Friday, June 17, 2011

Fathers and Food

Rachel and I are going to share a post today, a little celebration/tip-off to our respective dads as we enter the weekend that honors fathers. I'll kick it off.

If you added up the number of meals served in my house growing up, my mother certainly made most of them. But it is my father who most influenced my taste buds. My dad was a large man for most of his life. He was tall and big chested and he was also always at least somewhat over the ideal weight. The reason for that was simple: He loved to eat. And he loved to eat well.

This is a man who lived the Mad Men life of two-martini lunches at swank restaurants in New York, followed by card games in the bar car on the way home from New York to New Jersey, followed by a substantive dinner. On weekends, he loved nothing better than piling the whole family in the car and driving somewhere — one of his and my mother's favorite restaurants was at least an hour's drive from our home — for a full-on meal, complete with appetizers and dessert. It was during these regular forays that I learned how to sit still at the dinner table, which fork to use and the wonders of parfaits (a dessert I also loved because I felt quite smart being able to spell it).

On weekends when we didn't eat out, my dad loved nothing better than cooking steak sandwiches on the grill, often with fresh vegetables from our garden. And at the holidays, he was the creator of many of our most special dishes. (His pies, as regular readers know, were out of this world.)

When my father became diabetic later in life (no surprise there, given his eating patterns and his family history), he still ate well, just differently. Okay, so he couldn't eat the same kinds of desserts. But that didn't mean he couldn't have dessert; it just meant more fresh fruit and less sweetener.

My father, who died four days after my 32nd birthday and three days before Rachel's third birthday, stands at my side now as I cook and as I eat. He reminds me, a woman who has struggled with loving her body and nurturing/nourishing it, to enjoy the food, savor the moment. My dad was a no-nonsense kind of guy, a man who grew up in an era when hugs were forms of intimacy left only for rare moments. But in his gusto for food — the sharing of it, the joy of eating it, the cooking of it for people he cared about — he showered me with love day in and day out.

Rachel here.

I planned out what I was going to write today in my head over the past day or so without any knowledge of what my mom was going to write. There are interesting parallels, I think, between the lessons she learned about food from her father and the lessons I learned from mine. Perhaps we observed them more because they weren't usually the ones standing at the stove...

My dad is a measured man. An avid runner, he--like me--appreciates routine. Growing up, I watched him eat a bowl of cereal every morning for breakfast (ok, as a teenager I noticed the bowl upside down in the dishwasher...), washed down with a glass of juice. For lunch during the week he'd pack himself a half of a sandwich and two pieces of fruit each day (on weekends he dutifully consumed the leftovers in the fridge). Home from work, he'd pop open a can of peanuts and enjoy a few nibbles before sitting down and vocally enjoying the entirety of whatever meal my mom had prepared.

Here is what I learned:

I learned about moderation. I learned to invest in the good stuff so the indulgent food would not only taste luxurious but feel good, too. I learned about food as fuel, as stamina for the bodily machine. I learned about portions and balance. Without ever talking about it, my dad showed me how to eat. It is a model I have turned to often when I feel lost in the vast sphere of food. Make half a sandwich, grab two pieces of fruit. Your body will thank you.

There is something else, though, that I learned from my dad as I witnessed his eating patterns growing up. A blue and white speckled bowl held court in the middle of our kitchen table, brimming with fruit. My dad never picked the prettiest pieces out, though. Instead, he'd reach into the bottom and pull out the leopard-spotted banana or bruised apple--even a peach that was starting to mold in a spot--to eat. I always avoided those fruits, figuring a speck of rot was the same as a pile of mush, favoring the unmarred fruit and letting its mottled counterparts continue their deterioration. While there's the sort of obvious lesson to eat the food that's turning before you consume that which remains hearty, there is an undercurrent to this little tableau that courses through my dad's character.

My dad is a man for the underdog, a shirker of the easy answer and a celebrator of the enigmatic and idiosyncratic. I asked him once about why he chose the fruit that was turning and he said that it tasted so, so sweet. From where he stood there was nothing wrong at all and, instead, he set his eyes and pallet on the marvelous and deep flavors that come from truly ripe fruit. While seeking and sustaining routine, he keeps his eyes open. From the middle of the road, he takes in the periphery, marveling at its unruliness and appreciating the balance of it all. He sees spectacular fungus formations on trees deep off the trail when we hike. He notices M's tiniest flickers of observation as they flash across her face. And when the day is done, he sits down and appreciates this momentary arrival, enjoying his good dinner and the occasional ice cream cone, too.

If you had/have a dad, what did/do you learn from him about food? What are your favorite food memories?

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