Seemingly out of the blue, over lunch the other day, I recalled many of the dishes my father prepared when I was a child. I still have stained recipe cards for some, in his firm stylized handwriting. But these things are never really “out of the blue” are they? Of course there was the “Grads and Dads” reminder on the tube. Yes the TV was on while I was eating, but it was only lunch.
Not unlike the other food-obsessed people I know, many of my first memories are food memories. Good and bad. Families tell certain stories over and over until everyone knows them by heart. Many of mine are about food. Funny how those stories repeated through the years, become a kind of trellis for your growing up. What they transmit is a bit of your family DNA – what is important to us and why, what is to be admired, or feared.
My father made Bulgoki (his own recipe), Chicken Paprikash (with egg noodles made on the countertop), roast duck (my first ever was one he shot on a hunting trip), Coq au Vin. These were dishes that piqued my interest in food, in other countries, in stories about the families in other countries that ate such things. These were dishes that my father cooked.
As I recalled all the different things my Dad would cook or could cook (he didn’t do it often) I thought how odd it was that he would have learned how to make such things as paella or kimchi.
My father came from very humble beginnings. And by humble, I don’t mean that somewhat fuzzy, ultimately comfortable revised-memory sense. I mean really poor. Poor in an un-fun way, not a favorite threadbare flannel shirt way. He grew up in a part of New Jersey that can make grown men cry. I know it can, I’ve seen it happen.
I thought about the ways my father influenced not only how I eat but my approach to food, too. He nurtured my love for good food and my curiosity about the world in unconscious ways - the only type of nurturing he did well. As every adult who survives an imperfect childhood hopes to do, I’ve achieved a small measure of forgiveness about this and a larger amount of gratitude.
I don’t remember if I ever asked how it was he came to learn about these different foods. The only dish in his repertoire whose origins I knew of was his paprikash. It came with one of the very few morsels of information offered about his mother. I understood the reason we heard so little about her was the same reason we heard so little about the Vietnam War: both had been traumatic for him, maybe on about the same scale. Questions were not invited.
If some food memories came with pain, there was still the act of sharing that smoothes it over. Telling me about paprikash and how his mother loved it so, my father told me about her Hungarian origins, her family, about her sister that was killed by a streetcar in this new country. I learned that noodles don’t always come in a bag or a box. In the old country, a mound of flour and some eggs produce really good handmade noodles, perfect for the paprika-laced sauce.
My father and I had few moments like these, heightening their significance in my memory. As he kneaded the dough, he told me how he’d prepared his mother’s favorite dish for her on the night of their planned reconciliation meeting. He told me how she’d died before that dinner took place. And still, he prepared the dish for me, told me the story and showed me how to make the handmade noodles.
A story about the meal you’re preparing told to a listening and watching child, transmits more than a mere recipe. It tells her what is important to you. It tells her you are willing to share important truths about yourself. It shows her how to nourish.
Apropos of what I have long since forgotten, my father lent me a short story to read. It was a 1935 short story by Allan Seager called “This Town and Salamanca.” Maybe this story was meant to tell me something about him. Was he trying to give me a key of some sort, a cipher to make sense of the distance between us? The story includes a character that has traveled to exotic places only to return to a decidedly un-exotic small town and settle down. His stories of Salamanca enthrall his friends.
I had never heard of Salamanca, nor much of Spain at that juncture. I knew even less about my father then, than I do now, I think. Perhaps the story was the impetus for my father learning to prepare paella. It is more likely that his love of the story and his love of good food were both outgrowths of something essential to him. What stories lay at the origin of his bulgoki dish, I may never know. What I am certain of, is that a gift-card to a chain restaurant is not the best Father’s Day gift.
Instead, make a meal with your father and share stories. Or make a meal that your father taught you about and thank him for the gift he gave you.