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The Food Guy: Closing the book on Sterling’s beloved spaghetti sauce

steven keith

After weeks of research, countless email tips and dozens of phone conversations, I finally have the scoop on that Sterling Restaurant spaghetti sauce recipe that has created so much buzz of late.

And I hope you’re sitting down when you hear how this story ends.

This latest recipe quest has given me a wonderful opportunity to talk to so many delightful readers sharing their fond memories of the old Sterling. Many of them have recalled the restaurant’s glory days in such vivid and animated detail that it makes me sad I never got to experience the place myself.

But as pleasant as those conversations have been, they can’t hold a candle to the poignant talks I’ve had with the restaurant owner’s remaining family members and their friends, some of them calling me from other parts of the country where they now live.

“I saw your article about the Sterling Restaurant sauce and wanted to reach out,” wrote Cathy Meadows McCreary. “This family was a second family to me growing up and the remaining family still are my best friends. I’d love to connect you to lots of history and one of the remaining children of Papa Raptis.”

And another: “Hey Steve, my name is Jeffrey Raptis Lowery, grandson of Andrew A. Raptis, founder of the Sterling Restaurant. Man, I used to make that spaghetti sauce back 36 years ago, along with all the salad dressings, coleslaw and onion rings. I’m gonna dig deep to see if I can remember how that sauce was made.”

Then came this voicemail from Little River, South Carolina.

“Hey, Mr. Food Guy! My name is Dottie Raptis Lowery and I’ve really enjoyed reading your stories about all of the people talking about how much they loved the Sterling. I have the real story behind that spaghetti sauce caper,” she laughed, “if you’d like to give me a call.”

Of course I did. Turns out she’s the youngest of five Raptis children, and she did, in fact, have the scoop. But here’s the gut-kicker.

There is no recipe.

“I hate to be the one to tell you, but that recipe was never written down,” confided Lowery, one of three surviving children.

“Dad had a terrific memory and always knew exactly what ingredients went into that sauce, how much of each to use and when to put them in,” she said. “He’d make 40 or 50 gallons at a time and never once wrote down the recipe. There was no recipe, I can promise you that.”

I was afraid this might be how the story ended. When Jeff got back to me, he verified the same thing.

“I can remember some things but not all right now,” he said. “I do know my grandfather never had that recipe written down. It was handed down since he passed in 1963, when I was 2. He passed it on to my dad, who passed it down to me.”

He said there was definitely no “special” spice involved — although there was one unusual ingredient.

“It was pretty much a simple recipe. I do remember we would render down beef fat from the steaks we cut. We’d get sides of beef from the Swift Meat Company, and I would cut the fat off the backs of it and then cut the tenderloins out or keep it in them for the porterhouse and T-bones. We would use it for the beef stock in the sauce along with tomato sauce and paste (Hunts) and I can remember shaving carrots.”

Carrots?

Yep. They’d shave them right into the sauce with the ground beef and let it cook for eight or nine hours.

“I’ll probably remember more in time and I’m going to try and make it again real soon,” he added. “And I’ll know when I get it, because I do know that taste.”

After realizing my recipe quest had come to an end, Dottie and I switched gears and talked a little more about her father, a man so beloved throughout the Kanawha Valley back in the day.

Dottie said he came to America with 16 cents in his pocket and got a job in a coal mine. He worked there to save up enough money to open a little store in Virginia, and that’s where he met his wife before coming to West Virginia and eventually opening the Sterling.

“He was such a great person, a great father and was so well-liked by everyone.”

To illustrate that last point, she shared one of her favorite stories about her father.

“He was in the restaurant one day and a customer mentioned how much she’d love to have a special corn dish she cherished. Dad didn’t have those ingredients on hand, so he had fresh corn shipped in from Iowa and made that dish for her the very next day.”

She said he was “just that type of person” and wanted everyone to be happy.

“I’ve received at least 20 calls since your article came out and several friends have sent copies to me down here,” she added. “It’s brought up so many wonderful memories of my father and I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done.”

To say it’s been my pleasure, Dottie, would be the understatement of the year.

•••

Remember Mrs. White, the woman who I said often calls me to recall her days working at the Sterling anytime I mention the restaurant in an article?There’s another reader who’s hoping to connect with her as well.

“First off, I want to tell you how much I really enjoy your articles,” said Summersville reader J.D. Kellner. “If that woman you mentioned does call you back again, I’m hoping you could give her my number or somehow put us in touch. My grandmother used to work at the Sterling and I’d love to connect with someone to learn more about that part of her life.”

Will do, J.D. I’d love to help facilitate any new memories you can hold on to.

•••

Finally, let’s bring this latest trip down Sterling road to a close with a chuckle.Certainly ranking as the most entertaining voicemail I’ve received in some time, an elderly Lewisburg man who didn’t leave his name called to “sing” me his memories of the “Chicken in the Rough” dinner I also mentioned last week.

Yes, sing.

Recalling a memory of his youth, this reader sang me the jingle from a Washington, D.C., restaurant that used to offer the same meal.

I’ve been grinning ear-to-ear ever since.

Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at wvfoodguy@aol.com. You can also follow him on Facebook as WV Food Guy and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as WVFoodGuy.

Funerals for Saturday, August 24, 2019

Barron, Dennis - 11 a.m., Airborne Church, Martinsburg.
Baylor, Elizabeth - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.
Bonds Jr., Patrick - 1 p.m., King of Glory International Ministries, Charleston.
Burgess, Corey - 5 p.m., Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Burns, Helen - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Inc., Grantsville.
Caldwell, Gary - 6 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.
Casto, Carroll - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor.
Casto, Roger - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.
Duty, Fred - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.
Fisher, Bernard - 2 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.
Gwinn, Lloyd - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Habjan, Nathan - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay. 
Hall, Daniel - Noon, Witcher Baptist Church.
Hinkle, Ethel - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Hoffman, Bruce - 2 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.  
Kinder, Siegel - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.
Kyler, Virgil - 11 a.m., Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Reedy.
Palmer, William - 1 p.m., Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston. 
Raynes Sr., Steven - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.
Truman, James - 2 p.m., Newton Baptist Church, Newton.
Turner, Keith - Noon, Full Gospel Assembly,  Huntington. 
Webb, Antoinette - 11 a.m., SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Oak Hill.
Wilson, Greg - Noon, Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.
Withrow, James - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.