We hear the sound of Dad’s cooking first.
Forks and knives tremble in a metallic clamor, grabbed in fistfuls from their segmented homes. Pots and pans scream as they’re pulled from cabinets, as they’re Tetris-ed out from precarious piles.
Forks and knives tremble in a metallic clamor, grabbed in fistfuls from their segmented homes. Pots and pans scream as they’re pulled from cabinets, as they’re tetrised out from precarious piles. Water gurgles to a boil. Water hisses as steam. Spices chatter in a glass and plastic chorus.
This discordant music, pervading every room, is an omen: dinner will be good tonight. The oven door creaks open and slams closed.
The kitchen has always been Dad’s culinary playground: maximum occupancy one. Not that the space disallows line cooks. Technically, we could help—and would, too—but the kitchen is often his alone, boundaries protected. So instead, we wait, filling the space before a meal with words, filling glasses with cheap wine. We hold our own against the cacophony of Dad’s cooking: touché!
My husband runs by with my niece tossed over a shoulder, squealing. They shout in made-up languages, create secret handshakes and inside jokes. One brother strums his guitar as his wife relates schoolyard anecdotes. The other brother streams silly YouTube videos, while my sister and her husband describe zany characters encountered during the week. Mom circles between us like thread, perfecting tablescapes, and I laugh, tipsy from waiting. Our family, now ten and counting, roars.
The meal’s fragrance begins to wander, embodied. The restless (read: all of us) stir. The stovetop is a beating heart shared among us. We can sense it from the far reaches of the house.
Insatiable, we reach fever pitch by the time the call rings out: “Dinner’s ready!” These words must be heeded quickly. Racing to the table, we claim seats like waiting commuters spring-loaded into an arriving train. We scoop servings. “Come on, come on,” Dad says, sending loaded platters counterclockwise. Decades have passed in exactly this way.
Dad to us as kids: Be home by six.
But it’s a fact…dinner is always late.
Mom to Dad as he cooks: How can I help?
“Just stay out of my way, Dear,” his refrain. (This is not said without love.)
Mom or Dad to my sister and me: Set the table.
We drop silverware hastily. We arrange utensils at impatient angles.
Finally, in unison, we say grace.
God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food. Amen.
Before prayer’s end, I sneak furtive tastes with a forefinger, unworried about God’s wrath. If Mom sees me, she lets it slide. And then—behold—the meal. Serving bowls steam heavy with biryani, perfumed of another time and place. Naan is hot-buttered with garlic and ghee. Or maybe green onions swirl atop a pot of pho, flecked with Thai basil and cilantro. Spring rolls glisten, freshly rolled, ingredients sourced from the Asian grocery near Atlantic City. The food is of the world and is the world and each of us hovers around it.
For a glorious moment then, we pause, peering across the expanse with breath bated. Silence cuts in—brief—and with something like reverence, we begin to eat. This stillness, though, is only temporary, forks ringing like wind chimes between mouthfuls. In no time, the volume is cranked and courses are served and we are hungry lions, all of us.
People have always told Dad he should open a restaurant. His repertoire is expansive, his curiosity boundless. Yet he never wanted food to be work. Instead, his New Jersey kitchen is where he travels the world—where he nurtures us, in his way. This is important, he says without saying. The food is what creates the “we.” The best nights of my childhood, when times were good and the food was so perfect a restaurant couldn’t compare (it still is), you had to act fast to get seconds or you’d be out of luck, six sets of hands seeking more. The best nights, I would eat and eat and eat.
Rumor has it Dad’s taste is fueled by a supersonic sense of smell. But who knows, really? My family excels in hyperbole, especially when we’re eating. No one admits this, naturally, but just listen to us: victory trumps fact; truths are generated on the fly. Our soundtrack is all tall tales and debates, one speaking over the other with full mouths. Participation in this motley dinner series is non-negotiable. I realize now this makes us lucky.
Often, Dad makes games of these gatherings. “Game” games, even.
