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One Meatball

Before meeting my mother-in-law, the former Louise Ciliberti, I thought I knew something about spaghetti and meatballs. After my first meal at her table, I realized that what passed for Italian food in my New Hampshire hometown was nothing short of a culinary travesty.

Early in our relationship, my husband and I visited his parents every April during my school vacation. We'd fly to DC on a Friday afternoon and arrive just before dinner. As we'd walk from the terminal to my in-laws' car, Louise would assure me that the meatballs and sauce were ready and we'd eat as soon as we got settled in and the pasta was done.

After the bags were stowed in the guest room, my father-in-law would begin the nightly ritual of mixing martinis. He and my husband would sit in the den sipping their drinks and catching up on news: familial, national, and international. I'd drift into the dining area adjacent to the kitchen, where the mingled aromas of tomatoes, bay leaves, oregano and parsley, onions and peppers, and ground beef greeted me like a warm embrace.

Stirring the huge cauldron of sauce and meatballs, her martini within easy reach, Louise would turn to me. Assessing the amount of meat on my bones and the look of longing in my eyes, she'd ask slyly, "You want a meatball to tide you over till dinner's ready?"

She'd place the savory item in a small bowl with a dab of sauce and a slice of crusty bread. I'd get a fork from the cutlery drawer on my side of the counter and sidle onto one of the stools. Slipping the edge of my fork through the steaming meatball, I'd savor that first heavenly bite.

Though I would have another meatball at dinner, along with an Italian sausage and more pasta than was seemly for one woman to consume, it was that singular meatball in its little dish, offered with a mother's knowing kindness that remains for me the definition of comfort food.

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