I think of Dad as I freeze jars of pesto made from my garden to be pulled later for a special holiday dinner. Some of my fondest memories are cooking with Dad in the many kitchens he had over the years. As I go through the ritual of blending fall ready ingredients I think about the times I served Dad and Jim (yes, his second long time partner was also named Jim). It’s in these small moments I realize he taught me that little touches make the difference.
Time with Dad often revolved around cocktails or the kitchen. By far my biggest culinary influence he lead me through secret short cuts, darting about, talking fast. He swore it was all very simple, quite easy, yet from where I sat the basics weren’t basic. He dressed tuna salad in croissants while chicken salad taken a step further became Waldorf salad. He made it look easy therefore guests forever praised him as he effortlessly entertained with story, involving everyone in the room. Much more than a gathering you thought you’d signed up for an episode of a cooking show.
Holidays were occasions when we kids visited Dad’s home and food was an integral part of the ritual. There was the famous 4th of July cake, Greek lasagna called Pasticcio, Italian lace cookies, corned beef and cabbage for St. Pats, Peanut Brittle, Chex Mix, and fudge during Christmas. And each and every time we visited we grilled huge T-bone steaks.
During one visit in the late summer to Cedar Rapids, when I was around 8 or 9, we made raspberry jam. After breakfast we dashed to the farmers market hot footing it down isles until Dad found the right booth and loaded up a crate of berries. In one fell swoop he haggled a farmer down to a bargain basement price and off we went. In his small kitchen that held an ice cream table and two chairs, I stood on one of the chairs loading berries and a mound of sugar into a stockpot. He directed me to stir, stir, and then some more until the red mass cooked down. Once the sugarberry mix congealed, became Lava hot, we filled several small jars.
The way Dad moved about, barely glancing at the recipe card was awe inspiring, at my young age reason enough to idolize him. Jim, I’d only thought a roommate at the time, bustled about on Saturday errands while my siblings were on assignment in the yard. It was special dad time for me, a precious image I wanted to keep, even a handful of years later when I became unsettled finding out he was gay. To know he was gay, that most people focused on what that kind of a dad meant, tarnished the shining image I’d cataloged. This concept became difficult to comprehend, to sort out as I moved into my teen years.
It wasn’t until almost a decade later I learned the jam recipe was in fact Jims’ Mothers. After Jim passed away the recipe card became a treasure I didn’t have to explain to anyone. Each time I fingered through my recipes the pink note card stuck out – a secret reminder of a man that behind closed doors had been a member of my family.
Those kitchen memories are what I hold tight to. I want to keep the light shining on Dad, along with that brighter time.