Daddy’s Kitchen: What My Father Taught Me About Love
Growing up we didn’t get many hugs and kisses from our father. The “I love you’s” were few and far between, and I can’t even remember a time where he tended to a “boo boo” or checked my closet for monsters. It’s not that he didn’t love us. We knew better than to think that. It just wasn’t his way. He was cool, but not cold. He was matter-of-fact, but never mean. He was Dad. Actually, he was “Daddy;” the first man I ever cared about; the first man who ever cared about me. The one who taught me the most important lesson about love that I’ve ever learned.
He may not have said it much — if at all — but it was in the kitchen that my father showed us how much he loved us. It was in the kitchen that those hugs and kisses were given in the form of ham hocks and collard greens, which, now that I think about it is probably the reason that I’ve always been an emotional eater; an emotional eater with high blood pressure.
Whether it was a late breakfast, a late lunch, or an even later dinner (because his “love making” took forever– pardon the highly awkward and probably inappropriate pun), there was always a hearty, mostly healthy meal with my dad. And there was always a show. Always.
It was what I waited for; the times that I sat there at the kitchen table, the sole audience member of his one-man cooking demonstration. We didn’t talk. Not to each other. We never made eye contact. But I knew that all of the theatrics, all of the flair…it was all meant for my entertainment. It was always a memorable occasion for me, having my father in the kitchen, but one day in particular has always stuck with me….
My stomach rumbled as I watched him carefully (read: painfully slowly) select the perfect pot and fill it with water. For a minute I wanted to suggest that we just hop in the car and head to McDonald’s, but I didn’t dare. There was no fast food in his house. In my father’s house, McDonald’s was as much of a bad word as the ones we heard him muttering every now and then. So instead I waited…and waited as the show continued. Usually there was wonderment in how he washed and chopped the vegetables he had driven for miles and miles to buy from the not-so-local farmers’ market. This day was different though. There were no vegetables, there weren’t many spices out, but I still knew that something special was brewing.
As he waited for the water to come to a boil he sat down across from me, because as he always said, “You never leave the kitchen when you’re cooking. You never leave the food unattended.” It was then that he finally looked at me and spoke.
“So, how is school going?”
“Fine,” I said.
It was always the same question. And I always gave the same answer: Fine. Anything more or less than that would have warranted one of his infamous lectures and ruined the moment; something I learned from experience. We always spent the rest of the time in silence, except of course if someone else walked into the kitchen for a moment, but they never stayed for long. And that day, it was just the two of us.
When the water was ready he hopped out of his chair and began adding spices to the pot with grand gestures, going back and forth between the cabinets and the refrigerator searching for ingredients; stirring and tasting to get the seasonings just right.
Finally, he was done. I knew because he always stepped back from the stove and threw his hands in the air in celebration.
He reached into the cabinet and pulled out two bowls. I couldn’t wait to see what the “something special” was that he had created. I could see the steam rising as he ladled it into the bowls and slowly brought them over to the table, being careful not to spill. When he sat my bowl down in front of me, my face practically fell as I looked inside.
No chicken & dumplings, no corn, okra and tomatoes; just Ramen noodles.
I looked up from my bowl and across the table at him; confused. He looked at me, bowed his head and said grace, then picked up his spoon and dug in, expecting me to follow suit.
As much as I hated –and still hate — to admit it, it was good. Not perfect. Definitely not what I expected, but exactly what I needed. It was practical. It was Dad. Actually, it was “Daddy.”
I didn’t understand it then, which is usually the case in life; but I came to realize that my father didn’t have to tell us he loved us. His love was always right there at the center of the table where we sat and prayed and ate together as a family. Even in that small bowl of Ramen noodles, his love was always present.
No matter how old I get, I always find myself at that same kitchen table watching “the show,” getting a taste of his love. My father’s love was thoughtful, and patient. It was a love that led him to the edge of the Earth (or our small town) and beyond; going out of his way to give us everything he could in the best way that he knew how.
They may not have been hugs and kisses — which he’s gotten better with over the years — but his ham hocks and collard greens warmed our hearts and fed our souls just as much. My father’s love may not have been perfect or ideal by anyone else’s standards, but for me…that thoughtfulness, that patience and that dedication and drive have always been and always will be a part of the recipe to every loving relationship in my life.