre (1846), the narrator observes, “I feel quite uncomfortable having eaten many kickshaws… [G]ive me a joint of well boiled, or roasted meat, in preference to all the French stews and ragouts in the world, which clog, without satisfying the stomach.” In the writing of Lord Shaftesbury, a contemporary of Swift, it becomes clear that ragouts and stews are frowned upon. Here, for example, Shaftesbury laments the diner’s “inability to distinguish between different ingredients—vegetable and animal look alike, and the different parts of animals’ bodies, once dismembered and submerged in sauce, are indistinguishable as well.”

Both Swift and Shaftesbury would have been acquainted with the writing of Juvenal, the Roman satirist who turned up his nose at stew. According to Emily Gowers, in The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature, “Juvenal charts the precipitous descent of a gourmet from his world-wide search for dainties to the mixed scraps of the gladiators’ school,” pointing to “the wretched mixed dishes in the bowels of the Roman Empire.”

Many ragouts; basic grub.

Ragout arrived in Italy near the end of the 18th century, probably thanks to Napoleon, and the Italians did what they do: take something good and make it better.

They made ragu.

According to the historical record, classical ragu, Alberto’s real ragu, was borne in the late 18th century, in Imola, a fortified city in Emilia Romagna, southeast of Bologna. This ragu was the brainchild (or food child) of one Alberto Alvisi, who cooked for Cardinal Gregorio Chiaramonti, the future Pope Pio VII.  The recipe calls for salt pork; chicken, beef, or pork; onion, butter, chicken stock, and flour. And ground cinnamon.  It was made to be served with maccheroni, the generic term for pasta at the time.  A Cardinal ate it, so you know this was not a dish for poor people. Lynne Rossetto Kaspar, author and voice of The Splendid Table, reports that through the 19th century, until and even after the unification of Italy, pasta with this meaty ragu remained a dish for the wealthy classes, due to the cost of meat and pasta.

Alvisi’s recipe is the antecedent of what we call Bolognese sauce today. His recipe is notable for what it lacks—tomato. A great deal of ink and angst has been spent in Italy on the proper place of tomato in ragu–in the pot, or not. In all likelihood, tomato was added to the recipe because meat was expensive. Tomato “lengthened” the sauce, thus becoming the ragu as we know it today, or a facsimile of it.

In Italy, all over the real ragu region, I’ve had it with tomato and without. More commonly with.

mystery tour

My first encounter with ragu, known more widely back then by the term “spaghetti sauce,” occurred when I was a kid. The rage when I was in high school was pizza in a box. Not the flat, square take-out boxes we know today, made to fit pizzas of various sizes, ranging from Frisbee size to LP vinyl disk size to garbage can lid size. Pizza delivery had not yet reached the one-stoplight farm town where I grew up. There was a take-out joint in Saginaw, eight miles down the road, called Luigi’s. It might as well have been on the other side of the ocean.

No, this was a Chef Boyardee make-your-pizza-at-home pizza. Inside the box was a plastic bag of dough-mix you added water to, another plastic bag containing a rancid-smelling mix of pseudo mozzarella and parmesan cheese, and a small can of tomato sauce. The sauce was red, runny, and pungent, with bits of tomato-esque matter and oregano floating in it. Of course, we used all of it. Someone smarter and more worldly than we were had determined how much sauce a pizza needed. Lotsa. When we poured it over the dough we had mixed, massaged, and squashed onto a cookie sheet, when the sauce fumes reached our nostrils, we felt a vague connection to something exotic. The results were tragic: a lumpy, gooey pizza only clueless high school kids could love.


The stuff in that can, call it pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, or ragu, held sway for years in the American market.

Ragu historians agree that industrial ragu begins in the U.S. around 1937. The product was introduced to consumers by Giovanni and Assunta Cantisano. In short order it became Ragù, a trademarked, mass-produced condiment. We owe the Cantisanos a debt of dubious gratitude when we see these products assembled on a grocery store shelf: Ragù Chunky Garden Style Sauce, Ragù Chunky Garlic and Onion Sauce; Ragù Homestyle Thick and Hearty Flavored with Meat Sauce, Homestyle Thick and Hearty Four Cheese Sauce, Homestyle Thick and Hearty Mushroom Sauce, Thick and Hearty Roasted Garlic Sauce, Thick and Hearty Traditional Sauce; Ragù Mushroom Spaghetti Sauce, Ragù Old World Style Traditional Sauce, Ragù Six Cheese Spaghetti Sauce, Ragù Spaghetti Sauce with Meat.

All of them authentic. I think it says so on the jar.


Malcolm Gladwell celebrates the contribution of Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist, to ragu in its various current commercial incarnations. Hired by Prego to help the company find out what Americans really wanted from spaghetti sauce, to help Prego gain more market share, Moskowitz conducted elaborate nationwide taste tests, accumulating data, and he concluded it was an error to look for one data point, one recipe, a Platonic ideal of ragu that a majority of consumers could agree was the sauce they wanted. Better, Moskowitz advised, to embrace variability. “Sure enough,” Gladwell writes, “if you sit down, and you analyze [Moskowitz’s] data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain; there are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy; and there are people who like it extra chunky.”

It may be that any search for the authentic is doomed, because authentic does not really exist. Instead, we have variants, iterations that are real-ish.

Go to a trattoria in any town in Emilia Romagna and order lasagna. You will probably be told, This is the real lasagna.

My wife’s relatives in Italy argue over whether to include cinnamon (the Spadarolo aunt) or nutmeg (the San Marino aunt) in passatelli, an extruded egg-breadcrumb-cheese confection served in broth.


There is vigorous disagreement about whether to put peas in ragu.

In Florence one year, at the Central Market I had a very satisfying portion of porchetta, whole pig seasoned and long-roasted. I told the purveyor I had eaten it before, in San Marino. “That may be,” he said. “But this is the real porchetta.”

When our daughter was old enough to sit at the table and fork rotini, we took her to a local Italian restaurant one night. She ordered spaghetti with ragu. It came to the table, served the way pasta is frequently plated in American restaurants, with a very generous dollop of a very red ragu ladled over the top of the pasta. Aghast, she pulled an Alberto. “Not like that!” she cried. My wife plunged a fork and spoon into her dish, mixed the sauce and spaghetti, and our daughter was able, albeit grudgingly, to eat her dinner.

A month ago my wife and I met friends at a trendy new place in Ferndale, one of Detroit’s best foody ‘burbs. I took a chance and ordered a pasta with heritage pork sugo. Sugo, I thought. Use of the term sugo (Italian for sauce) seemed to promise something authentic. And it was good. The pasta was cooked just right, the sauce was excellent. Still, when the server set my order in front of me, I had an Alberto moment—a deep bowl instead of a shallow one, or better yet a flat dish. Not like that, I wanted to say. Serve pasta on a flat dish so it can be spread out, rolled on a fork, and eaten the way an Italian would eat it. I wanted to say something. My wife told me to get a grip.

batali sausage bologneseGet a grip. There’s no such thing as real ragu. There are many ragus, many of them authentic. If Moskowitz were to study it, he would find data points: the classical Imola ragus, with chunks of meat, without tomato, with cinnamon or nutmeg; the neo-classical ragus, with ground meat, with tomato, some with peas, some without; and all that stuff in the supermarket that comes in can or jar.

Mario Batali, I notice, has gotten into the business of mass producing and marketing a variety of sauces. I’m sure he gets them as close as possible to authentic.  I’m sure also Jim Harrison wouldn’t have gone within ten miles of sauce in a jar. Not nearly vivid enough for him.

For me either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s