I only thought about my dad a couple times this week. And to be honest, I'm only thinking about him now because I'm writing this post dedicated in part to his memory. I suspect I otherwise might not think about him for another week or another month - maybe longer. It's been a year since my dad passed away, and it's shocking how little I think of him. A little troubling too.
My dad influenced my cooking in a lot of ways, but not in the ways you might think. Before I was even born (I think), his doctors told him he would need to be careful how much fat and cholesterol he consumed. His numbers were way high, and he was sent to a nutritionist to recommend dietary changes. Suddenly it was beans, rice, fish, vegetables, margarine (shudder!), fat-free everything, whole-wheat everything (and I mean EVERYTHING!) and death-to-all-eggs-yolks.
My dad would go to the library and check out healthy vegetarian cookbooks (back when eating vegetarian meant eating terrible tasting food), copy down recipes and then try to "tweak" the recipe to make it even more nutritious (read inedible). He would buy grains and beans by the bushel bag from a local farm, and we would spend hours transferring oats, barley, wheat berries, rye, buckwheat, navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, soy beans etc. from the giant paper bushel bags to gallon plastic jugs (originally filled with honey or molasses).
The trouble wasn't buying in bulk or eating healthy or even tweaking recipes to include more nutrition. If everyone would buy in bulk directly from the farmers, think how much waste could be eliminated in packaging, buildings, transportation, etc... If everyone ate a healthy and nutritious diet composed of mostly beans, whole grains and vegetables, think how many health problems could be avoided later in life (and all the expenses related to those health problems). Dad's perspective was spot-on.
He just wasn't good with flavors. Maybe he didn't have a sensitive pallet, but most of the recipes he made were just awful. That's not being mean and it's not being disrespectful - it's just calling a spade a spade. Sometimes the dishes had incongruent flavors (like tomatoes, tuna and soybeans), sometimes it was an unappetizing texture (like tomatoes, tuna and soybeans) and sometimes it was both (like tomatoes, tuna and soybeans). I used to dread week-night dinners and look forward to Sundays when Mom cooked regular food like mashed potatoes, green beans and turkey ham.
When it came to baking, Dad never followed the recipe - and sometimes recipes really should be followed. I'm all in favor of experimenting with different flavors and ingredients, but substituting all buckwheat flour for all-purpose flour turns baking powder biscuits into hockey pucks. And sometimes you just have to add sugar - leaving out 2/3 of the sugar doesn't produce a satisfying cupcake.
But as difficult as some of Dad's culinary concoctions were to swallow, criticism or suggestions for improving a recipe were even harder for Dad to swallow. If someone didn't like even one aspect of his food, out came the red queen - OFF WITH THEIR HEADS! I wish I were kidding, but I downed a lot of those buckwheat hockey pucks, sugarless cupcakes and tomato-tuna-soybean-surprise - and it's nothing to kid about.
If it sounds like I'm all hung-up on resentful irritation with my dad's cooking - don't be fooled. Looking back, the memories mostly make me smile. It's true, Dad had a short fuse for criticism. But it's also true he really was trying to instill a healthy consciousness in his family. It's true, Dad's culinary creations were generally terrible, but it taught me to think outside the box when it came to flavors, textures and ingredients. When I think back on it all, despite the bad memories of cold wheatberry porridge, those were good times. Because Dad cared, at least enough to try.
Dad's food taught me that that "good for you" doesn't mean "good food" and that "good food" doesn't have to mean "bad for you". Even healthy ingredients can be paired in delicious ways, so work with flavors and textures until you figure out what works and what doesn't. And if it doesn't work, own up to it and move on.
Dad's food taught me it shouldn't be about the ingredients or the techniques - it's about caring enough about the other person to keep it simple, to never be satisfied with "good enough", to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Maybe, without ever knowing it, Dad inadvertently taught me the most important part of food - love. If you're not cooking because you love, why bother?
So today I'm remembering the good times - cold wheatberries, barley pucks, sugarless cupcakes and soybean surprise. Love you. Miss you. You taught me...