Hungry

 

On evenings when I come home late and my family has eaten already, I sit at the kitchen counter and my father makes me an omelet. I watch him break two eggs into a small glass bowl. He tells me the secret to the omelet, the way the eggs taste a bit like clouds look, is to add, not milk, but water, just a bit. He does this and whisks it together and the eggs froth riotously, so the mixture turns the consistency of fresh, pulpy orange juice. Sautéed onions—he does this first, to take the edge off their flavor and to warm the frying pan—and strips of cheddar cheese. He brings the lip of the bowl close to the hot pan and pours. The egg spreads, one great broken yolk, and begins almost immediately to set, the edges whitening, the middle still a yellow pool. He moves the pan gently, side to side, with one hand so that the uncooked parts slide underneath and have their own chance to firm up. He lays the cheese slices to one side, then the onion, and deftly closes the omelet, like tucking a row of cheddar children under a quilt. He flips it once, twice, and then it is done. I have been watching closely, and now I will eat the omelet with a glass of milk and go to bed.

I have eaten other omelets—from divey diners that make them with Velveeta, from the "hot breakfast" offerings at hotels and conferences, from restaurants that serve brunch for which one waits an hour or more, clutching a double Bloody Mary for dear life. I order them with Swiss, mushroom, spinach, chorizo and green peppers. I order Denver omelets. Once or twice, I have ordered one with cheddar cheese and onions, but the onions have never been sautéed first, they are crunchy and they overpower, and the cheddar arrives in globs in the middle, as if all the carefully lined-up slices rolled to a depression right in the center during an ill-executed flip. I have never eaten an omelet like the ones my father makes for me after the dishes have all been put away, when he brings out just the one bowl, smallest frying pan, clean white plate, mug or glass of milk, little fork. After he slides the omelet onto my plate, how diligently he washes out the pan, sets it to dry with the coffee maker he will re-assemble tomorrow, before any of us have yet stirred. He will stand at the stove or the kitchen sink till I have finished, will wait for the last plate to take its place between white tines, the fork caged with its fellows, before he starts the dishwasher, the low rumble and smell of steam accompanying any late-night work I have to complete. And the kitchen will be as if no small, yellow omelet had ever been made and eaten with such unexpressed, late-evening affection and care.


~~~


Lately I have been cooking when I should be writing. I spend my long, solitary afternoons—time I set aside each day to get "real" work, written-word work, done—in the kitchen, laboring over far-too-large portions of elaborate, slow, labor-intensive meals. Meals for which one has to do an hour or more of preparatory work. Gathering, shopping, dicing, pre-sautéing, seasoning, boiling, poaching, all before the real process even begins. I listen to back episodes of "This American Life" or to short stories, and pretend I am a mad housewife.

I never used to be a cook. I come from a family in which one brilliant and imperious chef held absolute monarchical sway over the kitchen, morning, noon and night, on those mornings, noons and nights when he was home at all. Meals in my childhood home were elaborate plays in which my usually reserved father starred as lauded cook and sparkling host. Weekday mornings, when most of my peers were eating cold cereal or—perish the thought, in my house—Pop-Tarts for breakfast, my father would stand at the stove, a short-order cook. He'd whip up omelets or breakfast sandwiches, the punctured yolks of perfectly over-easy eggs oozing across Canadian bacon and filling the nooks and crannies of buttered English muffins. Some mornings turned into special occasions for no reason other than the fact that my father made pancakes, studded with bananas or berries, or fluffy, thick French toast coated in butter and Real Vermont Maple Syrup.

Lunches, on weekends, consisted of staples prepared with improbable skill. Tomato sandwiches, tuna fish salad, even noodle soup in wide white mugs, accompanied by glasses of milk, transformed, barely perceptibly but also profoundly, by his touch.

And of course, then there was supper, as my father always called it ("Suppertime, girls," he'd announce, poking his head into our rooms as we, rude and sullen high schoolers, did homework or talked interminably on the phone to our boyfriends). Suppertime, as contentious as sitting down As a Family became the older we got and the more my parents grew to resent each other, was always an embarrassment of culinary riches, made all the more impressive because my father never followed a recipe. He could riff endlessly on simple pasta dishes, from rich, vegetable-chunky tomato sauces to angel hair coated with just a breath of garlic and good olive oil. He'd grill spice-rubbed pork tenderloin and serve it with sweet-hot mango chutney, green salad with grilled peppers and caramelized onions, roasted potatoes crusted with salt, pepper and rosemary. On grilling nights we'd eat outside among my mother's potted succulents, desert flowers and birdfeeders, the dusk turning to dark as we sat and talked and sometimes argued brutally. White bulbs and silly red chili pepper lights winked on, even the most contentious evenings bound together by my father's cooking. And then we'd all get up, the four children asking abruptly, "May I be excused?" My parents would nod, give some instructions about homework or a ban on further phone calls or directions on how long to spend or not to spend in the shower, and then my father would clear the table, wash each dish before placing it in the dishwasher, wipe the counters, prepare the kitchen to quietly and dimly await his arrival, much earlier than the rest of us, the next morning, when the sound of a coffee machine percolating, the smell of coffee and toast and bacon, would wake us, drifting through the sleepy house.

And so, until partway through college, I did not cook. There seemed to be no need, with my father out there somewhere to make dinner every night and breakfast every morning. But then, within the last year, the meals began pouring out of me, small and bright and singing like little poems, languid and nourishing like essays, all of them stories of ingredients in contrast, in harmony, in bed together, and all of it my doing. Cooking became more satisfying than writing; it produced something every time, something necessary, utilitarian, tangible. I could feel the skin of a tomato giving way under my knife. Cooking filled the senses naturally, filled my life with colors, textures, smells, tastes, sensuousness and even sensuality that I could not bring forth outside of food. It became an act of self-forgiveness.
 

