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A Father’s Frown

My father loves to eat. A World War II navy veteran, he’s the kind of eater who’s unfussy enough to have enjoyed even the S.O.S. served on his ship—something he still talks about some 70 years later with nostalgia. I suppose what he found appealing was the all-American marriage of chunky meat with creamy sauce consumed in an atmosphere of chaotic camaraderie—an alien concept in my mother’s strictly kosher kitchen.

Actually, pretty much everything about my mother’s kitchen was strict when I was small: no laughing at the dinner table, no TV during meals, no butter on potatoes or bread. Despite her Middle Eastern Jewish background, rife with honey-soaked baklava, ground beef-filled bourekas, and spicy falafel, she had a seeming inability to delight in the pleasures of the palate. My mother was a stern, no-frills cook at best. Combined with the trend toward convenience food in the ‘50s and ‘60s, this created some memorably unappetizing meals at our dinner table. Her most infamous abomination I dubbed “glop,” and it smelled and tasted even worse than it sounds. Mealtimes were essentially free of anything that might have caused pleasure—as was our life as a family, in general. (A look at our few family photographs document a posed semblance of fun that lasted only as long as the click of the shutter.)

So my father, who was not a man of many words, ate wordlessly, expressionlessly, and as quickly as he could manage so as to hasten his retreat to his den, where he could watch loud TV in an effort to avoid conversation. To be fair, there were occasions when he would exhibit enjoyment—like our monthly “dairy night” of canned-tuna-with-macaroni-and-Velveeta-cheese casserole, and My-T-Fine packaged chocolate pudding for dessert, which was practically a reason to live. As were dinners out. On these occasions, my father’s face would break into a frown, a rare expression that I’d come to understand, upon seeing it at the table, as an expression of utter satisfaction.

No ordinary frown, this was a full-on, wrinkle-foreheaded, knit-browed, purse-lipped scowl. His hazel eyes, magnified by the enormous black plastic-framed glasses that resembled diving goggles, would be so intensely focused on the food, it was as if he half-expected it to escape. He’d clutch his fork, not once putting it down between bites, lest his pause be mistaken for satiety. He also kept his head close to the plate on those occasions, giving my mother and I a bird’s-eye view of his rather magnificent shock of thick, wavy, jet-black hair.

This signature facial expression was legendary among our extended family and the talk of holiday gatherings. “Look! He’s doing it!” my cousins would exclaim. Or one of my uncles would grumble, “What’s the matter with you?” There’s even a photograph of my frowning father, poising his fork to attack a plate of cake held—but by no means created—by my mother. The snapshot is captioned, “If she takes that away, I’ll prang her with my fork!”

When I was 10 years old, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Shortly thereafter, her iron-fisted kitchen rules loosened. The TV stayed on during dinner, the tension at the table attributable in equal parts to the bad news about the war in Vietnam and my mother’s declining health. A few years later, when her cancer had metastasized, mother took to her bed. With her absence from the kitchen, dinner became anything that was easy for then-14-year-old me to prepare. Her tinned peas in tomato sauce creations were out; my poached eggs and toast, bagels and cream cheese, and Aunt Jemima pancakes with Log Cabin syrup were in. My father frowned a lot during this period, only partly because my mother was so sick.

When she died, in the Jewish tradition, we sat shiva for seven days. On day one, my mother’s kosher kitchen was violated by the fried chicken and macaroni-and-cheese my mother’s nurse brought. Made with real cheddar and a chewy-crusty brown top, that casserole consoled us mightily. There were also platters of miniature rye-bread rounds topped with luscious corned beef and mini-latkes; baskets laden with ripe fruit, biscuits, and an exotic spread I’d never seen called Nutella; sour-cream-and-chocolate coffee cake with streusel topping; and sprinkle-topped butter cookies. Pervasive sadness aside, those seven days were delicious.

In the weeks immediately following my mother’s death, my father and I ate out a lot, sitting across from one another at different tables in different restaurants with the usual silence between us. I’m certain it seemed to onlookers that this poor beleaguered father was being forced to dine with his rebellious teenage daughter hiding behind her long, uncontrollably frizzy hair, in torn jeans and a peasant blouse that barely disguised her lack of a bra. That wouldn’t have been wholly inaccurate. Had he not been distracted by dinner, my father would have been glad to point out my multiple deficiencies. “Pants that fit don’t cost any more than ones that sag,” he would often mutter. Or “What happened to your hair?” in lieu of “Good morning.” Fortunately for both of us, hot turkey with gravy, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, and chicken potpies, not my appearance, were responsible for his deeply etched frowns. Or so I told myself.

After the reality of my mother’s passing had settled in, I decided to make the kitchen my domain. It wasn’t that, as a newly motherless teenager, I longed to reproduce the food of my people. Rather, I sought to bridge the generational gap between my father and me, a gulf that seemed larger than the longest of dinner tables. Whereas he embraced Sinatra, Nixon, and hard work, I leaned to Led Zeppelin, Carter, and sleeping late. Despite our differences, I longed for some sort of parental affection. I couldn’t help but hope that under the influence of food, my father might glimpse a little of what lay beneath the tangled mop of hair obscuring my face. And if I couldn’t make him proud enough of me to smile, I was willing to settle for coaxing out a food-induced frown.

