My mother was a lousy cook. She was a food executioner. The kind they make sitcoms about. She often burnt things beyond recognition, saying, "It's nice and piping hot." One night I swore I heard a cabbage cry. She'd killed the Pillsbury doughboy.
But I think her bad cooking nurtured the eating bond I shared with my Dad. My first food memory with dad, I was 2 1/2, in a high chair, in Brooklyn, not wanting to eat. After an hour of my mother begging and pleading, my Ralph Kramden looking dad stepped in, flexed his arms, picked up the baby spoon of smashed peas and hummed, "Brrrr, here comes the airplane," spoon flying around my head, zooming towards my mouth. More frightened than hungry, my mouth opened wide, and he smiled. Sure, everybody has had an experience like that. Me? I waited a beat and said, "Happy now?" Dad seemed stunned to have a sarcastic baby on his hands, and so it began.
For the rest of his life, Daddy was my favorite food and dining companion. We liked to eat together, without Mom, the meal murderer. My next memory: I'm 5 at Nathan's Famous in Coney Island. We walk up to a counter, but not just any counter. The one where Dad's friend was in charge of barbecued pork!
"Hey Jerry, I'm here with my best girl," he said. "Can you give her a little extra and some gravy?"
Dad handed me a gigantic sandwich, so large I wasn't sure if I should eat it or it would eat me. Nobody else in line got a sandwich that big. The massive sandwich was my first VIP experience.
When I was 7, there were Saturday morning errands on Avenue J in Brooklyn. We'd go to the dry cleaners, tell jokes, get in line at the bank and mock everyone around us.
My reward for entertaining dad was a perfect Brooklyn lunch: a slice of pizza and a grape drink, followed by a movie. All for a buck! To this day, pizza and a movie is my idea of a perfect day.
Now I'm 9, it's a Sunday morning on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where there were lots of narrow stores run by old Orthodox Jews with long beards and large hands. Dad says, "This store is so small, we have to suck in our tummies to get inside." And I chuckle, cause I'm 9. The tiny store is a sea of barrels. Anything an old Russian Jew could dream up to pickle is here: tomatoes, cucumbers, herring and so on. Dad gets tongs, and reaches into a barrel, sharing a taste of sauerkraut with me. "Do you like it?"
"This sauerkraut is too mushy," I say.
He puts the tongs down. "Alright keep moving." We go to the next skinny pickling emporium, mere steps away. He dips into the sauerkraut barrel. I taste. "Anything?" he quizzes.
"This sauerkraut is too salty."
"Let's go." We walked down the street to more barrels.
I taste. "This one is just right."
"OK, Goldilocks," Dad tells me, "I'll take three quarts of this sauerkraut, a quart of pickled tomatoes, and a quart of pickles."
Meanwhile, dinner at home, with Mom, the de-frost queen, the food charring was getting worse. Best part of the meal? Dessert, cause dad made it fun. And mom couldn't scorch it.
Mom said cookies were evil, filled with sugar and fattening crap. Dad and I wanted them, mainly as a defense against supper. Needing something to kill the taste of the main course, we wanted Oreo's. Wouldn't you?
Mom's bright idea: if she bought crummy cookies, we'd eat less of them. Some moms bought Oreo wannabes like Hydrox. Somehow my mother found Hydrox wannabes. Pickled hands would've tasted better.
Dad was undeterred. His thinking was: "The more you eat will take away the bad taste of the crummy cookies." His new recipe? He got a tall glass and filled it with a sleeve of cookies. Who eats a sleeve?
"The only way to eat these crappy cookies is drown them in milk," he said.
He got a parfait spoon, mushed it around and the "ookie mookie" was born.
I wasn't even hungry, but Dad's jokes lit up the otherwise deadly solemn house. My jokes lit up Dad. We were each other's best audience. This is where I learned to be entertaining for food.
Okie cookies, however, took their toll on me, and on my growing behind. I was now second fattest in my class, always the underachiever.
The next decade Dad hosted NBA championships in front of the TV for friends and neighbors with meatball heros, and Super Bowl parties with filet mignon. His proudest party moment was when he scoured the NY Tri-State area in search of dirty fortune cookies, and found them–with corny sayings like "You will receive great prosperity…during sex."
My most cherished meals were late night in restaurants on vacation. During a 2 AM shared pastrami sandwich, just the two of us, Dad confided his hopes and dreams, who he wanted to be, versus who he became. The joke telling and theatrics melted into a vulnerable intimacy–with spicy mustard.
When Dad retired, I visited him in Florida. Every restaurant we went to, he had a special waiter, Jay at breakfast, Doreen at dinner. He saw them every day, like family. His waiters knew everything about me. And no surprise, he was a big tipper.
Many people say food is love and that overeaters are searching for a love they'll never find. When dad died, I got really thin. Eating just seemed blah. Would food ever taste the same without him? Dad taught me about cuisines, kindness and how to be a good dining companion. We crafted each other's jokes, laughed at one another's stories, and ate like kings.
Two weeks ago, I was in Coney Island at midnight. Nathan's was closed, but I stood there in front by the counter we visited when I was a little girl. I breathed in the sea air with a scent of imagined French fries. And in that moment, Dad and I were together again.