~~~


I remember distinctly the moment I stopped hating fish. I was in eighth grade, on a special father-daughter field trip to Washington, D.C.—my first time in the city and perhaps my first traveling with just my father, rare to be just the two of us, a treat to be savored.

So much of my food sensibility has been shaped by so few evenings alone with my father. Really, there have not been many, but always they revolve around trying to communicate large things through the small gestures of shared meals. In high school, the rest of my siblings were in the same youth choir, and my mom was a choir parent, so my father and I had Tuesday evenings to ourselves. He would use them as a time to cook even more ambitious and intensive recipes than he would when putting dinner on the table for all six of us. Often this meant seafood, cooked with impossible delicacy, as if he was being gentle with tilapia, mussels, orange roughy, the way he wanted to be with me, his spiky and depressed teenage daughter. I sat at the counter and watched him prepare linguine with clam sauce and succulent fresh clams, my favorite, as I did my homework, finding it impossible, and silly besides, to express the sharp pangs of pride and stupid, needy, gulping, hungry love I felt as he cooked just for me.

On that trip to Washington, we spent one pearly-gray, rainy afternoon at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, our hands grazing the too-many names along the polished wall, two shades darker and bitterer than the sky. We walked in silence, walked a long way back toward our hotel, my chest nearly bursting with the desire, the need, to be talked to, shared with. "What are you thinking?" I wanted to ask, because I could never be sure—a fact that has not changed no matter how much I grow up. He said nothing but walked quickly, and I loped along beside him. If the intensity of the thing we'd just seen had affected him, he wasn't showing it, except perhaps by the absence of any sort of vacation jauntiness. And anyway, my father is not jaunty.

We ducked out of the rain and into a restaurant he knew, one of those ritzy D.C. places that are just dark and pretentious enough for senators and lobbyists to hobnob in, with a tiny dinner menu and a drinks list many pages long. My father settled into multiple vodkas on the rocks, and I asked for Sprite. The menu likely featured a chicken dish, a steak, a pasta and salmon. I wanted the pasta, but I craved nothing so acutely as my father's admiration, and the only sure thing I knew about him was that he would always order the fish. And so, to give us something to talk about, and even though I did not at all like fish, I, too, ordered it.

Probably this salmon, glazed in a sweet Asian-inspired sauce, was only okay. But on that rainy evening, communing for what felt like the first time as a Grownup with my father, it was the best meal I'd ever eaten. I remember the way the salmon flaked apart, pink and perfect, at the hint of a fork's nudge, the seared, salty-sweet, sticky skin and the middle nearly raw. I devoured it, along with the potatoes and vegetables (nondescript, steamed) it was served with, amazed at my Grownup palate and its sudden, surprise taste for seafood. The salmon was mild, silky, with an edge of ocean but without that fishy smell or taste I thought I hated. My father ate all of his, too, washed down with Stoli, and eagerly I asked, over and over in different permutations of the same begging words, what he thought of the salmon. Was it good? "Yes," he must have said. "Yes, it was good."

I didn't know yet how vodka dulls the sense of taste, hadn't learned to count glasses, take stock of the glazing eyes, the scent of skin, the way he'd fall asleep in his clothes back in the hotel room, watching TV, seeming to think he was, as usual, all alone.

~~~


As I cook, I have begun to give myself permission, too, to reach out to a man who, apart from early-morning eggs, lunchtime salami sandwiches, evening cold sesame noodles, felt as distant from me as the cities to which he traveled one hundred or more days out of the year, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the kitchen and, of course, beyond. I have begun, for the first time in my life, to call my father.

At first, it was to say things like, "Dad, I bought these eggplants because they were lavender and I'd never seen a vegetable so beautiful, but now I don't know what to do with them. They're really small, almost like zucchinis." (Answer: Slice them thinly, salt them and let them sit for at least an hour so the bitter juices leave them. Pat them dry. Salt them lightly, again, and sauté them in a bit of olive oil. Then grate some fresh Parmesan or Swiss cheese over them and put them under the broiler until the cheese melts and browns lightly. I recommend this method especially if you do not like eggplant but do very much like cheese.) Or: "Dad, I need to know how to truss a chicken." Once, "How long do I cook sausages, and at what heat?" "How do you braise greens?"

The cooking questions, though, have given way to other conversations, ones we have never had, starting with, "How are you?" There is so much I never tried to tell him—what it feels like to need someone who isn't there, how uncertain the future feels, where I want to go next, who I want to be—and so many things I didn't know. Or didn't think he knew, things like, "I was gone too much," words he has not yet said but which I think all the other words mean. Like, "I drank too much, then," and "I do not want to abandon all of you the way my father abandoned me, in a haze of morning Scotches and bleary afternoon drunkenness." Most of all, when he answers the phone whenever I call with a cooking question, I think he is saying that he does not want to be alone. And by calling, I think I am saying, you are not.

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