The first meal I remember cooking for any member of my family was cornflakes with water and pepper (not even freshly ground pepper!), mixed together on the “burner” of my pink plastic toy stove. The dish was for my dad on Father’s Day, when I was about four or five. He gamely scarfed down a spoonful and then passed the bowl to my mother. “Mary, you’ve got to have a bite of this!” She most likely beamed and politely declined, with a gentle word of instruction to me: “You might try holding off on the pepper and substituting milk for water next time.”
But clearly I was an adventurous eater from a young age. Years later, when I cooked for my parents, I would make soupe à l’oignon and boeuf bourguignon out of Julia Child, and all manner of dishes from The New York Times Cookbook, but those days belonged to the future. Like many little girls, I wanted to please the men in my family, but I’m not at all sure my father liked having children.
I think of him, in retrospect and after years of therapy, as a “good-enough father” and a “strong absence.” He traveled a lot in his work as a salesman for a company that made air compressors, and on weekends I don’t recall him being exactly gung-ho about childcare. He took me ice skating once, fell on his butt and cracked the ice, and that was the end of that. He and my brother once took a rowboat out on one of the lakes, armed with fishing poles, but caught nothing. Aside from pitching a tent in the back yard, my brother never developed much interest in outdoorsy stuff till later, when he became an avid cyclist. Still my dad had a sharp sense of humor and could turn mundane chores like grocery shopping into an adventure. If the Muzak in the store changed to a Latin beat, he might seize me or my mother for a quick mambo down the aisle.
My brother, when I was younger, was a source of constant amazement and adulation. By the age of six or seven, he had read through the entire Compton’s Encyclopedia my parents had been suckered into buying, along with every other family of that generation who were convinced such compendiums were the road to higher knowledge. People talked about what a prodigy Bill was, although his aptitudes for math and languages would not develop until later. To me he was just my big brother, older by five years, and unquestionably smarter. When he convinced me to trade the two dimes from my allowance for his nickels, because they were larger in size, I did so without hesitation. When I was about ten, he taught me the rudiments of chess—I suspect so he would always have someone to beat—and I really didn’t mind losing because at least he was paying attention to me.
Five years is enough of a distance to mitigate against real closeness, but I remember how his tastes had an impact on mine. His withering disdain toward Peter, Paul, and Mary and Broadway show tunes would urge me toward classical music. When he suggested sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury, I checked them out, but never developed much of a taste for the genre. Still I’m glad he recommended Thomas Mann, which he read in German, and I’m glad I waded through Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain in English when I was younger and had more patience.
I have affectionate letters from him to my family when he was in college and graduate school, but over time, after he married and settled in Kansas, the gap between us widened. There were mysterious slights toward me and my parents, which I never completely understood (one holiday season, he announced, “We’ve decided not to send Christmas presents this year and we’d like you to tell Mom and Dad”). And then five years ago he cut off communications with me for good. He died of prostate cancer in December of last year, and I have struggled with mixed feelings of hurt and anger ever since.
I was invited to visit his household in Lawrence precisely twice in 40 years, once in my twenties when he and his wife had just bought a “starter” house and the second time for Christmas about a decade ago. I thought it was a wonderful visit, three days of music and talk and Netflix (with his wife—aka She Who Must Be Obeyed—retiring early, which should have tipped me off to something amiss). When I expressed a desire to repeat the holiday ritual the following year, Bill firmly informed me, “I’m afraid that would not be convenient for us.”
On that first visit, though, in their snug two-bedroom house near campus, where Barbara banished us to the backyard at night if we wanted to puff on cigarettes in the freezing cold, I remember high spirits and real familial goodwill. I recall that they had just discovered the joys of cooking in a wok, especially if seafood and vegetables were involved. And so to honor his memory, I offer a favorite shrimp stir fry adapted from Epicurious.com. I’ve made this dish many times and it is practically foolproof.
Hey, these posts are about family. You didn’t think it was going to be entirely upbeat, did you?
SHRIMP AND ROMAINE STIR FRY
- For sauce:
- 1/3 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes for stir-fry
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 5 garlic cloves, forced through a garlic press
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
- 1 1/4 pounds peeled and deveined large shrimp (about 21 to 25 per pound), patted dry
- 2 romaine hearts, cut crosswise into thirds
- Make sauce:
- Stir together all sauce ingredients (the first six) in a small bowl.
- Make stir-fry:
- Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then stir-fry garlic and ginger until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add shrimp and stir-fry until almost cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add half of romaine and stir-fry until it begins to wilt, then add remaining romaine and stir-fry until just wilted and shrimp are just cooked through, about 1 minute. Stir sauce, then add to stir-fry and simmer, stirring, 2 minutes. Serve over basmati or jasmine rice
Top: Pierre Bonnard, La Collation