cooking

Cook, Love, Write

The other day, my wife asked me why I cook fancy meals even when I’m really busy. I’m not sure that what I cook counts as fancy most of the time, but July certainly counts as busy—moving into a new house, taking subject certification exams, finishing up the alternative certification course proper, and trying to find a job for the next school year. That doesn’t count writing or my (modest) CampNaNoWriMo project for the month. I do cook dinner three or four nights each week, and often “re-condition” leftovers on one or two of the others. (Reconditioning usually involves adding more garlic and either a different leftover or frozen vegetables.)

It takes time. It makes dirty dishes, which take more of my time later. I could totally get away with using the slow cooker of beans I make every week to do most of the meals, supplemented with pots of rice and pasta or another pot of something stewish. My kids would be happy eating only rice, noodles, and fruit. The only person in the household who is really interested in having different things for dinner most nights is…me. So why do I do it?

Mostly, my dad is to blame. He cooked dinner every night he wasn’t busy cooking at the family restaurant. It used to baffle me how he could spend 60 or 80 hours a week cooking and running a restaurant and still want to be in the kitchen when he was home. I understand it better now: my dad really, really liked to cook. He also liked to cook new dishes, things that weren’t on the restaurant menu and never would be. The kitchen was home and laboratory and studio for him.

Cooking was also important to him—and now to me—because it’s an offering to the family. You’ve probably seen articles (and listicles) about “love languages.” Cooking was one of my dad’s. He liked food, but he loved to cook for his family and friends. That’s how he showed he cared, especially when other things were going poorly. Putting something tasty on the table and getting us all to sit down to eat it together was easier for him than hugs and words.

I like words. I love writing. Despite that, I’ve never written very much for the people I love. My wife is awesome, but I’ve only written her a handful of things in the 13 years we’ve been together (unless you count the many, many e-mails that went back and forth while we were living in different states). I’ve spent many more hours cooking for her than writing for her. I might even cook too much for her. There are things she likes to eat that she also likes to cook, and I don’t always give her the chance to cook them.

When I write, I like subtlety, allusion, and implication. That’s part of the reason why it’s not always easy for me to write for (or to) the ones I love. I can’t just come out and say it, you know? Big displays of real emotion are tough. Fictional characters can channel my real emotions without it being so…blatant. The extra layer protects my raw feelings. Even here on the blog, I hide behind quasi-anonymity. Some things are easier to say in front of strangers (even if many of my friends and family do read this blog).

I would love to claim as much control over my cooking as I exercise over my language. I can’t. My “secret techniques” are mostly garlic, fresh ingredients, and knowing how to avoid overcooking things. I know my way around a spice rack and a grocery store (thanks to my dad), but not enough to have precise targets in mind when I cook. As in horseshoes and hand grenades, close usually counts. I cook edible dishes that taste good more often than not. They’re mostly healthy, and when they’re not I make sure they’re especially tasty.

Most of all, though, I cook things for the people I care about. I want us to sit down and eat together. I want us to enjoy each other’s company as much as I want us to enjoy what we’re eating. That’s even more true when we have guests. I might not be able to say “I love you, I am glad you are part of my life and at this table with me.” I might have a hard time writing my wife the poems she deserves (but I haven’t forgotten the sestina I promised you!). But I can fill a table with food, and the kids can set the places, and we can all sit and eat together. That’s why I do it: because there are some things that are easier to say with food than words.

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Six Years Later: In Memory of My Father

Six years ago (almost to the hour as I type this), I was sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, about to get on a plane to Boise. I know that, but only because I know the date and remember when that last direct flight left. At the time, I was skimming the surface of everything, because getting past the surface meant hurting and confusion. It had only been a few hours since I’d been sitting at my computer, swapping virtual crafting items on WoW with my brother, when he abruptly typed “you need to call home.” That was weird, and I asked some question about it. My brother re-iterated that I needed to call home. I did.

My dad was dead.

Aside from hugging my infant son a little harder than he liked, I sort of managed to hold things together for forty minutes until my wife got home from work. I needed to get back to Idaho more urgently than I had ever needed to get anywhere. I made phone calls and booked tickets. I remembered to find somebody to cover my music history sections. We packed in a hurry, and left in such a hurry that we forgot our dress clothes for the funeral. (Our landlord was kind enough to go get them the next morning and overnight them to Idaho.) Surface things. We got to Boise and…went to a hotel right next to the airport. As much as I wanted to be home, it was nearly midnight and the roads were icy. Nobody was in shape to come pick us up. We went out to the house the next morning when my brother and aunt came in.

I won’t rehash the next few days. People filled up the house. I made it through the eulogy without dissolving wholly into tears. My son—a week short of his first birthday—charmed everybody and reminded us all that life goes on. It did. Soon enough I was back in Minnesota trying to catch up on Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Nattiez and teaching Renaissance polyphony. I cried. I worried about my mom. In the arbitrary way that songs get stuck to events in our heads, The Killers’ “Tranquilize” (featuring Lou Reed, who’s now dead too) stuck to me for the next few months.

We get good at the surface things. It is how we make it through our days—commutes, work, the dirty dishes in the sink. Looking past surfaces isn’t always the window to desolation it was that night six years ago, but I still miss my dad whenever I think of him. The first time I visited my mom’s house after she’d moved to Nebraska, I walked through it after everybody had gone to bed. And I cried and cried because there were pictures of my dad and some of his things, but there was nothing of him there. It was a house he had never set foot in, and he never would. The pictures were only there for the rest of us.

Both of my parents read to me, but it was my dad’s books that hooked me. I may have gotten the words from my mom, but my stories owe a lot to my dad. I tried his Louis Lamour westerns. The Hobbit really got me, though. He read it out loud over weeks of bedtimes when I was little. I read it myself around second grade and, the following summer, cajoled my grandmother to find me a copy of The Two Towers, since I had only brought The Fellowship of the Ring to California with me. From there it was off to the races bookstore, and soon after to the keyboard to try my hand at my own stories. My reading habits were more like my mom’s: I read fast and often skip around (habits that carry over to my writing). My dad didn’t read like that. He read slowly and meticulously. He always read the end last. He digested books.

Years later I’m still working on digesting his absence. I feel it a little every time I have to drag my family out of bed in the morning (I was just as hard to get out of bed when I was a kid). I feel it when I cook something I’ve never cooked before, or when I’m trying to explain something that I picked up in years of watching him at home and at the restaurant. Tonight I walked my sister-in-law through roasting pork loin and potatoes, and a pan of brussels sprouts. We tested the doneness with our fingers, and I had to dig for an explanation that was clearer than “it feels done.” I think he would have appreciated it.

I also think he would have liked to come visit us here. It’s easy for me to imagine taking my dad downtown and sampling food trucks before catching some live music. I can almost hear him in our living room, holding forth a little too loudly on something he’d seen on Food Network. I remember him reading Green Eggs and Ham to his infant grandson and know his granddaughter would have charmed him to pieces. I know how enthusiastic he’d be for the stories I’m working on.

Mostly, though, I just miss him. I just miss him.