Unlike the memories of my mother, memories of my father are vague. He was either at work, at golf or bowling, or home. When he was home, he often had dark periods that I now recognize must have been anxiety or depression. Often, it was me who could bring him back out in the light, a daunting task for a child, and one I accepted with honor. When he was at peace, we would listen in the dark to a ball game on the radio, or go for a ride on a hot night with all the windows rolled down. He was an animal lover and a philanthropist. He was a man of integritiy.
When I wrote The Kitchen: Heart of the Home, my father’s spirit revealed himself at the dinner table, where he’s been since my youth. It is, in fact, where he entered my life before I was born. An early story I remember hearing dates back to when he was wooing my mother. She was a divorced mother with two boys living on a meager income. She cooked a meal for him on a couple of old pots she probably got from the dime store. The next time he showed up at her door, he brought a gift of pots and pans. My mother knew then that this was a man who may not romance her with flowers, but would always make sure she had what she needed.
On another occasion, a date ended with him bringing her to his mother’s house and waking her up to cook a late dinner for them. I can’t remember what she made, or maybe she just warmed it up, but my mom had never tasted anything so good. Unfortunately, I never knew the woman who shaped the culinary skills I use today. As they dated, and later married, everything my mother learned about cooking she learned from my father, who learned by watching his mother.
So many nights my father arrived home long after the pots and pans were washed and put away. Maybe this is why I remember so vividly how he liked to eat his dinners. I watched him eat, me in my pajamas, him exhausted from the day. He ate white bread slathered with butter and strawberry jam at almost every meal. Ketchup was not reserved for hamburgers. He dowsed beef stew, meatloaf, and pot roast with the stuff, holding the fork in one hand, balancing the jam-bread on the other.
Dad was an early riser. He was also the breakfast chef. At our cabin in Wisconsin, my bedroom was in a loft above the kitchen. It was a rare morning I was not awakened by the aroma of bacon or sausage frying on a griddle. Every now and then he could be found with a bowl of cereal or berries, swimming in half-and-half and sprinkled with sugar.
A yearly morning treat was waking up Thanksgiving morning to watch Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television while my dad washed and stuffed the turkey. He added butter, sage, eggs, whole milk, and more butter to the dressing until the rich bird was slid into a hot oven, and basted with more butter hourly. He was the sole chef of the scalloped corn. No Thanksgiving was complete without him grumbling about how poorly it turned out. (It was always delicious.)
There was a rule at our dinner table. Everyone had to try one bite of everything on their plate. I highly suspect it was my mother’s rule, because it was my father who would help me find a way over the obstacles. Sugar was sprinkled on fresh tomatoes, ketchup helped just about anything else. One night I sat alone at the dinner table for what seemed like hours staring at cold canned peas on an otherwise empty plate. Just one bite . . . just one. Eventually Dad came in and picked me up. He sat me on his knee and we talked about the peas. He said, “You know, sometimes I like to mash them with the back of my fork like this.” And he squished a bite of the pale green spheres. He asked me if I wanted to try them like that. It wasn’t long before the whole serving was gone.
Food wasn’t the only thing we learned about at the dinner table. I was taught to say please when I wanted something, and nothing was passed until I asked for it correctly. We learned to keep our elbows off the table, and to hold the utensils in the correct manner. When we complained, my father would tell stories of how his stern German father would hit their elbows off the table to make them mind. We also heard stories of how his mother would never sit down to eat until after the rest of the family had been fed.
The dinner table is where I learned about business. Mom ran Dad’s office, and work was often discussed after hours. I was like a sponge, learning the ins and outs of being a good employee, keeping a good image, reputation, product quality, profit and loss, and workplace safety. The employees in their growing company were like family, and I heard the updates on babies, deaths, and illness all while sitting at the dinner table.
There are other memories of my father that don’t involve food; cross-country vacations, boating and snowmobiling in Wisconsin, banjo before bedtime. But to this day, any meal of beef stew, pot roast or meatloaf is not complete without jam-bread and ketchup, and when faced with a dish of canned peas there is only one way I will eat them.
Peace . . .