Today is the memorial service for my father. I have been revisiting memories of my special times with him over the years in preparation for the brief tribute I will make to him at the service. Maybe because of my food-focused life, my thoughts have taken a food-focused form. You can learn a lot about a person by what they do with food: how they prepare it, how they eat it, and how they share the experiences surrounding it.
My dad had no use for recipes, in his cooking or in how he defined himself. He always cooked from scratch, and that is pretty much how he created himself too. Even though he was a Yale-educated lawyer with a long, impressive career, he was still the guy a waitress or bartender would greet warmly by name at the Channel Inn, one of his favorite places for a burger and a beer.
He liked nice things, but mostly he just appreciated the simple, basic pleasures of life: breakfast at George Webb, not George Watts; Timex, not Rolex; and most of all, time with family and friends.
He was a traditional breadwinner in the style of the 50’s and 60’s, but then again he wasn’t. Unlike Ward Cleaver, he seldom settled into a chair after work to read the paper quietly. He preferred to spend active time playing with his kids.
Occasionally he even stepped over the line into the role of nurturer, normally filled by my mother. I have a very special personal memory of one of those times. My mother was not at home, and my dad was in charge. I was probably around 6 years old, and I wanted my hair curled. It was something my mom had done for me a few times. I remember him carefully and somewhat clumsily twirling pieces of my hair around his fingers and anchoring each piece with a couple of bobbie pins, just how I told him to do it. As I said, he was not someone to be defined by any recipe-type of formula of what a dad of that time period should be, and we all benefitted from that.
In the kitchen, food preparation was one way he expressed a lot of love and caring, not to mention adventure and fun! There is no better example of this than the Sunday morning breakfast “events” he orchestrated with us. “Us” did not include Mom, because she was queen for the morning. Only as I got older did I fully appreciate how nice this must have been for my mom to be cared for and allowed to stay in bed to await her service. This service evolved through the weeks, months, and years from simple to quite elaborate and complex.
I remember developing menus and taking my mom’s breakfast order. Over time, we began to incorporate sterling flatware and cloth napkins – only the finest for our mom would do! We would go shopping to pick up donuts and other supplies. All the while, we learned to anticipate the pleasure she would get. “Oh, she really loves those plates . . . let’s use them.” My dad was always with us on this. Never did we hear, “No, those are too fancy. They might break.”
Along with his spirit of fun and adventure, making me want to sign on for whatever he had in mind, another trait I always admired was his willingness to take chances, try new things, risk “failure,” and make the best out any and all outcomes. In the kitchen, this played out in his love of creating sauces of all kinds for all types of dishes. They were all unique. Some were great, and some were, honestly, more interesting than tasty.
But that’s not the point. The point is that he loved to invent his sauces with what he had. I remember one time – on vacation, with limited pantry supplies. I watched as he put a little of this and a little of that together, all things that seemed normal (broth, seasonings, whatever), until he grabbed the box of grits. I don’t remember this as my favorite of all of his sauce inventions, but I will say that I remember it best, simply because he got such a kick out of trying something new with limited resources. He was not afraid of ruining it. He just tossed the grits in with an attitude of “Let’s see how this works. How bad could it be??!”
As an adult, I sometimes hesitate with decisions about trying something unknown, something with no definite “recipe” for success. I am not a huge risk-taker at heart, yet I know that without the guts to do those things, life ends up being a little “flat.” I try to think of Dad at times like that. I know he would tell me, “Life is short. Just go ahead and throw in the grits!”