Some days, the best cook in my mother's
kitchen was my dad. Not that Mum wasn't a wonderful cook in her own
right. She had a huge repertoire of hearty Canadian fare derived from
the Scots and Anglo traditions - rich dishes passed down from her grandmother,
designed to stick to your ribs and nourish you through the cold Canadian
winters. Roasts and stews bursting with root vegetables and herbs, biscuits
and popovers dripping with butter (heaven on a plate), creamed or curried
anything, and the best macaroni and cheese and scalloped potatoes I've
ever tasted. Mum was an efficient and intuitive cook, never measuring,
always using what was on hand, abundantly feeding anyone within range
at every mealtime.
When Daddy cooked, though, something
magical happened in my mother's kitchen. Maybe it was that Daddy didn't
get there very often. Maybe it was that he was always experimenting
with exotic ingredients or unusual recipes that Mum didn't have time
for, what with feeding five kids and all. Maybe it was just the luxury
of spending a rainy Sunday afternoon by his side, covered in flour from
head to toe, creating something delicious.
Whatever it was, it always began
the same way. Sitting at the kitchen table after dinner, he'd mention
that he'd seen an interesting recipe and wouldn't it be great to try
it out. He's pull a crumpled clipping out of his shirt pocket. It might
have been a recipe for Tzatziki or Mole or Dim Sum or Beignets. My parents
would talk a while about the recipe as if it were an old friend who
could use a little self-improvement or a room that needed a fresh coat
of paint; improvising and imagining the final product as a collaborative
"Didn't we have something like
that in New York? With the Smiths, you know, at that little downstairs
"Yes, but with chicken. I remember
the bright flavor - a little bitter, but the lemon would fix that."
"And the chili would give it
"Maybe with rice instead of
And so it would go, my parents imagining
an entire gourmet meal, spinning variations and gathering inspiration,
recalling food from the days before the house was filled with hungry
children. I always envied them for the romance of the evenings they
must have spent in charming little bistros, sharing plates of ethnic
delicacies. I never really thought of my parents as foodies, but they
cultivated an appreciation that was rare in the early '60's. It was
a common bond that reached beyond the everyday responsibilities of their
home and their children - a bond that would even survive their eventual
divorce. They could always talk about food.
In reality, only one part of their
imagined meal ever showed up when Daddy cooked, but it was always the
best part. The next night he'd come home a little late, carrying a mysterious
paper packet marked with a handwritten label, often from Chinatown or
the health food store or the Cambridge Coffee, Tea & Spice House.
He'd set it on the counter on top of the recipe clipping and wait until
after dinner to show my mother and me what was inside. Sometimes it
was a pungent powdered spice that would fill the room with the dusky
scent of a faraway country. Sometimes the packet would reveal a strange
vegetable or fruit that would set us wondering how in the world it grew
-on a tree, a bush, underground? Sometimes it would be something as
simple as yogurt (who knew yogurt in the '60's?) or a special type of
flour or grain. I'd rub the silky rice flour or the gritty masa between
my thumb and forefinger for the texture, then touch my fingertip to
the end of my tongue for a taste.
When cooking day arrived, Mum would
occupy the younger kids elsewhere and Dad and I would have the kitchen
to ourselves. He'd lay out the recipe, smoothing it with his palm. Then
he'd begin to recite the ingredients in a way that made them sound like
poetry and we'd pull what we needed from the pantry, fridge and cupboards.
It was a reverend, if chaotic ritual. Rather like an orchestra tuning
up; comforting and exciting at once, each individual note foreshadowing
the unexpected combinations to come. Dad was more haphazard, but I liked
to place the ingredients in order of use, next to the utensil we'd be
working with. It made me feel organized and mature. Then the alchemy
Dad celebrated all his senses at
every stage of his cooking, and his gentle commands taught me to do
the same. "Smell this intense nutmeg!" "Look at the magnificent
color of that salmon!" "Listen to that deep sizzle!"
"Feel how smooth this batter is!" "Taste this beautiful
cheese mixture!" "What a gorgeous glaze!î
He was always excited to share his
wonder in the ingredients and in the process, teaching me not only to
appreciate all the transformations inherent in the cooking experience,
but also translating for me the secret language of food. In a conspiratorial
whisper, he'd say, "The bubbles will tell you when to turn it.""Listen
for the sizzling to stop - that's asking you to add the liquid."
"When the color changes, it's saying, watch me closely, I'm almost
done." "When you begin to smell the spices, they're asking
to be taken off the fire."
He always allowed me to do most
of the work - anything that wasn't dangerous or too heavy for my young
hands, and he often let me make mistakes and discover amazing culinary
consequences and recoveries. "What happened when you beat the cream
too long?" "It's lumpy and greasy." "What does it
taste like?" "Butter!" "How about adding some of
this extra garlic so we can make garlic butter, then?"
Many of our experiments never made
it to the dinner table. Lured to the kitchen by aromas or curiosity,
the family would sneak in for a sample, so those Sunday feasts Daddy
and I made were often enjoyed standing up. We'd all gather around the
counter nibbling out of hand thick slices of Spanikopita barely cool
enough to eat, or we'd stand around a pot of spicy Cioppino on the stove,
everyone dipping in a spoon or some bread and exclaiming over the latest
concoction till we were too full to speak.
And Daddy always shared the glory
for a job well done. "Didn't Stacy do a great job on the sauce?"
Wasn't Stacy's garlic butter excellent?" I basked in the satisfaction
of his pride, and in my own sense of adventure and accomplishment. And
inside I glowed with a special treasure - the memory of another afternoon
with the best cook and the best dad ever.