My father and I never had the kind of close relationship many fathers and daughters enjoy. My dad, as I recall, was not affectionate; he didn’t hug and kiss or toss my sisters and me into the air. He didn’t do any of those things fathers typically do, or at least, the fathers I watched on Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best.
Most mornings, my father left for work before daybreak and returned home long after we were asleep. As I got older, I’d sometimes wake up before he left. I’d lie in bed, the kitchen light streaming in through the ajar bedroom door, and listen as he readied himself for the day. From time to time, I’d catch a glimpse of him as he walked past my room to the bathroom. Sometimes, I would creep out of bed and gently pull the door open a bit wider so I could see into a corner of our tiny kitchen and watch him as he ate his bowl of cereal.
I always knew when my father was ready to go because he’d call out to my mother, “Audrey, I’m leaving!” In later years, when I thought of their frequent arguments and the resulting silences, I imagined he must have loved my mother very much to have said anything at all. As he passed my room, his body silhouetted in the backlight, I’d find the courage to mumble, “Bye, Daddy.”
He’d push open my door, lean in, his face in shadow and say, “What are you doing awake?”
“I can’t sleep,” I’d answer.
He would then tell me to “try” and whisper goodbye. And although I can’t be sure, I imagined he smiled at me. I’d listen as his footsteps faded on our linoleum tile floors until the apartment door closed behind him. It didn’t occur to me then that he never came into the room; he never kissed me goodbye.
My father was a walnut-brown man, who stood just 5 feet 4 inches tall and wore a size 7½ shoe. His parents and siblings were born in Barbados. He, the youngest child, was born here. His name was George, but for all of his life he was referred to as Babe. Unlike other fathers I knew, my dad never drove a car, never owned a house, and never, ever said, “I love you.”
My father was not a religious man; he was a wedding and funeral worshiper only. On the seventh day, my father rested, which really meant he didn’t work one of his three jobs. On Sundays, while we accompanied my mother to St. Paul’s Cathedral across from Boston Common, Daddy stayed home and cooked Sunday dinner.
My mother was a good cook. Hers was the nutritious cuisine culled from Adelle Davis, Gayelord Hauser, and Vermont’s Dr. D.C. Jarvis, the popular health experts of the ‘50s and ‘60s. She baked, boiled, and broiled, filled our plates with fresh vegetables, beat eggs and lecithin into our orange juice, sprinkled wheat germ on our cereal, and sauteed onions and peppers in an apple cider vinegar broth. We ate fish on Fridays, no question, and a big treat was a baked apple with cinnamon. When we complained, my mother answered us in maxims. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” she’d remind us as she sliced a McIntosh. “You are what you eat,” she’d sing out, as she piled our plates with the dreaded spinach. “Nuts for nuts,” she’d kid, as she sprinkled walnuts over our salad. Yes, my mother was a very good cook.
But in some ways, my father was a better cook. He always cooked the Sunday roast. As the child of West Indians, he liked the heartier foods of his culture, the black-eyed peas and rice, the chicken smothered in onion gravy, the deep-fried fish that he had marinated in garlic and ginger. Sometimes he’d arrive home with a bowl of oxtail stew that his sister, Maude, had made for him. I’d watch as he worked the tender meat from the bone, elbows on the table, all fingers and mouth. He understood spices and flavoring; he appreciated texture and color, and the importance of fat. His meats and gravies were to die for. His buttery herb stuffing was better than anything I’ve ever tasted. To this day, the memory of his creamy egg custard makes me want to cry.
On Sundays, my father, for once, became master of the house. The one absolute image I will carry with me into old age is of my dad, his faded white apron tied around his waist, sauteeing onions, flavoring stock, and stirring magic into his butter beans.
I’ve never been a great cook. My sister got that gene and turned into a splendid cook. I struggled to make even the simplest recipes palatable. As a young woman, I baby-sat three sisters while their parents were away. I was expected to prepare meals. Cereal and sandwiches were not a problem. Dinner was. I knew I was in trouble the first evening when I gave the girls boiled macaroni in a bath of milk, topped with scraps of cold cheddar cheese. The eldest child poked through it with a fork, looked at me with disdain and said, “I’m not eating this.” I couldn’t blame her.
I left home at 20 and, not long after, went to work at Fort Gordon, Georgia. On my first Thanksgiving away from home, I invited eight “strays” from the military base to share the day with me. Like my father, I too bought the biggest turkey I could find, a 24-pounder along with all the trimmings, including fresh cranberries to prepare my mother’s sauce. The day before the holiday, when I unwrapped my turkey, I felt my face flush with panic. Aside from sticking this homely bird in a roasting pan, I had no idea where to begin.
That afternoon, I stood in my tiny apartment kitchen and cried. Then I picked up the yellow phone and dialed home. My mother answered and I heard myself saying something I hardly recall having said before. “Can I speak to Daddy?”
