Dining with Dad

When she was just beginning to link objects with labels and functions, one of my girls picked a spatula up off the kitchen counter and declared it a “Dada cooker.” Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the role of father in the modern kitchen.

Traditionally, men were not linked to any food prep functions. When they did take utensils in hand, it was to “carve” the roast—a ceremonial ritual dating back to when the head of the household had brought the meat to the table an hour earlier from yonder woods or field. Plus, fathers have also always been pretty deft with barbecue implements, a ritual which dates back even earlier to primordial families who never bothered to specify “rare” or “well done.”

In taking their culinary tools closer and closer to the kitchen stove, men seem to have developed extraordinary skill with the common spatula. Originally, I believe that
dexterity was born of necessity and fine-tuned during all-male fishing trips when there was nothing between them, their hunger and the supper still flopping around in the sink, but an iron skillet and plenty of bacon grease.

“Daddy’s cooking supper?” my sister and I would ask on the occasions my mother could not be home to feed us.

“Yes. I told him to heat up some corn chowder.”

When the time came, we watched in silent amazement tinged with trepidation. Had it been our Mum at the stove, we would have questioned the use of cast iron cookery, and said “yuck” when the Worcester Sauce was added. But, when Daddy did it, we kept still. Even if we had to watch him eat most of the chowder himself and load up on crackers afterwards, paternal cooking was an exciting shift from the ordinary.

It’s no wonder my daughters readily associated the spatula with their dad. Especially on camp weekends, he became so proficient in the short order cooking department the frying pan barely cooled between Saturday morning and Sunday evening. And, like most  dads, he never told them “You just ate,” or “You should have some fruit instead.” He was more than willing to take command of any operation resulting in food, especially grilled cheese sandwich construction for his little fishing buddies on a Saturday afternoon.

Dads don’t generally waste as much energy as moms worrying about the four food groups, either. To them, food is fuel. And the object is to tank up—preferably without forks and, ideally, without plates—so you can return to what you were doing when hunger struck.

“We made sandwiches with Dad for lunch,” I remember Helen announcing as I’d return home from running errands when she and her sister were small.

I could tell. A knife still stood buried in the peanut butter jar in the middle of the table kitchen table. Surrounding it were all the signs of a motherless feeding frenzy—paper towels, crumbs and huge hunks of cast off crusts.

“Did you have anything to drink?” I’d ask. (I’d learned that dads making dinner got so intent on the dietary bulk of the meal that they’d usually forget the liquid part.)

“Oh, yes,” said Helen. “Red Kool Aid. But we spilled some and Dad wiped it all up so the floors wouldn’t be sticky.”

I could tell. My oak Lazy Susan was glued to the table top and I could see a mound of pink stained paper towels heaped into the wastebasket. “Don’t say anything to your Mom,” he must have instructed as he unraveled a long, billowing expanse off the towel holder at the other side of the room. The sponge next to the sink, however, was dry as a bone.

I always figured this behavior dated back to the time when a guy’s bandana had to suffice for a cleaning cloth and his water was rationed from a canteen. Or, maybe it was the natural result of too many boyhood confrontations with a mom who didn’t understand there was no time to tidy up your trail when the Injuns were after you. Most likely, it stems from a little bit of both. I do know that, somewhere along the line, dads came to rely on “dry” cleaning to cope with spills and splatters.

I had to remind myself that this very same cavalier kitchen attitude had been adding spice and excitement to father-child relationships, mine included, since the first time a woman walked away from her hearth for any amount of time. I’d bite my tongue, wet the sponge, and remember my dad’s special corn chowder out of a can. And I’d especially think of Grandpa.

It was a rare and festive occasion when my grandma would drive off alone to go shopping, and my grandpa would let us take full advantage. (For those of you who read about her in Letting Myself Stay, I’m not talking about my mild-mannered Nana who’d offer us dessert all the time because she thought we were company and she’d probably just served us a meal but couldn’t really remember. This was my other, omnipresent grandma, who once told me she liked to dust. She policed her cookie supply and seemed to think the earth would spin off its axis if you ate more than two a day or, Heaven forbid, consumed your food groups in the wrong order.)

“Is she gone yet?” my grandpa would wonder with boyish impatience as my sister and I watched the big, blue Ford back down the driveway. We’d wait until she was safely on her way and then race into the kitchen straight for the cookie jar.

“Don’t tell your grandmother!” Grandpa always reminded us with a devilish smile as he scooped most of the crumbs into a napkin and double-checked us for Oreo moustaches.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone! May you dine with your dad in your heart and at your table.

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