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I grew up in the 1950’s. My father was an engineer. I used to say this to people proudly, and then see the shades go down behind their eyes (in lieu of a yawn?). I finally realized that, to them, "engineer" meant nerdy and technical rather than creative and interesting. (I grew up assuming that being an “engineer” meant you had imagination and a weird send of humor, like he did!) My dad was an inventor, a fine woodworker, and a photographer who built his own camera and developed film amongst the coats in a hall closet (before he finally made himself a real darkroom). He built a cabin cruiser, and then a sailboat, in our suburban backyard—and then taught himself to weld so he could build a trailer to haul them. An autodidact who never finished college, he was an avid reader who loved poetry and science fiction, an avocational bread baker, and occasional cook. As a child, I thought he could build or fix or invent anything. We had the most amazing things to play with, ride on, and climb in our backyard. He was funny, too.
My father believed that you could learn anything you were interested in learning—by doing it. His example allowed me (with a BA in Latin American History and zero culinary school) to become a self-made pastry chef and chocolatier, open a dessert shop in the 1970's, and continue to find pleasure in new culinary discoveries in the decades since. Dad is the main character in endless food memories—all delicious comic opera to me—whether or not the food itself was good.
We had a prolific elephant heart plum tree in our backyard. Elephant hearts are a rare plum variety with mottled, greenish-gray purple skin and meaty deep burgundy flesh that is intensely plum-y and quite tart. I get excited if I find them in a farmers’ market now. When our family of six could not eat enough plums to keep up with the tree, dad decided to make jam—his way. He thought commercial jam was too sweet and took steps to remedy that. Whoa! Talk about sour jam—and so many jars of it!
When my mother was in the hospital for a few days after the birth of my youngest brother, dad became the chief cook at home. One memorable meal involved a thick slab of beef liver—no melt-in-your-mouth delicate calves’ liver for him. He cooked that liver long and hard on the grill and insisted (and this involved lots of mugging) that it was perfectly delicious—and we were just a pair of wimps—as my 6-year-old brother and I chewed (and chewed and chewed). The lasting gift was a good joke that our mom and baby brother (to this day) could never be in on because, well, you just had to have been there.
My first bakery and dessert shop was going strong by the time dad ordered a bread machine from the Williams-Sonoma catalogue—probably just curious about “how the hell it worked.” I remember thinking, “he’s not going to like the fluffy bread he’ll get from that thing.” I was right, but I didn’t foresee the challenge he would find in a loaf of insipid bread. He went on to make dozens of loaves, making changes and taking notes along the way. Ultimately he produced dense, full-of-flavor, chewy, whole grain bread with loads of personality. “Herman’s Bread” was very Herman indeed. I looked forward to it, and the iterations that followed each time I visited, and the occasional phone updates. In addition to notes on paper, he kept a penciled tally on the tile backsplash in the corner of the kitchen, because he thought it amusing to calculate the cost of each loaf by dividing the cost of the machine by the number of loaves made to date! Early (fluffy) loaves cost over $100 each. By the time we were eating great bread, the cost per loaf was quite reasonable.
When dad became a pescatarian in the 1980’s, he perfected the grilling of a whole 7-pound wild salmon—head and tail on (because he hadn’t raised any wimps or wusses). The Big Fish took its place beside our Thanksgiving turkey and later replaced it altogether. It was superb salmon—and no joke. The fact that it was a little rare at the bone just meant that Chef Dad was way ahead of his time.
In retrospect, he was often miles ahead. His tastes were never shaped by fashion or status or price. He made and drank really strong black coffee in the 1950's, when America was still drinking coffee that resembled dishwater—and he started buying freshly roasted beans from small roasters as soon as I introduced him to such a thing in the early 1970’s. (Actually, he tried roasting coffee beans himself for a while.) As kids, we ate buckwheat pancakes rather than (boring!) white ones and drank Vernors Ginger Ale—ultra gingery by the standards of the day—when our friends were drinking paler stuff. He preferred a feisty 5 or 10-year-old single malt Scotch over a mellower and more refined 25-year-old and grade B maple syrup because it had more flavor than grade A. He loved mackerel over halibut and was crazy about "stinky" cheeses. Ironically (because surely I get my taste for big flavors from him), no matter what kind of exquisite, small batch bittersweet chocolates I brought him from small producers in the last decade of his life, he still preferred the Hershey’s milk chocolate that he grew up with.
Long ago, I stopped dividing the world neatly in terms of who was creative and who was not. My father’s unconventional, quirky and original brain combined with an engineer’s meticulous problem-solving skills made our lives rich, funny, and interesting, and shaped my approach to almost everything I do.
What are some things your Dad taught you about cooking and life? Let us know in the comments!