My Family Recipe

Remembering Dad With a Showstopping Paella

An essay with food.

April 30, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland; Anna Billingskog (Food Stylist)

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Standing in my parents’ kitchen, I slipped the white chef’s apron over my head. As I tied the straps loosely around my waist, a familiar dull ache settled in my midsection. The apron belonged to my father—a memento from his stint as a cook at a golf club in Yonkers. Although Dad left the industry when I was an infant, the apron endured, put to good use whenever he and my mother cooked multi-course meals. Seeing him don it meant that we were in for a feast.

Every family member in my parents’ generation knew their way around a kitchen, whether it was in the Queens neighborhood where Dad and his siblings settled after immigrating from Spain, or back in the old country, where Mom’s brothers and their families still lived. Although we ate out once in a while, most of our celebrations happened at home.

On this day, Mom and I were getting ready to embark on the odyssey that is her paella recipe, a dish my parents cooked together many times, for holidays and other occasions. You could say that this dinner represented a milestone, although calling it a celebration would be pushing it.

As she cleaned the mussels and clams, I salted the water in the stock pot. “Make sure que o fogón está en high,” she said, advising me to turn the burner up. The reminder was issued in our usual gumbo of English, Spanish, and Galician, the dialect my parents grew up speaking in northwestern Spain.

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“I no longer see people adding eggs and I thought maybe that’s a “Filipino” addition to this dish (we are Filipinos and for as long as I remember we had hard boiled egg garnishes to our paella). Thank you for sharing your memories and I’m making paella this weekend to celebrate the people I love.”
— casarosario
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Few sounds were more comforting to me than the bassline of my parents’ culinary murmurs, as they swapped questions and comments in the kitchen. With Dad frequently out at one of his two jobs, these special meals afforded me the chance to see them working side by side.

My father was happiest when he was cooking with Mom and stuffing his guests to the gills with the food he had lacked as a child, circling the table and piling second and third servings onto their plates the moment they turned their heads. “Vamos,” he’d say, when they inevitably protested. “You can’t leave hungry!” No chance of that if he was in the vicinity.

After sliding the mussels into the pot, I stood vigil, tongs in hand, waiting for the steam to work its magic. Prepping the shellfish had always been Dad’s task, one he usually performed with me glued to his elbow. “Cuidado, Sofy—it’s hot,” he’d warn, whenever I leaned in too close to the stove. I would watch him, as he’d watch the mussels. With his brow furrowed, he was poised to fish out each mollusk the second its shell popped open, releasing its ghost into the vapors.

“Those two están listos,” said Mom, who snuck up beside me, pointing to a couple of mussels that were ready to remove. Slipping her arm around my waist, she gave me a gentle squeeze. Even with a full head of exuberant black curls, she’s still six inches shorter than me. I was taller than both of my petite parents by the time I was a teen, a fact that acquaintances often noted, which always prompted the same rejoinder from Dad. “Sofy’s eaten more steaks than we did at her age,” he’d say, a look of pride on his face.

Even though this was a meal in honor of my baptism, I’m not in this shot. (I am in another photo, where I’m seen sleeping next to the cake in my honor.) I include this one because you’ll notice that my mother made paella for this occasion and spelled out my name with the roasted red peppers. Mom is the one in red, and Dad is next to her. Photo by Sofia Perez

With two parents who came of age in the scarcity of post-civil-war Spain and Franco’s dictatorship, I never stood a chance of being indifferent to the things I consumed. The kitchen was where I first learned to be their daughter, receiving and giving love through the proxy of food. On both sides of our family, food was sustenance, festival, and cariño all at once, and knowing how to cook was a badge of self-sufficiency. It didn’t matter if I felt sad or joyful, anxious or bored—the kitchen contained the answers to most of the questions I asked.

That all changed several years ago.

In 2010, my father was diagnosed with dementia. During the early years of his illness, I see-sawed between total denial and nauseating despair. As his balance got worse, he grew increasingly sedentary and homebound, and my stomach would knot up at the sight of this once vibrant man crumpled up in his lounger, gazing listlessly at the birds that flew past the window.

When he failed to remember something, I’d occasionally lose my temper, out of sheer terror that he might also forget who I was, and then I’d immediately pummel myself with guilt.

“I’m so sorry,” I’d squeak.

“Don’t worry, Sofy,” he’d reply, bear-hugging me as he tried to smooth back my hair with his meaty workingman’s hands, in the same wordless way that he’d often expressed his emotions in the past—although once the dementia eradicated his internal censor, he frequently added the words, “I love you, forever and ever.”

As his illness progressed, my abdominal discomfort got worse, until it felt like I’d ingested a rock that now lived in my stomach full-time. But although my appetite plummeted, I continued to seek solace in the kitchen. At first.


In early May 2014, I decided to make a big pot of ragù alla Bolognese, cutting up all the vegetables, browning the meat, adding the tomatoes, and stirring the sauce as it simmered. I think it turned out well, though I honestly have no memory of eating it that evening, and I didn’t eat it the next day or any day after that.