My father listened patiently, then said, “Robin, it’s only a turkey.” Then he told me it would be fine. In fact, he promised it would be the best turkey I’d ever tasted. He listed all the things I would need. I was grateful that I’d called when there was still time to return to the store. The dry stuffing mix I’d bought was “out.” I would need special bread, and poultry seasoning, and celery, and the list was so long, my head began to ache. Just before he hung up, he asked, “Does the turkey fit into the pan?” I hadn’t thought of that either. I added a pan to my shopping list.
It was early Thanksgiving morning when my father called. He thought he would have to wake me but I had been up awhile by then. In those days before cordless phones, I stood, wearing an apron much like the one my father wore, and cradled the Trimline receiver to my ear, its coiled wire stretched to the wall like an umbilical cord. I stood in the kitchen with my newly purchased supplies, including a thick sewing needle, and did as I was told.
“Get a bowl of hot, soapy water,” he began. I was puzzled but did as he said.
He told me to put my hands into the body and neck cavities and remove the gizzards, kidneys, and neck. I reached in and removed the little sacs.
“Now, put the turkey in the sink and wash it.”
I picked up the bird with its white pimply skin and put it into the sink.
“With the soapy water?” I asked, uncertain.
“No,” he said, not laughing as my mother might have, and as I would laugh years later when I remembered my naivete.
“The soapy water is for you to wash your hands,” he said. “Just rinse the turkey with water and then pat it dry.” I ran cool tap water over the bird.
“Salt the cavity,” he said, just as I poured what seemed like an awful lot of salt from the box into the palm of my hand.
“Not too much,” he warned.
I sprinkled half into the trash and did as instructed with the rest.
“Now slather it with oil.” I poured a little vegetable oil onto the bird.
“Really slather it,” he repeated, as if he could sense my hesitancy. “Use your hands.”
I poured and rubbed just as I imagined my father’s small brown hands were doing back at 2 Brandon Avenue in Columbia Point.
For more than an hour, per his directions, as if we were standing there together, side by side, I boiled turkey innards, sauteed celery and onions, cut the special bread into cubes, melted butter. I pummeled and prodded, stirred and tasted.
And, every now and again, I dipped my hands into a bowl of hot, soapy water.
I was a willing but dull student who found security in measured amounts. My father, who lived by an alarm clock most of his life, was an instinctive cook. From time to time that morning, I forgot myself and became my father’s daughter.
It was nearly an hour later before I threaded the needled with a double thickness of white cotton thread and stitched closed the cavities of the freshly stuffed, seasoned, and oiled bird. I carefully placed my not so pretty bird into in my new stainless-steel roaster, and pushed it into the preheated oven.
“Thank you, Daddy,” I said.
There was a slight pause before my father said, “I’ll call you back in an hour,” and clicked off. And he did call every hour that day (and those were the days when long distance really meant something) to guide me through everything from potatoes to gravy. In fact, he called right up until the moment when my first guests arrived.
And my father was right; it was the best turkey I can ever recall tasting. My guests, including a Korean woman who’d never experienced an American Thanksgiving, complimented me. And I, who had never been able to accept a compliment with ease, accepted them graciously, on my father’s behalf.
That holiday was the beginning of a shift in how I viewed my father. I, who’d once been ashamed of his part-time job as a janitor, realized that he’d honored us by doing the only work open to a Black man in the ‘60s. He couldn’t have relished dressing up in the brass-buttoned uniform he wore to sweep the front entrance of the Boston Music Hall on Tremont Street, yet he did so without complaint because that was his job as a father. When I called home, it was no longer just to talk to my mother. I wanted to talk to Dad, too.
Just before Christmas, a package wrapped in brown paper arrived in the mail. I knew immediately from the boxy script who’d sent it. Inside was a cookbook — The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 11th edition. There was no inscription, just a note scrawled on plain paper: “Thought you could use this.” And although it was signed from both my parents, I knew it was from him, and that was as good as a kiss.
My father has been gone more than 20 years now and there is hardly an occasion when I pull out that now worn and spattered cookbook that I don’t think of him. By the time I received that book, Fannie Farmer, who published her first edition of her Boston Cooking School Cook Book in 1896, was long gone. The editor of this revised edition, Wilma Lord Perkins, remarked in the preface that she’d been inspired by “Aunt Fannie’s own words. . . . Could it be better?”
Well, I’ve never bothered to look at Aunt Fannie’s first edition, or anyone else’s for that matter. When it comes to standards in cooking, I mark all others by one — his. And to answer Aunt Fannie’s “Could it be better?” No, it couldn’t.
Robin Grace, a travel tour manager and writer in Bedford, recently completed a travel memoir. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.