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Mother’s Day: Spaghetti with Venison Bolognese

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One of my fondest earlier memories is of my mother teaching me to swim. She floated on her back and I held to her ankles and kicked and kicked, my chubby little legs making more splash than headway. She then held underneath me so I’d learn to use my arms. She taught me how to hold my breath and swim underwater. That’s trust. That’s powerful trust. I never hesitated trying because Mama was there and told me I could do it.

There’s not much I haven’t tried because Mama has always been there. She instilled in me a belief in my ability. Recently, we were talking about me driving alone to DC to go to culinary school years ago. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t or that it was odd or dangerous. Mama told me how much it worried her, but she didn’t mention it at the time. I was surprised at myself that I had never ever considered how my antics might actually effect her. I’m a fairly altruistic and empathetic person, but my trust in her belief in my ability was so strong, that it never occurred to me she actually had any doubts.

The bedrock of our relationship is that we have always been good friends. I was always a bookish child and still seem to be. I was never one of the popular girls, so that means I wasn’t hanging out after school in high school with the others, I was at home with Mama.

We travel a lot together and have a silly amount of fun. It’s really incredible and I feel more blessed and fortunate that I could ever share. I’ll be asked to go teach a class or be in a festival and I’ll call her up and say, “Mama, let’s go.” She pretty much without fail will say yes and off we’ll go.

It’s not all work. We vacation together, a lot, too. We’ve tromped up winding stairwells in Greece and Italy, I got us lost looking for a farmer’s market in Turkey, looked for sea turtle nests in South Florida, goofed around at Rancho la Puerta in Mexico, where we were crying we were laughing so hard, when she was channeling her inner yogi. You can see from the smiles in these photos that we have a lot of fun.

A couple of months ago I asked her to join me in Savannah and she was a hesitant. She didn’t want to drive by herself on unfamiliar roads. We talked about it and I kept reassuring her she’d be okay. She continued to be unsure. I asked her if everything was okay, or was she experiencing memory loss or other kind of health issue. She wouldn’t really respond, but kept hemming and hawing. It made me scared. Very scared.

I’m slowly moving into that uncomfortable club that many folks enter in their 40s. I have friends whose parents are aging, some have become sick, some have passed away. Indeed, we’ve had our own scare. Mama had a surgery for breast cancer in 2003, but she’s been cancer free for nearly 10 years.

Finally, I told her we had to talk about it. I said that we couldn’t not talk about it.

We did and everything is fine. She’s okay, we just need to be aware that she’s aging. That same day I heard a report on NPR that elder drivers are disproportionately responsible for the amount of car accidents. It was good to hear and I needed that reminder. Mama’s always there for me. I can’t conceive of not having her in my life.

Thinking about losing my mama takes my breath away.

I am thankful beyond words for our friendship and relationship. I am thankful for her love, trust, and support. I am thankful for her presence in every last thing I do every last single day, because she taught me belief and trust.

Mama, I love YOU the Most. Thank you. Happy Mother’s Day.

Bon Appétit Y’all!

Mama’s Spaghetti Bolognese with Venison

My family grew up eating spaghetti with a traditional meat sauce. Well, sort of. . . . The meat was ground venison from a deer Daddy shot, and Mama always added Dede’s homemade scuppernong wine. She also used a McCormick’s seasoning packet, still does. (In my version I add porcini mushrooms to bolster the flavor instead.) This was one of those rare meals mama didn’t make completely from scratch. And, I am not sure why, but she always broke the spaghetti noodles in half and cooked them far, far past al dente, more like “all done.” I’ve enjoyed Bolognese in Rome, “gravy” in Jersey City, and even served marinara sauce to none other than Giuliano Hazan, but Mama’s “Southern-style” sauce is still one of my favorite dishes in the world. Food memories are precious things. The sense of smell, more so than any other sense, is intimately linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion. One whiff of this and I am immediately transported to my childhood. Buon appetito, y’all!
Author: Virginia Willis


  • 1 tablespoon pure olive oil
  • 1 onion preferably Vidalia, chopped
  • 8 ounces white button mushrooms sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • 2 pounds ground venison or 1 pound ground round beef and 1 pound ground turkey
  • 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • ¾ cup dry red wine
  • 1 16-ounce package spaghetti


  • Heat the oil in a large saucepan or straight-sided skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the mushrooms are soft and all the liquid in the pan has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the ground meat and crushed tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Using a wooden spoon, break up the meat into small chunks. Increase the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the dried porcini and wine. Stir to combine. Decrease the heat to simmer and cook until thick, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
  • Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes or according to package instructions.
  • Drain the spaghetti through a colander placed in a large serving bowl (to heat the bowl). Drain the water from the bowl and pat dry. Put the cooked spaghetti in the now-warmed bowl. Spoon over 1 large spoonful of the sauce and toss to coat. Spoon over several additional spoonfuls, depending on how many are at the table. Serve immediately.

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 2 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

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