Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Remembering my father

I wrote the following in January, 2001, after our first Christmas without my father.

I made pancakes for my family on Christmas morning; it was probably the most important and most difficult meal I’ve ever cooked. Anyone who knew my father knows what I mean.

I learned to cook from my father, although I can’t remember him ever showing me how to cook anything. He certainly never gave me a recipe; I don’t think he ever used one.

My mother was the everyday cook in our family, making sure dinner was on time and school lunches were packed, day after day and year after year. She made the kind of solid, reliable, meat-and-potatoes meals that our generation now calls comfort food.

Dad was the special occasion cook. He would take over when we had fresh-caught salmon or trout; he made breakfast on holidays when the house was filled with relatives; and sometimes he cooked just because he wanted to. Some of his best meals happened when he wasn’t expecting to cook – on those rare days when Mom was sick, or even rarer days when she wasn’t home at dinnertime. He found great pleasure in improvising a meal, taking whatever ingredients were available and combining them into something special. Everyday foods became exotic when Dad was in the kitchen. And cooking for people he cared about, whether it was just him and Mom or a houseful of family, was clearly one of his greatest joys. It was that pleasure and creativity that I learned from him, and I feel his influence whenever I cook, whether I’m making a special dinner for guests or just making something new out of a bunch of leftovers.

Several weeks after Dad died, I had a sudden and stunning realization – that I would never again taste his cooking. It sounds so simple and obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me before, and it took me to a whole new level of mourning. I started to dread the holidays. I asked myself, over and over, Who will carve the turkey on Thanksgiving? Who will make Christmas breakfast? I didn’t have an answer.

The night that he died, Dad was thinking of his mother’s cooking. He had asked Mom to buy some fresh spinach, and the next morning he planned to cook it with scrambled eggs, to recreate one of his mother’s specialties. I’ve wondered, since then, how often in the past 25 years he wished he could taste his mom’s cooking again, to savor her hand-made pasta, her perfect gnocchi, her endless variety of cookies. Nonna told me once that she only prayed for her hands, not for her eyes, her ears, or her voice, so she could continue making things for her family as long as she lived. When I was about 14, she gave me her secret pizzelle “recipe.” There was no written recipe, but I made pizzelles with her, carefully following her instructions and frantically writing notes whenever she turned her back. Like Dad, she never used a measuring cup; everything was done by sight, by feel, and by taste.

It’s been our tradition at Thanksgiving for Mom to cook the turkey and stuffing, and everyone else to bring a side dish. Dad would then carve the turkey at the dining room table. I tried to imagine someone else carving the turkey, but I just couldn’t see it. Nothing I could imagine was acceptable to me. When the day came, and the turkey was cooked, Becky volunteered to do the carving. I think she carved it in the kitchen, but I’m not really sure. I sat at the extra table in the living room, instead of my usual spot in the dining room. It was a relief to have a completely different view of Thanksgiving dinner, rather than the scene I had been dreading – the dining room table without my father.

As Christmas approached, I found myself thinking constantly of our traditional family breakfast. There’s usually a variety of foods, but Dad’s pancakes have always been the centerpiece of the meal. Anyone who was lucky enough to taste them said Dad's pancakes were the best they’d ever had. Family friends have told me they don’t like pancakes, and never eat them – except at my parents’ house. Whenever someone asked how he made them, Dad would just answer that he used Aunt Jemima’s buttermilk pancake mix. Which was true, sort of – he did start with a box of Aunt Jemima’s – but anyone who thought they could get the same results by following the directions on the box would have been very disappointed. Knowing what brand of mix he started with was about as useful as knowing what kind of spatula he used to flip them.

I asked Libby and Annie how they felt about having our traditional breakfast, and they were both in favor of it. Mom also wanted it, but she seemed to want to leave it to chance, expecting a spontaneous meal of eggs and pancakes, without a real plan to make it happen. Eventually I realized that if we were going to have pancakes, I wanted to make them. I didn’t know how my brother and sisters would feel about my taking over, but I was willing to take a chance. 

What I remember of Christmas morning is a collection of unconnected moments. I stayed focused on the pancakes, and I remember beating the eggs, scalding the butter (one of the secret ingredients – don’t tell anyone!), and almost forgetting the molasses. Mostly I remember the family all crowded into the kitchen, cooking the eggs and slicing the ham, and offering help and support while I tried to imitate one of Dad’s most admired creations. I was the one mixing and pouring, but I felt like we were all making those pancakes together. And I remember his presence in the room; I think every one of us felt it.

The pancakes?  Mom said they were great.