Deep red ripe tomatoes still warm from the summer sun blanket the surface of my kitchen table. What started out with the exquisite taste of that first ripe garden tomato has turned into a tsunami of abundance. Time to turn tomatoes into tomato sauce. As the water boils and I drop in the first tomatoes, my thoughts freely drift back to the warm and friendly Italian neighborhood in Connecticut where I lived before moving to Maine. Particularly to memories of my downstairs neighbor, Dora, a single mother with two young boys.

Each year for a few days at the end of August, I would come home from work to find Dora and several women from our neighborhood sitting in the late afternoon shade by the side of the garage. Faces flushed and shiny with sweat, they sipped on cool glasses of iced tea, laughing and chatting, their white aprons stained with red blotches from a full collaborative day in the kitchen.

“Come; taste the sauce,” Dora invites.

We all file into her compact kitchen, intoxicating with the aroma of tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and basil. Wooden racks hold strands of hand cut fettucine. Rows of Ball jars filled with rich red sauce line the counters ready to be divvied up. Quickly a pot is on the boil for pasta, and Dora fixes me a bowl. The first forkful assaults my senses and jolts me awake with a shot of food adrenaline, and I am gastronomical heaven.

“Wow,” I exclaim, “this is so good! Oh, the flavors.”

The oldest woman of the group, a stern, stout woman always dressed in black softens her usual scowl as she pats my shoulder.

“Eat, eat,” she encourages. “Nice girl. Too thin,” she admonishes with a shake of her head and a shy smile.

And eat I do with gusto and appreciation. I continue to gush compliments in between chewing and swallowing as Dora translates from English to Italian to her friends. They certainly need no approval of their culinary skills from me, but my enjoyment results in a kitchen filled with satisfied smiles. As I sit and continue to eat, each woman shares a bit of culinary advice with me through Dora. How much garlic, how much basil, how to pick the best tomatoes.

Soon my kitchen will be filled with the aroma of tomatoes simmering with garlic, oregano, and basil. My sauce is savory and flavorful but still falls short of that made by Dora and her friends by one ingredient. Their days spent cooking together provide opportunities to confide in each other about the ups and downs of their lives. The solid love and support they have for each other during good times and bad is their secret ingredient. The memory of their generosity and kindness to me to briefly join their sisterhood of the tomato sauce lingers and becomes the secret ingredient in my own sauce.

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