Monday, June 20, 2011

My Father, The Eater

Today was a fairly uneventful day: a morning spent writing over coffee and fantastic red flannel hash (roasted beets, potatoes, and bacon with poached eggs) at Mia's Cafe in Eastsound, and a hungry but fairly mellow crowd at pizza time. (We sold out early--90 pizzas sold before 7pm, not too shabby.) A few of the gatherings today were definitely centered around dads, whose kids passed them up the last slices of pizza and shared sips of strawberry lemonade. A good way to honor your family on a beautiful sunny Father's Day...

My dad was the first encounter I ever had with a "big eater." At 6 feet 4 inches, and a less-than-portly more-than-lean stature, he could put away any kind of food in front of him, including whatever was left on our plates. (We referred to him as the "human garbage disposal," a term he was fine with so long as it meant he had dibs on the table scraps.) In his early 40s, after being diagnosed with sleep apnea (a condition exasterbated by being overweight), he put in hours every day at the gym, but his real sacrifice came from not getting to eat up the difference post calories-burned. We'd have to remind him that the only way to lose weight was to avoid eating back the calories--and this reminder always came when he was loading up his plate with a second slice of apple pie. As a partner in a law firm, he'd often bill hours working at home after we'd gone to bed, which meant he'd be around to cook us dinner before my mom got home each night from her museum curatorial position. Mom would take on the complicated dishes and events--Thanksgiving was her holiday, from the cornbread and dried fruit-stuffed turkey to the pear and cranberry chutney--and she always played a role in packing our school lunches, resplendent with those totally tradeable items like whole wheat peanut butter sandwiches and "fruit bark."

But for everyday dinners, Dad would often take the lead. He wasn't an elaborate cook--stir-fries of vegetables and chicken breast, served up with buttery rice pilaf, were the norm--but his specialties were stick-to-your-ribs food: when Mom would be home especially late, he'd open up a can of Heinz's vegetarian baked beans, sweet with hints of molasses and mustard, and dump it into a pot on the stove. Meanwhile he'd slice up 4 or 5 links of Hebrew National hot dogs and sear them in a skillet, and roll out a can of Pillsbury buttermilk biscuits. I'd listen as he pulled the tab off the can, releasing the signature pop and hiss of the vacuum-packed dough, and I'd pull each biscuit apart and plop it onto a sheet pan. While the biscuits baked, he'd mix together the hot dogs and beans and fill my bowl with it (my sister, until a very late age, ate nothing but pasta with butter.) I'd pull apart the flaky layers of my biscuit and dip them into the beans, eating until I could wipe the bowl clean with the last remaining biscuit.

Lord knows how much salt, butter, and oil I consumed when my dad cooked, and years of near-childhood-obesity are nothing that nostalgic relish can erase. (Adolescence is always painful, but adolescence with a weight problem is especially bad.) But even as he taught me bad food habits, he also taught me something very valuable: that food--when it's fancy, when it's totally ordinary--is almost always on some level about pleasure. When we still lived in California, we'd often do post-dinner runs for ice cream or frozen yogurt, and the ritual of walking out to the car with your special little paper cup of chocolate chip cookie dough became a sign of a night well-spent. Once we moved to New England in my teenage years, the march to the freezer (kept in our basement, a late-breaking gesture at self-restraint) became just as valuable, even if it was for Fudgesicles instead of actual fudge. He was a guy that relished desserts, and good food, as a communal experience.

He didn't live long enough to see me start to cook in a serious way...he died, quite unexpectedly, when I was almost 20, and it's impossible to cook a really good meal for myself without thinking of how he would've enjoyed it. And more than enjoying my triumphs, he would've delighted, at least a little bit, in my mistakes...

After fighting back the major weight problems I'd experienced as an early adolescent, I started to channel my fascination with food into creation rather than consumption. I began to read through my family's cookbook collection, go on supermarket runs, and pick out recipes that seemed interesting to me. When I was about 16 years old, my sister (then 9) and I decided to plot out a special dinner for our parents. I'd make the main dish (a pasta with roasted red peppers and garlic, and just butter sauce for her), and she'd make a cake for dessert. I set her up with her ingredients--the ever trustworthy Duncan Hines mix, an egg, canola oil, and a whisk--then turned to my task. The recipe asked for "2 cloves garlic, minced"--I knew how to chop garlic nice and small, but the "cloves" amount three me off. Surely they couldn't mean the little pieces of the garlic bulb--otherwise they'd call them "pieces," right? So I took clove to mean the entire bulb, and proceeded to peel and chop two full heads of garlic. This is a lot of garlic, I thought, but if "garlic" is in the recipe name, it must be a major flavor. With my two full handfuls of garlic in the sauce, I threw in my chopped red peppers and other ingredients, and a half hour later, called my parents to the dinner table, which we'd set with candles and cloth napkins to make it extra special.

I tasted the pasta, and the garlicky sauce nearly knocked me flat. Maybe I should add more cheese, to make it less strong, I thought, and dumped in an extra two tablespoons of ricotta to make it creamier. It helped, but not nearly enough to fix the problem. I looked over the recipe to see what I did wrong...

"Jess, let's just sit down and eat," Dad said, taking the full pot of dressed pasta from my hands. 'I'm sure it'll be delicious." He filled his plate, and my mom's, and dug his fork into the sauce, now nearly pink after all my extra ricotta. His eyes immediately started to water. My mom began to cough uncontrollably.

"There's a lot of garlic in this..."

"Well, that's what the recipe told me..."

"Can you show it to me?"

I handed him the cookbook, and his eyes scanned down the page. (Leave it to a lawyer to look for the loophole.) " put in two cloves of garlic?"

"Yeah, two BIG cloves."

"Can you show me the size?"

I pulled a "clove" out of the garlic jar that lived on our windowsill, and brought it over to him. He started to laugh, a huge guffawing laugh somewhere between coughing and barking. "That's a HEAD, sweetie."

"Oh NO," Mom said, and started to laugh as well. I stood there, tearing up with humiliation and wounded pride as they looked at their vampire-proof pasta. Needles to say, we had cake for dinner.

It's taken me until my late twenties to start a true chef's education, but I'd like to think that my first kitchen experiments were born out of my dad's availability as a taste-tester. I could've given him botulism, or a horrible stomachache, but he gave me a taste for trying things out, for making mistakes, for continuing to seek out new and delightful flavors.

When I moved into my current apartment in Morningside Heights, the first dish I made was a pot of hot dogs and beans. Dad would've been proud, and hungry.


  1. Our dads had a lot in common. I don't know exactly what I actually think about the afterlife, but I do like to think of them eating hot dogs and baked beans somewhere together, trading stories about their kids and maybe fiddling with the scores of Red Sox games to the best of their angellic abilities.

  2. Oh my goodness, Jessica, you brought back such memories with that post. I remember that garlic laced pasta clearly! What a post...

    By the way, Daddy only had a bit of a belly after he turned 40....he was pretty trim up until then....