November 25, 2011

How I Reconnected to My Father Through Food.

I began thinking about what I’d make for them the minute my father, in a noteworthy moment of accommodation, asked me where I’d like to go for lunch, lunch having grown into something much more meaningful than a meal. These lunches function as our opening gifts on Christmas Eve, our taking annual shopping excursions, and our family summer vacations to the beach. Routine and frequent and small, intimate in ways most people couldn’t recognize, even if I tried to describe the energy that passes between the three of us—my father, my stepmother, and me.

The conversation between us has evolved, from hostile interrogations to sessions marked by my questions and his answers to what it’s become now: a gentle, unaffected acquaintanceship. When I first left house and home to pursue the so-called independent life, he stipulated a Sunday lunch meeting as required for his continued financial support.  Then, each meeting felt more like an appointment with a probation officer, his shouting out question after question to confirm my good behavior, questions we could never answer in the negative.  As I graduated college and got my first, then second, then third job, the dynamics changed, and his questions were replaced with my own every Sunday, in my awkward and desperate attempt to forge a friendship with the man who had only ever been my guardian in spirit.  Now, finally, once I let that idea go, it presented itself, and we both affirm each other in ways we each need: my father ending this latest get-together with the much surprised, “Good to see you anyway,” and my growing ever more responsible, illustrating to him I’ve grown into the woman he always hoped I’d become.

It seemed a moment worthy of broadcasting, both the instance in which I invited him over and the reciprocal one when he accepted my invitation. ”Should we come over at noon?” he asked, and I even loved that he did, for how together he and Ines are, how she has become a mother in attendance to me. I can never truly understand the love within her heart, the force that moved her to give so much to us, to me, but I never cease to be amazed, and grateful, for it.

And food. Did food make it all happen? It certainly seems so. With food came life and faith and strength and confidence, every little piece elemental to the woman I am today, bringing me to this apartment and this diet and this life. The questions he asked me, in a soft yet strong voice, followed that theme—it all worked together as if by script, though the conversation was far from perfect or smooth, making it all the more real.

Bok choy had to be a visitor at our table, I thought, its sparkling white stalk luminous under the harsh lights in the grocery store.

And leeks, a vegetable my parents never make, a new favorite of mine and color-coordinated at that. A root must butt its way in, and one look at the Japanese yams took me back five years to my childhood home in the days that followed the hospitalization that began to change my relationship with my father. I can’t forget, really, how he’d sat in a chair in the corner, dozing off, dreary-eyed with paternality, greeting me whenever I’d awaken. I saw him cry to my boss over the phone, save me from awkward telephonic silence with my brother, stop my mother from crossing seas to do what he’d always done. Take care of me.

He knocked on my white wooden door each morning of the week I stayed with him, barking his loving advice in his authoritative, accented tone. ”Guai guai, Baba go to work now. Eat Japanese yams for breakfast. On table. Be home for lunch.” By that he meant he’d be home for lunch. I’d opened my eyes, looked at him, and lay there a while before getting up. The door stayed open, as it had all night, and I trundled down stairs to eat the cold, salted yam with my bare hands. I cherished the chill, my returning appetite, my stabilized stomach. I’d gotten sick, I still was, but I was recovering.

But today, turning the heat on the millet and sweet brown rice married with ribbons of seaweed off the coast of Maine balanced on adzuki beans in my favorite red pot, I’m healed. I cook, I eat, I live.

I thought to make them cod, a wonder of a fish they rarely eat, for its medicinal properties, its beautiful white skin, its wild origins. The farmer’s markets of Houston I’d been too afraid to try two years ago supplied the ginger and sesame seeds I blanket the fish with and the garlic that exists as the only seasoning to the greened foods of the day. It is brilliant, with or without skin. Tempeh will be dessert, in its way, a treat they’ve never seen and will probably never make. I marinate it in miso mixed with my favorite soy sauce—shoyu—and set it to bake, alongside the cod. I consider making tea, but our tradition is to drink that after lunch, after fruit, after food.

I do it alone. I make all the decisions. It is my time to decide which dishes to serve everything in, when to take the food out of the oven and off the stove, how to display each course on the small glass table that spent years in their home.

They, of course, are right on time. A doorbell rings and I let them in, running back up the stairs ahead of them; they follow in silence. When we reach the front door, my father hands me a red plastic grocery bag. ”Some Asian pears. Put them in the fridge, I guess.” I do, and then offer them something to drink. My father quickly declines for both of them, urging me to take my time. But I’m ready, I’ve been ready for this. For them. For him.

I fill their bowls with grain and bring them to the table, but Ines doesn’t want so much, so she empties some of hers back into the pot. It warms my heart how they both make themselves at home, my father later grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. They are family. They always have been but now it’s official.  I rattle off the names of everything they’re eating, even pulling the jar of millet out of the pantry so they can see what it is. ”The tiny thing, right?” Ines asks.
“A seed,” I confirm.

My father eats as he always does, with speed, purpose, and indiscrimination. He barely listens, or so it seems, as I engage in casual information sharing with Ines. ”No oil, only water.”

“All healthy,” he says.

The tempeh intrigues them both and makes the entire meal a success in my mind. I’ve taught them something, shown them something, given them something.

“What’s this?” my father asks.

“Tempeh. Soy cake.”

“Tastes pretty good, and healthy.”

“Nicely seasoned. Really pretty good.” They both take second helpings of it, as well as the cod. The bok choy, arguably the most beautiful ingredient, gets neglected so, in a great role reversal, I hand it to my father, pushing him to try some. ”Here, Baba. Eat some.” He obeys, taking some with a nod, then serving Ines as he always does at home. They appear to enjoy the perfect marriage, serving each other, teasing one another, coexisting in their only little way. My father leans back as she talks, smiling at her in a way that says he loves her but doesn’t always take her so seriously.

We eat in silence once we’re all clear on what we’re eating. My father grunts “okay” after every spoken listed ingredient, as if to tell me to relax. And I do, experiencing the silence with my family, sharing it with them for once.

I ask my father questions I felt afraid to ask him as a child, simple queries of curiosity, like how Chinese names originate and who picked ours. He looks at me with a warmth, an acceptance, an openness that communicates something he never did when I lived with him: I have nothing but time for you. He’s sitting at my table, he’s eating my food, he’s talking to me, he’s being with me.

We become a family here in this strange place that doesn’t truly belong to me. ”Good to see you anyway.” His words melt my heart. They leave, thanking me, and I hug my father. I watch them walk away, easily striding alongside each other. I snap their photo.  This is love. That was food. And they are family.

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