What Mom Calls Spaghetti

Today would have been our Mom’s 86th birthday, so in her honor I made a large batch of  spaghetti using her recipe.  It’s a recipe I have titled “What Mom Calls Spaghetti”.

I’ll share the recipe with you in a bit, but want to give you a little background.

My mom was not a very good cook.

She looked great in an apron, she loved to entertain and she was always meticulously organized for her special dinners.

She made long lists of exactly what was going to be served, which platters or bowls to use and always used her good dishes.

Unfortunately, my mom was not a very good cook.

We grew up with salmon patties (made with the little bones…yechh), roasts cooked until they were grey, fish sticks and lots and lots of J-E-L-L-0.

Sadly, my mom was not a very good cook….

…and yet.

Mom had a few recipes that we all looked forward to.  Chicken casserole, shrimp creole-like rice and hamburger hash were favorites.   I’ll be sure to share those with you another time.  Hands down, though, the all time favorite, the meal we would all eagerly await, was “What Mom Calls Spaghetti”.

Growing up, we just assumed all spaghetti was like our Mom’s spaghetti.  We had never heard of marinara, pesto or vodka sauce.  The only sauce we had ever enjoyed was Mom’s “Italian” sauce.  And we loved it.  Purely loved it.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that Mom’s spaghetti was … rather unique.  My hint that her recipe was special came when Mr. H. first visited my Mom and Dad’s home in Kentucky.  Without revealing too much, I can tell you that when Mr. H. first saw Mom’s “secret ingredient” he blanched, he staggered, he almost fell.

It was a clue.

Shortly after Mr. H was exposed to Mom’s spaghetti, I went to lunch with some close friends.  We settled in at a lovely Italian restaurant.  One of my friends knew the owners, an older Italian couple who were delighted to bring out one dish after another of family favorites.  Because it was a long afternoon, because we all had a glass of wine and because we were all big talkers, the subject of our favorite Italian dishes came up.  I was regaled with stories about perfect cannoli, big as a fist meatballs, cacciatori, tetrazzini and every manner of sauce.  At some point, someone turned to me and asked about my favorite recipe.  I happily shared my Mom’s recipe, but when I got to her secret ingredient, there was a gasp…then a moan and then a mass exodus from the table.

It was a clue.

I made a batch last night, and it was wonderful.  Because it was still as wonderful as I remembered, I am sharing with you.

Here are (most of) the ingredients you will need:

(please note, I added more 2 more cans of tomato sauce at the end).

In the hey-dey of Mom’s cooking, the main protein was ‘not particularly’ lean hamburger.   Feel free to use a leaner blend or to use turkey.  I can’t guarantee that it will taste the same, but it may offset the impact of ……

… the secret ingredient.

Just in case you don’t believe me, here is Mom’s original recipe, with some notes from my Aunt M.  There have been a few other changes over the years so I will share that recipe with you below.

If you want to print this out without pictures (or my extraneous dialogue), just click on the cute little Print Recipe –>

What Mom Calls Spaghetti


  • 5 lbs ground hamburger (you may substitute ground turkey)
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 green pepper
  • 2 - 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 large cans tomatoes (either whole or diced)
  • 2 large cans tomato sauce
  • 2 small cans tomato paste
  • 3 each bay leaves
  • 1 Tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 Tbsp dried basil
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil (preferably first cold pressed)
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground pepper


  • 2 lb box velveeta cheese
Prep Time: 30 Minutes
Cook Time: 2 Hours
Total Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes


  • Brown ground beef until completely cooked through.
  • (Try not to think about the fat. When my Mom made this, she left the grease in the pan to saute the vegetables. I am hoping she didn't leave all of it. It helps me to sleep to think that she drained the grease...quite a bit).
  • Strain ground beef to remove fat.
  • (I'm not kidding. This just about did me in. if I left it in the beef, I'm quite sure it really would do me in).
  • Chop green pepper into small dice.
  • Chop onions into small dice.
  • (If you look at the original recipe, it called for quite a few onions. I don't think they were as big in the day).
  • Chop garlic into small dice
  • (See? You're using vegetables. This can't be too bad if you have lots of vegetables. Right?)
  • Saute green pepper, onions and garlic in olive oil until soft.
  • (This is an important departure from the original recipe. I really thought about using the grease, but I just couldn't do it).
  • Put cooked ground beef back into large pot and add tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste. Turn heat to simmer and add oregano, basil, salt, pepper and bay leaves.
  • Stir until combined. If you need more liquid, add up to one large can of water.
  • Cook entire mixture at low simmer for 2 hours.
  • During this two hours, you may try to talk yourself out of adding the cheese.
  • Resist the urge to un-Velveeta the sauce.
  • Add velveeta cheese and stir.
  • (And like a shop sinking into the briny deep, the cheese finally sinks into the sauce).

…and yet, my Dad didn’t care one bit that Mom wasn’t a very good cook.

Here is a clue.




Category: Cook, Main Dish, Memories and Traditions, Old Memories, Pasta, Slider, What will we do today?
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(6) Comments and (4) Replies

  1. Kay NeSmith | November 7, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply

    That is the funniest story–I promise to try the recipe (including the Velveeta!) in honor and memory of your MOM! I only wish my daughters had such hilarious stories to tell about my cooking escapades.

    • jill | November 7, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply

      All kidding aside (well, almost all kidding) we really love the sauce. It’s kind of a mix between vodka sauce (without the vodka, perhaps the cook drinks the vodka) and chili con queso and spaghetti. Mom would be proud that you are going to make this. And…if you really can’t bear to keep the whole log of velveeta in the sauce, you an fish it out before it all melts. I promise, I won’t tell!!! Bon Appetit!! Tell me how it goes and thanks for dropping by…

  2. Natalie | November 22, 2012 at 2:39 am | Reply

    That actually sounds really good! I will definitely try this recipe!

    • jill | November 23, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply

      Bon Appetit!! Let me know how you like it!

  3. carmine | January 2, 2013 at 4:42 am | Reply

    This Sicilian was shocked when i saw what the secret ingredient was , but i have a oppened mind and shall try this asap will let ya know what me and the kids think…

    • jill | January 2, 2013 at 7:40 am | Reply

      I’m nervous now. You might want to go light on the Velveeta for your first time out!

  4. Whitney | December 7, 2014 at 10:36 am | Reply

    I have always cooked spaghetti this way- Velveeta included- a recipe passed down from my Nenaw. Most people gasp when they hear my “Secret” ingredient, but I won’t eat spaghetti any other way! Thank you for sharing this sweet story, and for reminding me I’m not the only one who uses this recipe!

  5. jill | December 9, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Reply

    Whitney!!! I am filled with joy! I LOVE that this is also your family recipe and that you all love it! Honestly, I am yearning for some now! I’ll just have to make a huge batch. C’mon over. We can have a feast! Thank you so much for sharing. Have a great day!

  6. Pingback: Mom-a-Thon. A Mothers Day tribute to Moms in my life

  7. Annie | January 5, 2016 at 10:51 am | Reply

    How funny – my grandmother cooked same and I could never figure out how to replicate. She would buy a box of Krafts Mac & Cheese and throw the cheese packet away (there were no bags of “pasta” at the store. Mom cooked typical Italian sauce; I loved both. Thanks for this!! Annie

    • jill | January 12, 2016 at 9:51 am | Reply

      I’m so glad my mom wasn’t the only one! You were lucky to also have the typical italian sauce. We knew nothing but this in all our growing up years. But….we loved it and love it still! Have a great day!

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