Considered in this essay: "Dead Dad Day," from Waccamaw No. 5, Spring 2010
Twenty years. Has it really been twenty years? How can it really be twenty years? Twenty years ago, your father, the foodie-before-foodies-were-a-thing, died suddenly at the age of 46 of a bizarre brain ailment borne from Who Knows Where. Twenty years ago, you were twenty-one years old and not ready—nobody is ever ready, are they?—to lose your father, whom you emulated, whom you adored.
You have a month to go before the anniversary. Start thinking about what you want to cook. Realize that you should probably do this one up. Twenty years feels like a milestone. A lifetime. You have survived without him, even thrived. You both deserve a feast.
This has been an important year for another reason, too: you finished the memoir, the one about food and your father, about the yearly cooking you are about to do and the years of living you’ve done ever since. It has taken you eight years of starts and stops and countless restructurings, but it’s done and you like it. You did what you needed to do and now you are hoping hard for a publisher to agree.
So go back and read it now for recipe ideas. What would your father want to eat on the twentieth anniversary of his own death? Laugh a little—please, for god’s sake, laugh! There’s never enough of that—at the absurdity of wondering this. Open the book, (say, “my book”—feel the words in your mouth, savor them) to the title essay, “Dead Dad Day,” and start reading. Remind yourself why you do this. Why you need this. Get a little hungry.
Consider slumming it this year. Your father loved stuff like Spam and scrapple and Shit on a Shingle maybe as much as he loved foie gras. There is no one best way to remember a person. Try to remember his marvelous catholic palate.
Do your best to hold it together. Even these many years after the events themselves, these years since you first wrote those words, this essay is hard to read. On the other hand, let it come and let it go. Nobody is watching you cry and even if they were, he was your father and he is gone.
Stop crying and catch your breath or start weeping audibly when you read the description of “Farfalle with walnuts and peas in tomato cream sauce” there on page 11. His favorite meal. His last meal. Of course. That’s it. Now you can make your menu and invite your friends.
Start with the antipasto. Sharp Fontinella cheese in salty chunks, prosciutto di parma wrapped around breadsticks. Fresh crunchy fennel you’ll have to chase your son from while you prep. Roasted peppers and marinated artichoke hearts. Olives and olives and olives.
Now you need your uncle’s recipe. Will he remember the dish? The day he brought it from his Hudson Valley restaurant, to your father’s hospital bed? Will he remember—do you?—who fed it to him, spoon by spoon?
When he sends you his best guesses—Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Walnuts or Penne with Vodka Sauce—you realize neither one seems exactly right. Neither one aligns with your memory, or with what you wrote with something like confidence in the essay. Feel unmoored by this. You were so hoping for certainty. This is what my father ate. This is the sound of his voice. This, the exact shade of his eyes.
As with memory, you will have to reconstruct the recipe. It’s okay. You’ve become good at both of these things over the last twenty years.
Farfalle with Toasted Walnuts and Peas in Vodka Cream Sauce
1 lb Farfalle
1 large sweet onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 cans (15 oz) diced tomatoes
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp butter
¼ c. vodka
½ c. heavy cream
¼ c. fresh basil leaves, torn
½ c. grated parmesan cheese
Crushed red pepper
1 cup frozen peas
¼ c. toasted walnuts
Fill a large pot with water and salt it so that it tastes of the sea, so that the pasta’s very heart will swell with salt, salt like tears which you will spill as you cook this, as you always do on this day.
In a sautee pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and salt them. They will soften, and you will soften as you stir. You want them translucent, no point in hiding anything at this point. Let them look right in. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper. Maybe a little more.
Add the tomatoes and the vodka and the sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer for twenty minutes. This will be quick. You have just enough time to tear the basil and toast the walnuts and talk with your friends, who are nibbling the antipasto and pouring you another glass of wine. Some of them have been here for this feast in the past, others are brand new and looking at you with pity or wonder. You’re used to this and these are real friends, good ones who will get used to you and your morbid sense of holiday. If not this year, then next.
Add the cream and the peas now—good sweetness to mellow but never squelch the slow, always—spice of grief.
Find your biggest bowl and pour the hot pasta in. Sauce on top, a handful of nuts, torn basil and cheese. More pepper if you can handle it and you can.
Serve family-style to your friends who are also your family, and start to toast your father again when someone—your husband, probably—stops you and says, “This year, we are also celebrating your accomplishment. Your book. The one that describes this day, the one this day has fed so well.”