When my father first became single after his split with my mom, he had his best friend from childhood, "The Doc," over our house. My father remains close with many of his friends from childhood, each of them with their particular nicknames. When I was still living in my childhood home, I’d asked my father why he called his friend John, "The Doc."
"I’ll tell you on your wedding day," he’d said, thinking then, and only then, would I be fit to hear the real meaning behind the moniker.
I’m pretty sure, though, that my mother spoiled it for him when she spilled the beans years later (but before my wedding day). "The Doc," she said to me, "You know, like M.D."
"MD stands for…"
"Muff Diver," my mother whispered. I didn’t get it. "That’s his thing," she said. "He likes doing that." "Kinda like his specialty. A fellowship, as it were."
But on the night my father had The Doc over our house, I didn’t know this yet. I was in college, home for the weekend, and The Doc was coming over to commiserate.
I insisted on cooking as my father replayed events to John. I was at the sink rinsing grit off the inside layers of leeks, as the men sat behind me at a card table in the kitchen. I think we’d been waiting to get a kitchen table my mother liked, a table that never came.
My father rehashed with The Doc, repeating all the stories he’d already said to me, and then without warning, his face would redden, and he’d start to weep. I kept the water running and added a slip of butter to the pan.
Dad kept saying the same things, things I’d heard him say several times a day, repeating conversations, trying to convince the room of something it already knew. He was in mourning and needed that repetition; he had to get it all out, even if it took a few tries a day.
I remember what I made that night, using my mother’s care-worn pans and wooden spoon. She was gone, but her tools remained—the crap ones. We had precious little, but we’d make do. I made paparadelle with leeks, saffron, and cream. He needed the kind of comfort that comes from translucent strips of onion, softening with time. I remember, most of all, my father’s surprise when he took that first bite. Always hungry for Daddy’s approval, I was the same as an adult, delighting in his praise, but more than that, or maybe just as much, I remember feeling proud that even if for just a moment, I made him forget. I shifted his focus from pain to delight.
"Wow, Stephanie. This is really good." He said it in almost that backhanded way that implies, I never thought you were even capable of this. I didn’t care; I pleased him.
And I guess that’s what I try to do for everyone, just the way my mother had done. She’d spent days in the kitchen, composing sedar plates, "And it’s not even my religion!" And my father’s family would mostly move the food around on their plates, overly appreciative in their praise, but their money wasn’t were their mouths were. My sister and I would scrape plates of food into the trashcan as my mother surveyed the room, counting on her fingers which were the decafs. I think she wanted to cook her way into the family, the same way I want to cook love into mine.
I want to please Phil, trying to cook his favorites, but nothing seems to excite him. "Ooooh," I say as I paw my way through a new cookbook, "how good does this sound?" And he just shrugs, adding, "Eh."
"Here, then. Can you at least look through the book and dog ear the recipes you’d be psyched to eat?" But he always does it begrudgingly as if to humor me; really he couldn’t care less. How is it possible that I chose a man who could give a shit about food?
"It’s not that I don’t give a shit. It’s that I know what happens with you. You’ll spend—"
"’Forever cooking and planning, and all it will mean is that I’ll be left to do everything else.’ I know, Phil. You say it every time. But can’t you for once just have a little faith?"
"I’m just sayin,’ I’m happier with tomato sauce from a jar."
Dammit to hell. I’m not. Well, there is Rao’s, but still, it’s not about the taste. It’s about the process. The nostolgia in it, the fact that this was my childhood, all home-baked, with dog eared cookbooks, and conversations as we taste-tested our way through the years.
The fact is I enjoy cooking. I find a relief and calm in it, the gentle collapse of a tomato, caramelizing, de-glazing a pan, scraping up bits with a wooden spatula. It soothes me. It’s something he doesn’t get and that I get for free. It’s my comfort and my past and it makes me feel safe and taken care of. It’s how I want to make everyone else feel.
So, now I cook for me, and for the beans, and for anyone willing to come over and eat, hoping the warmth and pleasure of it all lifts them up, shifts their focus, and delights them, if only for a single moment.