For the second installment of Meet the BG, I thought I’d write about my dad, since Chapter One addressed my mom as a culinary influence in my life. If dad were alive today, he might find it a bit odd that I would write about him in my food blog, for he was not a cook, by any stretch. Mom and I marveled when, sometime in his 60s, dad learned how to boil a cup of hot water in the microwave for tea. Dad didn’t even do the grilling in our family—unlike so many American families, the BBQ was mom’s domain.
Dad wasn’t really a connoisseur of the finest foods, either. He didn’t care for expensive wines or polite table etiquette, and he voiced strong complaints if required to pay more than $15 for an entrée. He had a deep fondness for Cheetos and Hershey’s chocolates, and never turned down a Frosty from Wendy’s. He winced at too much mayo on a sandwich, but appreciated good cheese and a heaping bowl of ice cream. He preferred Iceberg lettuce and canned green beans, though according to my mother, he generally objected to foods that were green—spinach, broccoli, & zucchini, among others.
But my dad loved to eat. In fact, there’s a family story about the time that he impressed out-of-town guests by consuming, during one dinner, fourteen ears of sweet corn, in addition to a steak (medium rare), potato salad, and one of mom’s famous onions roasted in foil on the grill. He knew when something tasted good. Eating was one of dad’s favorite past times, and I evidently inherited his zeal for a meal.
I don’t know many the details about dad’s childhood, but as I piece it together, I think that he developed a special palate for sweet things as a youngster. His parents divorced when he was four—an unusual situation for families during the 1930s. At some point later, Grandpa, quite scandalously, moved the woman whom he never married, but lived with for fifty years, and whom I eventually came to know as Grandma, into the family home. Grandpa then left Connecticut in order to work as a machinist for Chevrolet in Flint, Michigan. Dad and his brother remained in Norwich with Grandma, while Grandpa sent money home. He was making so much money, even during the Great Depression, that he hired a cook to help her. According to my dad, this cook baked delicious cakes and pies, and the boys always enjoyed a slice of cake when they got home from school.
I imagine that dad’s access to well-made desserts set the bar quite high for my mom, once mom and dad married. Fortunately for both of them, mom was well-trained and well-suited to the task.
So many of the good childhood memories that I have center around food shared with family friends (not so much with family, because we lived 2,200 miles from our nearest relatives). But as I was going through family photos, I found only one photo of dad and the family at the table, on the occasion of my eleventh birthday. Note that dad is eyeballing my cake.
We were not one of those families that celebrated, much less photographed, every last holiday or birthday. Plus, there were some really bad times during these years that probably none of us (except me) would care to remember, so it’s not surprising that there was just the one picture of the family table. But as I looked at the photos more carefully, I noticed that the context of many of the photos in fact indirectly suggests food, whether food or tables are pictured or not.
This one, for example, is one of my favorite photos of my parents. It is dated July 1967, and was taken by a family friend. These two facts suggest to me that the occasion involved food, because out-of-town friends often visited the family in the summer months, and food was always the centerpiece of all festivities. We lived in farm country, with outstanding orchard fruits, especially peaches, and, as we’ve already established, fabulous sweet corn. So I imagine that the night photographed below involved many of those delectable treats.
Here’s another for which the context suggests food: after church always meant that we were on our way to, or coming home from, lunch at a restaurant!
Flash forward a few years, and we have a shot on the Colorado National Monument, where we often took friends for picnics in the summer. In this case, my (ex)-husband and I, and our Husky, Sammie, were in town visiting from our home in Chicago.
A few years later, we celebrated mom and dad’s surprise fiftieth anniversary with a gala soiree at their favorite restaurant, Grand Junction’s (now-closed) Rain Tree Restaurant:
Almost a decade later, another photo shows dad waiting in expectation for his next meal, following the culmination of my sixteen-or-so years of (excessive) education beyond high school:
And here, mom and dad are photographed after breakfast at their favorite diner, with their grandson–my nephew, Thad–and his beautiful kids, Eli, Silas and Maeve. Mom and dad ate breakfast at this place every single weekday for about 15 years.
Years later, after mom and dad had entered a retirement community, going out to (the same three!!) restaurants when family visited became especially important to dad. How he looked forward to breakfast and dinner (and how he, and mom, too, complained about the food at the retirement place!).
And this, I believe, is the very last photo ever taken of dad, about six weeks before he passed away. In it, he looks so frail and fragile, not at all like the dad I’d known all of my life. But once again, the picture connotes food, because it is taken in the parking lot of his favorite pizza place, where, presumably, he’d dined on his old standby choice: spaghetti and meatballs.
I don’t know what to conclude from any of this, other than to state the obvious: even for folks who don’t cook, the most important, as well as the most mundane, moments of our lives–from childhood til the very end–are marked by breaking bread with others. Food-centered gatherings with friends and family merit our respect, for they signify our membership and participation in the communities most important to us. Although my own family memories are fraught with conflict, from my dad and mom I gained my appreciation not only for good food, but also for entertaining, which, after all, is really about celebrating our relationships with others. And they taught me that any day is appropriate for such celebrations–no need to wait for a holiday. Carpe diem! Celebrate today!
Also, dad taught me some special eating skills. I can’t polish off fourteen ears of corn, but I sure can snarf a turkey leg!