“Stuck deep in a wine glass or hovering over a spice jar, Dad’s nose is big.” By Josh

This is a bit I wrote for a creative writing class eleven years ago. It’s full of the present tense of an undergrad who hasn’t quite reconciled himself to the fact that his parents’ house is no longer /his/ house. (It’s also the product of a time in my life when I didn’t have steady access to my own kitchen or groceries beyond what would fit in a dorm fridge…)

It unfortunately has to be in the past tense at this point, as my dad has been dead for four years. There’s a surprising amount of truth in this old piece, though—things that have become clear only with my own wife and kids. While I can’t just chuck garlic and hot peppers at my cooking any more, the way I’ve grown into cooking has everything to do with the way my dad cooked and used cooking to interact with the family when I was growing up.

[–*–]

I’ve given up any illusions of becoming a great cook. Good, maybe, but not great. I got a lot of things from Dad—the short, thick fingered hands, the ability to ignore splash burns and small cuts, knowing when something is cooked through by touch—what I didn’t get was his nose. Stuck deep in a wine glass or hovering over a spice jar, Dad’s nose is big. Big enough that only about half the family’s motley collection of glasses work for him. It isn’t a standout nose. It doesn’t hook. There’s no Dick Tracy hawkishness about it. It isn’t bulbous; it isn’t upturned, pug, or snub. It’s a fairly normal triangular nose, really. But it is big and I harbor suspicions that it’s at the root of my father’s cooking career.

We cook the same way. He just does it better. Neither one of uses recipes on a regular basis. Cookbooks are more theoretical texts than prescriptions, catalogs of ingredients and combinations to be borrowed from but not followed. We start with an empty pan, plate, or pot. Then we go to the refrigerator or the freezer and start filling it up, occasionally tweaking and twisting with little plastic or glass containers from the spice cabinet. I sprinkle and marinate until intuition tells me I’m at an end. He works just as intuitively to balance his flavors, but he’s got something I occasionally lack in the kitchen–control.

He lines up his spices by scent. He knows the difference between rosemary and sage even though they both smell like the high desert to me. My Dad can tell them apart and that massive proboscis of his lets him know when he’s overdone it, put in so much celery salt that the cumin won’t, to mix metaphors, speak. He does make those sorts of mistakes once in a while, but the brain and the nose and the thick fingered hands negotiate a new balance. It always ends up pleasantly edible.

Almost always. The only times I can remember my father’s cooking coming out less than perfect (at least to the mouth…there have been some ugly meals, but always tasty) have to do with salt. Maybe it’s because salt doesn’t smell like the other spices. Compact, hard crystals just don’t break off as many of those microscopic bits that hit the nose as smell. Salt has to hit the tongue before you notice its true extent. Matters are also complicated by the fact that some foods, especially seafoods, have a lot of salt in them already. Dad did a turkey soup once. Maybe he added the salt before he let the stock simmer down to concentrate. Maybe he was distracted by a football game or the dogs that make our kitchen into a constantly shifting obstacle course. Whatever it was, there was flat out too much salt in the soup. We all ate some of it, but nobody had a second bowl. As far back as I can remember, food has been Dad’s big contribution to the domestic. It is not all that he does, but it’s a cornerstone of family dynamics. Dad apologized for the soup. He doesn’t do that very often—another habit of his that I’ve picked up.

Dad and I started in the kitchen. He’d bake rolls and bagels and pretzels to sell to people from the church. I used to stand on a chair and watch him knead dough and roll it out. Bagels would go into a big black pot for a few seconds at a time then onto corn meal covered baking sheets. Later, at the restaurant, I watched him douse grill flame-ups with greasy, beheaded spray bottle. I’d fold napkins and set tables and later yet I’d start running the dishwasher. But there has always been something magical about watching him go to the spice rack, about the mixing bowls and the baking sheets made from old road signs. There is a carefulness and surety in the way my father works in the kitchen.

When I cook, I just chuck in crushed garlic and cayenne, olive oil and black pepper, until I get something that works. Don’t get me wrong, I love the way garlic smell can linger on your fingers for days. I’ve consumed enough black pepper that talking about its carcinogenic properties makes me nervous. I like to eat what I cook. But I substitute burn for balance. If it’s broken, well…I keep a few jalapenos around for emergencies. They’re crisp and I make sure every capsazin-soaked seed goes in the pot, but they’re no substitute for the perfect nose.

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