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It takes Karen Allen half a day or longer, if she doesn’t have help, to score, blanch, peel, and hand-squeeze a bushel of Roma tomatoes to make her chili sauce.

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It takes Karen Allen half a day or longer, if she doesn’t have help, to score, blanch, peel, and hand-squeeze a bushel of Roma tomatoes to make her chili sauce.

It takes Karen Allen half a day or longer, if she doesn’t have help, to score, blanch, peel, and hand-squeeze a bushel of Roma tomatoes to make her chili sauce. Usually, though, her entire family — three kids and seven grandkids — comes over: Her children chop vegetables and score tomatoes; the older grandchildren measure out sugar and stir the mixture. Even when Allen doesn’t have help, her family is always with her, because the chili sauce is made of more than tomatoes and peppers — it’s made of memories.

Allen makes this sauce — a sweet and spicy base for pinto or kidney beans and ground beef or turkey — using a recipe handed down from her mother, Marcelline “Marcy” Joyaux Allen, who learned it from her mother, Marie Joyaux. Allen doesn’t know how far back the recipe goes, but cooking — and handing down recipes — is a tradition that her mom and all of her grandparents enjoyed.

Allen’s son Bryan Lee has been helping his mom make chili sauce since he was a kid. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

“It’s all about the food in our family,” Allen says. “It never dawned on me how much [the chili sauce] meant to me when I was making it back then. But the older I grew, the more precious family became to me. And those recipes carried so much weight because they reminded me of how the table was set, or when my grandma would make chicken noodles” — always from scratch, laying them on a bedsheet to dry for a week.

Back in Illinois, where Allen grew up, her parents made the chili sauce in their garage so that the strong, spicy aroma didn’t take over their house. Now, at her home in Holly Springs, Allen has an entire kitchen installed in her own garage — which she calls the Karen Kave — filled with vintage furniture, appliances, and cooking tools that she inherited from her parents and grandparents. It’s here that she makes her chili sauce each fall, just like her parents did.

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Inside the Karen Kave, Allen and her children chop celery and peppers using her grandfather’s knives, which Allen’s son Bryan Lee is a stickler about keeping sharp. After scoring the tomatoes, Allen places them in a Farberware pot on her grandmother’s 1950s Chambers gas stove and blanches them until the skins can be peeled off. While the family works, they play music from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley — and the grandkids dance along. They share memories about relatives who are no longer here, parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents who used to make the sauce.

The kitchen is more than just a place to prepare food; it’s a gathering place. Special occasions were always celebrated in a big way when Allen was growing up. Now, as the family’s matriarch, she hosts many of those gatherings in the Karen Kave. She makes heritage recipes like buttermilk biscuits and pulls out the slide projector to show photos of her parents and grandparents. Her kids tell family stories, and her grandkids laugh at hairstyles from decades past. “It makes my heart full with the hope that memories can be carried forward and new memories will be made,” she says.

The kitchen started with Allen’s grandmother’s Chambers stove. She remembers walking into her grandparents’ split-level home as a little girl and knowing — even before she climbed the 15 steps to the main level, where the kitchen was — when her grandma Joyaux was cooking stuffed cabbage. Later, Allen would learn that recipe from her mother.

When Joyaux moved into a retirement community in the 1990s, Allen took the stove — plus a set of shelves and a cupboard that was always stocked with Fig Newtons — to her home in Fuquay-Varina. The stove sat unused in Allen’s garage for years before moving with her to Holly Springs. It wasn’t until after her mother died in 2014 and her father died in 2019 that Allen decided to bring her memories to life by creating the vintage kitchen.

Today, she reminisces as she looks around at the furniture and appliances that she’s collected. “[Grandma’s] stove … there’s just something about it,” she says. “It’s about the memories.” Pointing at her grandparents’ shelves, she adds, “When I look at that shelf over there, I can see my cousin and me fighting over a kiddie cocktail. The ice bucket — I can remember my grandfather always giving it to me to go fill. That ice bucket reminds me so much of my grandfather.”

Not far from where Allen adds peppers and celery to her sauce, shelves from her grandparents’ house display the ceramic roosters that once stood by their kitchen sink, a saltine cracker can from her parents’ pantry, and her grandfather’s ice bucket. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Allen painted the walls of her garage kitchen mint green and had plumbing, gas, counters, and cabinetry installed. She brought in a porcelain sink from a family farm in Johnston County because it was similar to one that her grandmother had owned. Grandma Joyaux was always standing over the kitchen sink, washing something, Allen recalls.

She then filled the Karen Kave with mementos. Ceramic roosters that her grandmother collected strut proudly above the sink. Mounted above them is a 10-person toboggan that her mother and uncle used to go sledding as children. Across the room, the folded United States flag that was draped over her grandfather’s coffin, honoring him as a World War I veteran, anchors a wall of family military photos. Her grandfather Michael Allen was a chef in the Army and continued to cook professionally after leaving the service. On the garage door opposite the military photos, Allen created a family tree.

• • •

Allen’s love of cooking was inherited from her parents and grandparents (clockwise) John and Marcy Allen and Eugene and Marie Joyaux. Photography courtesy of Karen Allen

All three of Allen’s children inherited her love for cooking, and Allen has given them four cookbooks that she made using family recipes — the first of which she created to preserve her mother’s recipes after her death. The cookbooks contain snapshots of handwritten recipes accompanied by family photos and stories. One spread features the handwritten recipe for chili sauce beside a photo of Allen’s parents, Marcy and John.

After all the vegetables are chopped and the tomatoes are peeled for the chili sauce, Allen squeezes the tomatoes by hand into a ceramic churn that belonged to Grandma Joyaux. She adds the vegetables and lets the concoction sit for 24 hours before cooking it down for up to 12 hours in the Nesco roaster. She then cans the sauce and stores it. She serves it in a bowl with cheese and sour cream — sometimes mixing in pinto or kidney beans — or on top of elbow macaroni with ground Angus beef. Her family eats the spicy, sweet sauce at family gatherings in the fall, with Allen surrounded by her children, their spouses, and her grandchildren. Her kids often tell her, “If you’re making Gram’s chili sauce, I’ll be there.”

And so will Allen, cherishing the creation of yet another family memory.

Allen’s love of cooking earned her 12 ribbons from the North Carolina State Fair last year. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Chili Sauce

Yield: About 5 quarts.

¼ bushel Roma tomatoes (about 13 pounds)
1 small bell pepper, chopped
1 to 2 hot peppers, chopped
1 bunch celery, chopped
1¼ pounds yellow onion, chopped
2 cups vinegar
1¼ pounds sugar
½ cup salt
Allspice to taste (about ½ tablespoon)

Score, blanch, and peel tomatoes, then cut into small pieces. In a large container, combine tomatoes, peppers, celery, and onions. Add vinegar, sugar, salt, and allspice, and let sit overnight. Pour mixture into a Nesco roaster or Crock Pot and cook on slow for 6 to 8 hours. Can and seal to enjoy later, or mix with pinto or kidney beans and ground beef or turkey, and serve as a dip or over macaroni.

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This story was published on Aug 28, 2023

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.