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Dining at Dad's



Published June 15, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

My father's favorite word these days is tofu. "I made a little stir fry tonight," Dad will tell me when I call home. Not much happens in the small upstate town where he and my mom live, and so dinner is often headline news. I'll hear him swivel round and put his feet up on the couch to savor the delivery. "A little bit of garlic, some olive oil, onions. Some red peppers, and ginger. That's the important part."

There's always a little pride in my father's voice as he rattles off these ingredients. Ten years ago, he wouldn't have known where to find them in a grocery store, let alone know what to do with them in the kitchen.

When I was growing up in California, my mother cooked, my father cleaned up. That was the bargain. On nights when my mother went to League of Women Voters meetings, we ate waffles for dinner. When mom found out, we graduated to tuna melts.

Then my mother went back to work, and things changed. For starters, my father began making our lunches. Suddenly, we started getting a lot of vegetables. Every food group was represented, as if my father had built the lunches by studying the Surgeon General's food pyramid: apples; whole grain crackers; sandwiches on whole wheat bread. (If you ever want to ruin a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, put it on wheat). Everything was wrapped in wax paper and stuffed into recycled brown paper bags with our names written in block letters: ANDY, JOHN and TIM.

Needless to say, I spent most of my high school years coveting my friends' lunches -- their Doublestuff Oreos plopped into ziplocks, their "lunchables" with cheese and deli meats and that little stick that came in the packaging. A cross-country teammate of mine was put on a 6000 calorie-a-day diet by his doctor, so often times I sat with Geoff at noon while he began his second lunch of the day.

My father's experiments in cuisine would have ended there, had my mother not been diagnosed with Parkinson's seven years ago. What began as an irritating habit of not finishing her sentences graduated into a terrifying inability to find words. My birthday cards were written in shaky handwriting. Then not by her at all.

Then things got worse. Doctors informed my parents that it wasn't Parkinson's, but something rarer and more unpredictable called CBDG, which is short for cortico-basal-ganglionic degeneration. It's like fast-track Parkinson's with a little Alzheimer's thrown in for good measure.

Which means my father doesn't just do the cooking these days -- and the washing and the mowing and the weeding and the bill-paying, and everything else that keeps their house almost running. He also feeds my mother.

When I go home, I try not to cry as I watch him do this, but it's hard. My mother is a slow eater, whereas Dad would use a slingshot to get his dinner down if he could. This imbalance actually works in their favor, as my father often gives my mother a bite of whatever he has made, Hoovers up his dinner, and then turns around to feed her the rest of what's on her plate.

Even though she has a lot of trouble speaking, my mother still has strong opinions about my father's cooking. She frowns when he mentions black beans. She giggles when he points at three-bean salad recipes. In the beginning, he made a lot of bean dishes -- but he liked to soak beans rather than buy canned ones. Let me just say the word Bean-o and leave it at that.

There were other not-so-successful experiments, too. There was a tofu-turkey one year that didn't even fool our cocker spaniel; polenta which could have doubled as a baseball bat.

But as the years ground on and my mom's condition worsened, Dad worked his way methodically page-by-page through Deborah Madison's Greens cookbook, and got better. And better.

Now when I come home, it's not just cable television and Christmas waffles I have to look forward to. There's sure to be goat-cheese pizza with roasted red peppers. There might be a succulent, slow-roasted turkey with candied yams, finished off by pumpkin pie with ice cream and organic coffee.

On Christmas Eve I no longer have to shimmy oyster stew down my throat -- or meatloaf for that matter. The kitchen looks like a war zone when it's over, and the All-Clad pots I bought have long since been scorched. But really, what does that matter? From here on out, I think Dad and I both know he's earned a little help with the clean-up.