The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Ali Weiss is a comedian, writer, and host of the podcast Health Is Hell, all about what it really means to “be well.” At her parents’ apartment in New York, Ali made her grandmother’s tomato sauce and discussed her path to “wellness” and how cooking factors into her mental health.
I grew up with a mother who worked full-time but also came home every single night at six o'clock and made dinner for us. It was my mom's way of expressing herself 'cause she doesn't have a creative job— she's a lawyer. It was not abnormal for my mom to make three-course meals for dinner when I was in middle school. So, I grew up thinking that food was both an expression of love and an outlet for stifled creativity.
I grew up thinking that food was both an expression of love and an outlet for stifled creativity.
I did not enter a kitchen in high school because I was a spoiled bitch. But then I went to college and became really depressed. At my low point, I was just like, Wow, there is literally no light at the end of the tunnel, and that's when I picked up cooking. It was a way for me to feel like I had some sort of consistency in my life. My mom said something really smart one time: "The nice thing about cooking is that there was a beginning, middle, and an end. If you do it right, you know what the outcome is going to be, and it's a way of controlling your life."
I started my podcast, Health Is Hell, first and foremost because I was really lonely, and I was looking to meet people who saw life the way that I did. I decided, All right, I'm going to make a podcast that is first and foremost comedic and entertaining, but also one that is going to allow me to make connections with these people who exist on the fringes of society. I talk to people about the chances they've taken and the mistakes they've made. I call myself half comedian and half investigative journalist.
I call myself half comedian and half investigative journalist.
Food is the center point of everything I do. I dream about food. I go to bed fucking starving; I wake up starving. I think about food constantly. For me, again, that whole desire to have my friends over and make them food has not left, especially now that we're all busy. I would so much rather have my friends over for some subpar Chinese food that I try to make than go out to a bar and spend $60 on cocktails.
Everyone's sense of humor is becoming the same. Everybody's style is becoming the same. Everybody's view of what a healthy lifestyle looks like is also becoming the same. For whatever reason, we all think that the only way to fill our voids is to wake up at 6 a.m., go to yoga, and maintain a vegan diet.
I'm happiest either when I'm drunk with people I really love or when I've taken time to step away from my electronics and just be by myself. I have a lot of habits that people would consider unhealthy, but the community and the ambience that surrounds those habits make me feel so much better than any adaptogenic mushroom. Don't get me wrong: I love going to the farmers’ market — I am a slut for a farmers’ market — and I believe in the power of home-cooked food. I just think that it's unrealistic for us to all think that we need to be these size-zero modern Buddhas in order to wake up in the morning and not want to kill ourselves.
This recipe was my great-grandmother’s. She used cheap canned tomatoes, canola oil, dried herbs, and that’s how she liked it. We always joke that her special touch was cigarette ash … it adds umami! You cover up the sauce, let it cook for 45 minutes, and then cover it over spaghetti.