A favorite dinner story (his) is how he fooled my sister and me into devouring sauerbraten as kids, made from deer shot by a friend. He presented the venison magisterially, the scent of vinegar sharp. He let us think it beef, consoling our French-fry palates. We had seconds, thirds, not realizing we’d been gamed. He pulled the same stunt with my two brothers years later, replacing detested spinach with la espinaca.
More recently, my “older younger” brother’s birthday was fêted with mystery sliders of wild meats. Seated, we were given pen-and-paper as the rules were explained. Each burger was capped with a numbered flag. We were to taste them and list our favorites, not certain what we were eating. At meal’s end, all would be revealed. Plates cleared, Dad took center stage, beaming. The evening’s contestants were Andorran boar, African ostrich, Australian kangaroo, and Asian yak. (Read this with game-show intonation.) The winner: yak—though I preferred the ostrich.
This habit of making games of mealtime has become generational. A few years ago, at the same brother’s behest, we limited Thanksgiving ingredients to historic originals. An approved Pilgrim grocery list was researched and pre-circulated. To add something, provenance had to be demonstrated…convincingly, for once, with actual documents. Negotiations got heated, though I’m proud to say that goat-milk butter was my meal-saving victory. That dinner cost me a small fortune.
Birthdays, perhaps, are the most anticipated of meals, when you get to play suppertime line leader: dictating the menu, choosing dessert. Inquiries grow frequent as the day nears. It’s no wonder. As the years go by, my siblings try to outdo one another, presenting new culinary challenges for Dad to master. Let’s visit New Orleans, someone requests. Huzzah! We feast on roast-beef po’boys with debris. Next up: the Middle East! Lamb and beef shawarma is tucked inside home-baked pita. Tzatziki sauce is bright and cooling.
These requests are taken seriously. When my niece turned five, it was chicken fingers for her, a kid’s menu by special request. So that’s what we ate, the lot of us, no attempts made to hide the freezer burn or refine it. Peas rolled off the fork, defiant, just like they always did. Squirt-bottle BBQ drowned the taste. Beside an iceberg salad, a ridiculous number of dressings stood alert, intruders bought on sale. This meal was not my favorite, but it was her right, tradition handed down by decree.
Occasionally, childhood classics make cameos for the big kids, too: chicken piccata for my sister, Dad’s glorious carrot cake for me. Dishes change or reemerge. The calendar flips.But here’s the thing I picture above all else: my family gathered together, howling as we eat.
Dad’s Famous-to-Me Carrot Cake
Dad let me invade his kitchen to learn the recipe for his carrot cake, my #1 birthday request. As we baked, the family hooted and hollered in the background.
TIME: 1.5 hours prep, .5 hours baking
- 2 cups flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp allspice
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 3 large eggs
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- ¾ cup vegetable oil
- ¾ cup whole milk
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 ¼ cups grated & shredded carrots (3:1)
- ½ cup crushed pineapple, drained (reserve juice)
- ½ cup flaked coconut
- ½ cup raisins
- ¾ cup chopped pecans
- 4 Tbsp butter, softened
- 2 8-oz packages cream cheese, softened
- 3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
- 1 ½ tsp vanilla
- ¼ cup pineapple juice
Preheat oven to 350°. Grease & flour two 9” cake pans.
- Sift dry ingredients together.
- In mixing bowl, beat eggs on low. Blend in sugar, vegetable oil, milk, and vanilla. Beat on medium until mixed.
- Add dry ingredients into wet. Blend on medium-low until smooth. Fold in flavorings.
- Fill pans ¾ high.
- At 30 minutes, begin to check with toothpick for doneness.
- Rest 10 minutes. Flip onto racks and cool completely.
- Cream butter and cream cheese on medium until smooth.
- Whip in confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and juice.
- Adjust sugar.
- Frost away.
- Place one cake round on a cake stand or serving plate. Add a generous spoonful of frosting to the top and spread in an even layer until it’s completely covered.
- Place the second cake on top and frost the sides and top.
- Once the entire cake is covered in frosting, sprinkle chopped pecans around the rim of the cake. (I usually create a 1-inch frame around the top of the cake.)