May 6 marked the first of our runs to the hospital. In the weeks prior, Dad had been hobbled by intense back and thigh pain, and on that Tuesday, Mom called me in a panic. When I arrived at their home, Dad was disoriented, dizzy, and pale, and I immediately called for an ambulance.

By the time we’d reached the ER, he was agitated and kept saying “I want to go home,” as he tried to rip off the bright-yellow “fall risk” bracelet they’d attached to his wrist. At moments like this, Mom and I served as his emotional anchors, swallowing our own angst to keep him calm. Ever since I was a kid, Dad has reacted poorly to our sadness. “I DON’T want to see you cry!” he’d bark, seemingly angry. After the onset of his illness, however, he revealed what was driving that response. “Don’t cry,” he’d say, softly, “or you’re gonna make me cry,” with the tears already welling up in his eyes, something I’d never previously witnessed.

A week passed before I could return to my apartment, and when I opened the fridge, there sat the huge pot of bolognese, now spoiled. Into the garbage it went. Fast forward a few months to our second ER visit, which occurred the day after picking up my weekly CSA share. Much of that fresh food had to be dumped as well.

From that point on, I lived as if I were on call for the next crisis, which always seemed to be lurking. I kept a “go” bag in my closet and rarely went to the movies, for fear of being unreachable. When in restaurants, I’d put my smartphone in vibrate mode but tuck it under my thigh, to feel the alert if Mom called.

What started out as caution slowly morphed into superstition. Although I knew it was irrational, part of me believed that if I avoided tasks requiring total immersion—like cooking complicated dishes—I might prevent horrible things from happening to him. I couldn’t justify the self-indulgence of elaborate meals as I was losing my father to a war of attrition.

Even as he was deteriorating, though, he still loved to eat, especially sweets—“Who would even THINK of serving coffee without a cookie?” he’d ask in mock indignation, his lips curling into a sly smile, as he pretended he hadn’t just devoured the shortbread we’d given him moments before—but as swallowing got harder for him, we had to eliminate some foods he enjoyed, which meant we stopped eating them as well.

The final Sunday of February 2018 seemed like any other day, but the dinner I prepared turned out to be the last solid food Dad would ever eat (roasted salmon with potatoes and broccoli rabe). The next morning, he could barely lift his eyelids, and a few days later he was placed under hospice care at home. He held on for a week and then suddenly opened his eyes, fixing us with one long last look before slipping away, as we gripped his hands in vain.


The year that followed was a blur, marked by the emotional suckerpunch of each terrible “first” without him—birthdays, holidays, their 53rd anniversary. Although my cousins invited us over for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we avoided the people and places that were so deeply connected to Dad.

Because of his health problems, my parents had not traveled in years, so last summer I took Mom back to Spain to visit her two surviving brothers, our extended families, and several dear friends who are talented chefs. Everywhere we traveled, we were nurtured and fed exceedingly well—from fried Padrón peppers and hearty pulpo a la gallega (octopus dressed with olive oil, smoked paprika, and sea salt), to the rich umami nuttiness of thinly sliced jamón ibérico. Later, I realized that those meals represented the first time since the onset of the magical thinking that I’d allowed myself to feel anticipatory joy about food. They were the hairline cracks in my armor.

Although I knew it was irrational, part of me believed that if I avoided tasks requiring total immersion—like cooking complicated dishes—I might prevent horrible things from happening to him. I couldn’t justify the self-indulgence of elaborate meals as I was losing my father to a war of attrition.

Slowly, I’ve been learning to re-enter the world without bracing myself for disaster, but it’s taken much longer to return to the kitchen in any meaningful way. Resistance still rears its head, probably because the alternative requires accepting that Dad is really gone. As the first anniversary of his death came and went, I knew I needed to find a way over this hurdle without leaving him behind.

The answer was obvious: paella, the most labor-intensive recipe in our repertoire.

Although I had seen my folks cook it a million times, it wasn’t until Mom and I went through all of the steps that I appreciated the enormity of the task.

Before you can even think about putting fire to pan, you must prep everything first, because once you start to sauté, the train bolts out of the station. The pan itself is no picnic either, especially when you have to maneuver it from stovetop to oven without spilling the stock that nearly reaches the shallow rim. Paella is a two-person job—if you plan to avoid insanity—and even so, it took Mom and me more than three hours, start to finish.

After placing the garnished dish in the center of the table, I took off my father’s white apron and stopped to admire our work.

“Beautiful, eh?” said Mom, visibly pleased.

“Not bad.”

Our success was confirmed with the first mouthful, each grain of rice saturated with the flavor of shellfish and chorizo. The test of any good paella is always the rice; the other ingredients are bit players whose job is to buttress the star.

“How the heck did you do it?” I asked. “Make enough paella for 20, plus appetizers, salad, side dishes, and dessert? Now I know why you two were always so exhausted when those dinners were over.”

“It was a lot of work,” she nodded, “but we did it together, with cariño.”


