In honor of Father’s Day, a few days late, I thought I’d offer this little anecdote from The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat — the book-in-progress — about the part my Dad played in my development into a foodie…sort of:
Both my father and I are incredibly picky eaters, while, for my mother and sisters, eating is a contact sport. Why anyone would bother to turn down a food they’ve never tried before is beyond their understanding. When I was growing up, they argued their position often, trying to convince my father and I that this restaurant’s Thai satay sauce didn’t really taste like tahini, or that really, a samosa is a lot like a French fry. We remained unconvinced, a fortress together. My father adamantly refuses any parmesan cheese on his pasta—in fact, refuses to eat pasta in any shape other than long spaghetti. With a father who turns down the cheese on a cheeseburger that he orders hockey puck hard, my aversions towards eggplant, lentils, broccoli, or mushrooms never seemed too strange.
Our shared food fussiness meant we were a team on the home turf, strong enough in our protests for anything too weird to invade the family dinner table. We certainly were not going to tolerate any ethnic food on our kitchen table. Once every few months, to indulge their taste for the spicy, my mother and sisters would have what they called “girls’ night out.” They would dress up a little, taking the excuse to use their curling irons to wear heels and eyeliner, and head out on the town for a more international approach to fine dining, and to catch a romantic comedy at the theater by the mall.
I stayed home with my father, relieved to have narrowly avoided getting roped into what I thought of then as far too girly a night, lucky to have missed out on the raw fish or the latest Meg Ryan flick. We’d order a couple of pizzas—plain cheese for him, Hawaiian for me—and he’d let me watch him watch ESPN while I ate off a paper plate on the living room floor. He’d drink a Sam Adams straight from the bottle while we watched the Celtics rattle the backboards at the Garden, him leaping up dramatically with each basket made. We’d laugh as I imitated him, launching myself into the air, coming down on one knee and pumping my elbow backwards, yelling yeah, baby!
These nights with my father were my private victories, my first little rebellions against the culture of womanhood, a culture that seemed to me based mostly on hair and makeup and a far too adventurous approach to food. I knew I shared more in common with my father than either of my sisters, despite the fact that they actually played on the basketball and soccer teams he coached. We liked pizza better than Indian food and we were never going to change.
I must have sensed at the time that I was missing out on something, watching them from a distance as they learned to use chopsticks and hair straighteners, wrinkling my nose at the mysterious cardboard containers they brought home, bottoms spotted with grease from thick yogurt sauces, or round aluminum plates with crumpled edges full of seaweed rolls and thin strips of ginger. My decisions not to go along with my mother and sisters were perhaps too voracious, too full of scorn. I decided I didn’t want to learn that way to be a woman—perhaps because I sensed I wouldn’t be much good at it.
I’ve branched out a bit since then, discovering an adult taste for a good California roll and a vodka martini, tuning in for my fair share of Sex and the City. But I was a quiet, clumsy girl surrounded by brassy, confident women, comfortable in heels or in the kitchen. People who met my family for the first time assumed I was adopted. Rather than be left out, branded the too-awkward tomboy, I chose a different identity for myself. My father was my closest physical analog in the family, and so I took my first steps in self-identity towards him, away from the kitchen. Away from femininity, and towards pizza off paper plates with ESPN.
What are your favorite food & family memories? Leave a comment, or email me to share your story!