I decided to start by making what I knew, or what I thought I knew: Things that were sweet made people happy. This seemed like sound reasoning to someone reared in a house where there’d been a dearth of both sweetness and happiness. At the top of my list were cheese blintzes. In my recollection, my mother had never made the thin, tender crêpes that enveloped a lightly sweet, slightly lemony cheese filling and were browned in butter and gilded with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of blueberries. They were far too labor-intensive—and, let’s face it, tasty—to have graced our dinner table. I had, however, seen my father order blintzes at the delicatessens we frequented, and I recalled that they always elicited the furrowed brow that caused waitresses concerned about their tips to scurry nervously toward our table.

Strictly speaking, I didn’t learn how to make blintzes; it was more that I intuited it. The crêpes were simple enough—the lacy, delicate pancakes had enjoyed a surge in popularity with the appearance of restaurants like Magic Pan, so crêpes recipes were easy to find in the cooking magazines of the mid-’70s. And I already made a fine cheesecake, one whose rich, creamy taste and texture were akin to those of the filling. Then, as now, I did everything by taste and feel, using a bissel this, a handful that, including farmer cheese (not ricotta or cream or cottage cheese, which will only lead to regret for your misspent time), lemon juice (only the juice—no need to get all fancy and add zest), sugar (just enough to make it breakfast-sweet, not dessert-sweet), a couple drops vanilla (you shouldn’t actually taste it), and an egg or two (enough to bind the ingredients).

The first time I presented a plate of three golden blintzes to my father, I cringed at the lack of uniformity in their appearance, fearing he might criticize their superficial flaws as he did mine. But he said nothing. I held my breath as he meticulously spooned sour cream over each one, spreading it evenly across the top with his fork, arranged the blueberries so that there would be exactly one in every bite, and cut each blintz into individual pieces with surgical precision. I waited as he slowly, slowly chewed and swallowed, watched for the moment when the skin on his forehead creased just so with concentration. Without pause, he went for another bite, his eyes narrowing, his lips pursed tightly together. It was a dandy of a frown.

Still, I needed to know if it was a macaroni-and-cheese frown or a Wolfie’s corned beef on rye frown. I nervously drew in my breath and asked if he liked them. “Good stuff,” he mumbled through a mouthful, his eyes fixed resolutely on his plate. He proceeded to methodically polish off the blintzes, not once breaking his rhythm and leaving nothing more than a smudge of blue-tinted sour cream on his plate. To most, his reaction would have been unsatisfying at best and insulting at worst. But to me, his frown was the ultimate compliment, the clink of his fork on the plate music to my ears.

Not long after, I left for college. I had naively hoped that moving away from home would lead to happiness, but mostly it just led to chaos—three colleges, three marriages, three cities, three divorces. My father cut me off financially when I dropped out of my first school, and he referred to each of my gentile husbands as the “goyim-in-law.” He’d remarried a woman who, like him, loved to eat but did not freely hand out praise. For 20 years he and I spoke on the phone only every couple of weeks, our conversations brief and, for my part, uninformative—fewer details meant fewer things for him to criticize. His intention to teach me self-sufficiency had succeeded, and for those two decades I worked to the point of burnout, rarely visiting and making blintzes even less frequently. I was too busy to worry about whether my father approved of my choices, or my appearance, or me.

And then I turned 40, and my father 80. I’d just quit my job to reclaim my life and my sanity when we learned he needed heart surgery. Concerned, I flew back to Miami. I needn’t have worried. His fondness for food was the hit of the ICU as he coveted and quickly consumed the hoagie my stepmother had brought for her own lunch less than 24 hours after surgeons stapled he sternum back together.

When he came home, I cooked so my stepmother could concentrate on caring for him. At the table each evening I served his favorites, eliciting that old familiar frown, I was happy to see. But away from the table, he did something far less characteristic. He actually smiled at me, even thanked me for coming. Over those two weeks, I made him blintzes, lots of blintzes, enough blintzes for him to stash in the freezer for many a future dinner. And when I hugged him before leaving for the airport, I realized that for the first time I could remember, I was sorry to leave.

During the years that followed, I visited my father first once a year, then twice. And on those visits I always made blintzes. The most recent batch was not long after his 90th birthday. As I was standing in the kitchen getting ready to assemble them, he shuffled over to the counter, his gnarled fingers gripping the handlebars of his walker, which we’d nicknamed the Cadillac. He glanced at the tall stack of crêpes and grinned as I unwrapped package after package of cheese, repeatedly marveling at the amount of work involved. Then he asked me again the name of what I was making. When I reminded him, he smiled with the same anticipation he’d shown upon hearing the name the last time I’d said it just a few moments earlier.

“You know,” he said, his voice quavering, “when I eat…um….” He paused, searching for the right word. “Them,” he finally said, knowing that I knew what he meant, “when you’re gone….” He shook his head, as if to shake the word from his brain down to his mouth. Finally he stammered, “I feel like you’re here with me.”

It had taken 30-odd years for my father to arrive at this moment of tenderness, this apology of sorts for having told the teenage me that I reminded him of one of those shaggy, hairy, three-toed things that lives in the rainforest.

I wiped my hands on my apron, patted his stooped shoulder, bent down, and kissed his cheek. He beamed, his eyes looking misty. Or maybe it was just his cataracts. “You turned out okay, kid,” he said, bobbing his head with its still-thick but now snowy white hair in approval.

At that moment, I no longer cared what he had done or said years ago. All that mattered was that he loved me and I loved him. There wasn’t time for tears, though. I had work to finish. Because I knew that when I put a plate of blintzes before my father and he took his first bite, we’d show our love in our old familiar way.

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