Dad at the Hudson River Golf Club. Photo by Sofia Perez

I know I’ll never get my father back, but cooking the paella was a powerful reminder of the lessons he has taught me: Be prepared, work hard, proceed carefully (but never in fear), and, above all, be generous to the people around you. That last one might entail putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own, but if you do it with love, your sacrifice will feel like a privilege, not a burden.

As I was about to eat another mouthful of rice, my emotions got the better of me, and I had to put down the fork.

“Thank you, papá,” I whispered, swallowing hard as I wiped away the tears. I couldn’t let him see me cry.

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15 Comments

Caitlin R. May 6, 2019
So many parts of this story resonated with me. From losing a loved one and the powerful memory of the last meal you shared with them, to food as a proxy for love ... Thanks for sharing <3
 
Author Comment
Sofia P. May 6, 2019
Thank you, Caitlin, for your kind words.
 
Baruch N. May 5, 2019
My father was born in a little valencian village, paellas were (are) a family comfort food. I admit I clicked on Facebook when I saw this paella photo, ready to bark in a hater style, like I do when I see 'authentic andalusian' gazpacho recipes with ingredients that nobody would use in a gazpacho and call it 'authentic traditional'. I've never seen any kind of the several kinds of paella with hard boiled egg slices on top, or with chorizo, even. But this is the Perez Family Paella, and if I cook it, I'll cook exactly this way, because this is how your family paella is done. I loved reading your story.
 
Author Comment
Sofia P. May 5, 2019
Thank you so much for your comment. I do understand the impulse as I get irked as well when I see someone claiming "authenticity" for a dish that does not resemble what I know--though over my years in food writing, I've learned that "authentic" doesn't entirely exist, as dishes morph over time, and because of immigration, war, and many other facts. Still, there are some rules, right? (No one would call it a paella without rice, for example.) In any event, because people are so connected to the concept of authenticity and tradition, I was super careful to make clear in this essay that I was not representing this version as "traditional paella," but rather, as you point out a "Perez Family Paella." My mother learned how to make it when she lived in Valencia (as paella was not a common home dish in her native Galicia), but where she picked up the egg and chorizo additions, I don't know. Perhaps the person who taught her had an idiosyncratic approach, or she added it herself along the way. In her mid-80's now, she does not recall the specific origin of that element. It may be untraditional, but I will tell you that it is delicious. Thank you very much for the kind words about the essay, which was very hard for me to write, but which reflects my deep love for my father, who was an extraordinary human being. If you do cook our version, I hope you enjoy it. Peace to you.
 
casarosario May 1, 2019
This is a beautiful tribute to your father. I understand the play of superstition and fear: these things we resort to when most anxious, as when a loved one is slipping away. Your paella looks so much like what we make at home. I no longer see people adding eggs and I thought maybe that’s a “Filipino” addition to this dish (we are Filipinos and for as long as I remember we had hard boiled egg garnishes to our paella). Thank you for sharing your memories and I’m making paella this weekend to celebrate the people I love.
 
Author Comment
Sofia P. May 1, 2019
Thanks for your feedback and your kind words about the essay. And I really appreciate you saying the part about the egg. I've had people yell at me on Instagram for the addition of chorizo and egg, even though my mother learned to make it this way in Valencia (land of paella) in very traditional kitchens, and anyone who knows the history of the dish knows that there are many variations. There is paella marinera, paella valenciana, etc. - versions with seafood-only, or rabbit, or snails. The most important point is to imbue the rice with flavor. There is a reason the dish hails from that part of the country, because it is a rice-growing region. I did not know that Filipinos add the egg garnish as well, but that is super interesting. No recipe ever remains static, right? They change with our cultural shifts, and your post is further proof of that. I hope your paella turns out great, and thank you for taking the time to write.
 
casarosario May 2, 2019
So true. The variations largely depend on the area where the paella is made. As you have mentioned there is paella marinera, then there’s paella negra too (cooked in squid ink and garnished with prawns, squid, shellfish- to adapt to the family’s tastes (or medical concerns as in your case). Some even serve it with aioli. Thank you again for your lovely article.
 
GeekKnitter May 1, 2019
Such a beautiful tribute Sofia, thank you. Grief is such a long journey and it's never really done. Peace to you and to your family.
 
Author Comment
Sofia P. May 1, 2019
Thank you for the compliment and the words of wisdom. You are right about grieving. There's no "closure" to speak of, but there is deep love.

Total aside: Love your handle. I too am a geek and a knitter :-)
 
Eric K. April 30, 2019
Really lovely, Sofia.
 
Author Comment
Sofia P. April 30, 2019
Thank you, dear editor :-)
 
Kathleen B. April 30, 2019
Beautiful tribute.
 
Author Comment
Sofia P. April 30, 2019
Thank you, Kathleen. Love your goggles, hat, and jacket, BTW :-) you look fierce (in a good way).
 
Noreen F. April 30, 2019
This is such a beautiful tribute to your father!
 
Author Comment
Sofia P. April 30, 2019
Thank you so much, Noreen. Truly appreciate it! Hope you enjoy the paella if you make it.