(After school in the living room of my childhood home….My father in his chair, me on the floor with an open encyclopedia that I was flipping through, spinning my head to catch a woman saying loudly “ROASTING CHICKENS, TODAY, ON THE FRENCH CHEF!”)
Me: Who is that?
Dad: Julia Child
Me: She talks funny
Dad: mmmm hmm…
Me: What’s She doing?
Me: Why are you watching her?
Dad: (rises to turn the volume up on the TV…these were the days where I would normally have been the remote control, but he was closer….Oh, and the TV was black and white.)
Dad wasn’t a man of many words. But that was the introduction I got to the world of cooking. My father was a tool and die maker who worked third shift from 4pm to 4 or 5am until long after my brother and I were out of school. It was the only time I had to see him except for weekends when he was surreptitiously pressed into taxi duty, hauling my brother and I to our various sports, school or scouting activities in all far flung areas of New England. Aside from that, weekdays from 2:45-3:45 pm were my only chance to see and spend time with my father.
We spent a good number of those times watching Julia Child on TV as I suspect he was tired after getting up an hour before my brother and I got home. It gave him background noise to his second cup of coffee and reading the paper. As for me….well hell, I was about four, what’s not to love about TV?! Julia fascinated me in a way I couldn’t hope to fathom. I think it showed me that food, or the act of cooking food had some kind of real power…The fact that someone was standing there trying to show me how to cook was proof of that. I noticed that when my mother was making dinner on the weekends when dad would come in from doing whatever outside work needed to be done, he got awful affectionate…this is some powerful stuff this food!
One day Dad had called to say he was sick and coming home so he’d be home before dinner. I decided I was sufficiently inspired by Julia, and wanted to do something nice for Dad to make him feel better…nothing could be better when you’re sick than coming home to a nice bowl of chocolate pudding. I may get into the kid hall of fame for this, I thought to myself I would make chocolate pudding. Good God no, not instant pudding you daft but darling people, REAL honest to goodness cooked on the stove old fashioned pudding. After all, I had just seen Julia do puff pastry, how hard could pudding be for a nine or ten year old?! I got all my stuff ready, pulled up a chair to the stove and started cooking. Standing on a chair I looked into the pan and again at the box, at the pan, at the box, pan, box….surely this was what boiling looked like, I guess this is about the time I should “stir constantly.” *stirring for maybe fifteen seconds* There, this pudding thing is a snap, I’ll get a bowl and wait until it cools until I eat it….into the fridge the sauce pan went. I decided I would make some more for my mother….
Dad got home before Mom, to not one, but two scorched pans with pudding burnt so bad on the bottom, they had to be tossed. But instead of going bat shit crazy on my ass, he and Mom instead decided they would show me how to properly make chocolate pudding, the right way. From that day, it was ON like Donkey Kong. I cooked everything I could get my hands on. I especially loved making stuff on the weekends. I did a ton of breakfasts with omelets of every configuration you could think of…L’omelette du garlique anyone?! Yeah, some were hits, and some were misses. But my parents were always willing subjects to my sometimes awful science projects.
Dad wasn’t much of a cook as it were. He had his share of specialties that he liked to do, and I know I was super thrilled with. He made swiss steak, Cranberry bars during the holidays and baked beans that I still use the recipe for to this day. Once in a while he would make pancakes and bacon on Sunday nights before Wonderful World of Disney started, which my brother and I talk about to this day, as we enjoyed it so much. But he had his oddball creations that deserve a permanent spot on the weird shit “wall of honor!” Peanut butter on butterflied raw hot dog with a slice of Vermont cheddar is the big one that comes to mind, no bread, just those three ingredients…eh?!
I had bad problems with my ears when I was a kid, and days I had to go to the doctors, or days when they hurt too bad to go to school meant Dad got very little sleep. But the up side was, that after the doctor appointment or just to make me feel better sometimes, we would go to the grocery store. My favorite thing when we went there was to go to the deli counter and Dad would let me pick out some kind of meat, or cheese and he would buy a few ounces to share in the car on the ride home.
Dad and I didn’t always have a great relationship. There were times (me in my teens) when I knew everything, and he didn’t know shit. Then there were times (me in my mid twenties) when he knew everything, and I didn’t know shit…..but we always had Julia, or as the years went by, this chef or that chef. We watched different cooking shows together when there was no game on. Sometimes we would just get a pack of hot dogs and burn the hell out of them (we both have an affinity for charred hot dogs) and laugh and talk about what was happening in our lives at any given time while chewing happily and discussing the virtues of this mustard or that relish. It was our comfort zone, something we could always talk about throughout his life.
Dad is gone now, but I’ll always have the inspiration to cook because of him, and a passion for food and life, and for that, I owe him dearly. Every time I happen to flip past Julia Child reruns on TV I’m suddenly four years old laying on the floor of my parents house with dad reading the paper in his chair…..
ME: Could we roast chickens like that sometime Dad?
Dad: mmmm hmm
Me: I think that’s neat…I liked that show!
Dad: I liked it too….
Here is Dad’s Baked Bean recipe:
2 lbs yellow eye beans (you can use the bean you like) 1 tsp. mustard
1/2 cup of real maple syrup 1/4 tsp. ginger
1/2 lb. thick sliced canadian bacon (or salt pork) 1 medium onion
1 tsp. salt 1 tsp. pepper
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Pick over beans and wash then parboil with 1 tsp of baking soda. ( When you can blow on the bean and the skin peels they have parboiled long enough.) Peel onion, quarter and place in bottom of crock pot. In a sauce pan add 4 cups of water and put on low heat. Add all the spices. When beans are done parboiling, rinse and dump them over the onions in the crock pot. Then pour spices and water over the ingredients and mix them up. Cut up the bacon (or salt pork) into quarters and place it on top of mixture in crockpot. Cook on low for 12 hours.
P.S. I like the Bacon, but being in New England if it didn’t have salt pork somewhere in the recipe, people would get confused.