Cooking for my Sons

Father Cooking for his sons

At one point in my life I actually believed that having a dog might be good preparation for having kids. I was wrong about this. I now know that taking care of a dog has absolutely nothing to do with taking care of kids, no more so than having a coffee table might be good preparation for having a dog simply because they both have four legs.

Somehow, though, my first wife and I bought a coffee table and then we got a dog and then we had a couple of kids, as if we were players in a frothy 1930s musical believing we could simply dance over the realities of our own limitations. Then the marriage fell apart, and I began to realize just how poundingly stupid I could be about these kinds of things. Sitting in the car one day, staring out of the windshield with my two young sons asleep in their car seats, it sank in. It wasn’t all about me anymore. It was about me and those two boys. I was now responsible for something bigger. It also struck me that my own father hadn’t been much of a role model, and that I’d have to somehow invent for myself—and for them—what being a dad was. I can still remember where I was parked. That’s the day I became a father.

When it came to the basic necessities of food and shelter, shelter turned out to be the easy one. We had a house. Food, on the other hand, well, let’s just leave it at we started solidly in the fish sticks, frozen peas, and tater tots category. I’d always liked to eat well, though, and on occasion I’d scan some fancy foodie magazines, mostly so I could whip up something jazzy to impress friends. Carter and Reid, on the other hand, didn’t much care for bouillabaisse, even if I could’ve figured out how to make the stuff. They were little kids and liked their fish sticks.

I was learning. It took me months to figure out that my lovingly prepared croissant sandwiches stuffed with brie and grapes were being traded for Froot Loops at school. That’s when it dawned on me that cooking for kids isn’t about being a chef. It’s about being a line cook, coming home every day and looking around the kitchen and slamming the cabinet doors, trying to come up with something everyone will eat. If we were to move beyond fish sticks, we’d all have to learn together.

Guys being guys, the kids were generally pretty good eaters, though we had our challenges. Carter at one point simply decided he didn’t like green beans. I had gotten into the habit of playing my guitar at the table after dinner, so while waiting for Carter to finish one evening, his older brother, Reid, and I composed the following:

Eat those beans, Carter
Gotta eat those beans…
If you wanta reach for the sky…
If you wanta grow this high…
If you wanta Eskimo Pie…
Gotta eat those beans.

Sung raucously and at full volume, it worked. We ALL liked Eskimo pies [now renamed Edy’s Pies-ed.] for dessert.

Reid, the quieter son, was the first to evidence any curiosity about what went on in the kitchen. While his younger brother watched “educational programs” about adolescent Ninja turtles, Reid would slip into the kitchen and perch on a high stool, watching, commenting, asking. Eventually he asked if he could help. Nothing quite prepares you for watching your eight-year-old son wielding a 10-inch chef’s knife as he dices his first carrot. Reid picked up other kitchen skills, too, perfecting his omelet-making by practicing on the family dog. Twenty-odd years later, he’s a pretty good cook.

[pullquote_left]It took us years for a simple sautéed chicken breast to evolve into a breaded chicken cutlet, and still longer for it to be stuffed with goat cheese, sautéed in duck fat, topped with homemade chutney, and served over couscous. It was as if we were tracing the evolution of Western cooking.[/pullquote_left]

As we all grew up, I snipped recipes from newspapers, cribbed ideas from the backs of soup cans, and added all sorts of stuff to rice in an effort to “make it my own,” like the back of the box suggested. We tried everything. It took us years for a simple sautéed chicken breast to evolve into a breaded chicken cutlet, and still longer for it to be stuffed with goat cheese, sautéed in duck fat, topped with homemade chutney, and served over couscous. It was as if we were tracing the evolution of Western cooking itself. We’re talking YEARS. Along the way, though, as I was figuring out how to cook and the guys were learning how to eat, the most important thing we learned was that it wasn’t about the food.

Early on, almost by chance, my sons and I decided that each night we would eat dinner together at the dining table, and that we would all eat the same thing. Strangely, we didn’t think about this much or actually talk about it. They were just little kids, after all, and it was just easier for me that way. I can’t help but wonder if maybe the guys were a lot wiser than I suspected. Maybe they and I each somehow knew that we needed, wanted, this time together. Just us.

Anyway, it happened. I don’t recall us ever talking at the table about big ideas like Honesty or Patriotism or even, as time went on, Sex. Mostly we just chatted and teased each other and ate. And with time I learned the almost profound everyday joy of making dinner for my family and presenting it to them. A sort of giving of myself. From my fractured Italian learned at the University of Kentucky came a humble benediction.“Mangia. Ti amore.” Eat this. I love you.

Eventually another woman entered our lives, more of an eater than a cook. One of the few recipes she arrived with was a concoction of refried beans, sour cream, cheddar cheese, and green onions that’s scooped up with corn chips and called Shit In A Pan. Not surprisingly, the guys fell in love with her. With time, she’s smoothed some of our rougher edges, and together she and I have been able to illustrate for them what a loving couple might look like. I think that will serve Reid and Carter well somewhere down the road.

Twenty-some years later, my sons have turned out well—adventurous and smart, honest and true. They call just often enough, sharing bits of their lives, sometimes asking for recipes. I think you’d like them.



    1. Thanks Lauralee. The best part was the ‘living’ of these past twenty-some years. It was great fun raising the guys. I miss ’em.

  1. As a dad who is the principal cook in our family, your story really strikes a chord with me. My 5 kids now range from 12 to 18, so I’ve been through it all, the good, the bad, and the insanely picky. I, too, remember the first day we decided that no more separate meals would be cooked for the kids, and we’d all eat the same food each night. It was like a switch had been thrown, all of a sudden new foods were being tried, and while not always liked, at least eaten. The most important time we spend as a family is around the table every night, all of us there, just being together and sharing a meal. Job well done, Rick. – S

    1. Knowing a little bit about how the complexity of our lives increases geometrically with each additional kid, I am now dazzled with any household containing more than two adults and a dog. Meaning then, simply, thanks for taking the time to read, then write. And congrats on your herd. I’ll bet they’re a neat bunch.

    1. You know, actually with no false modesty here, I’m damned proud of how they turned out, but I was the lucky one. It’s been a great ride. And yeah, looking back, my Mom was pretty terrific. Pretty nutty some of the time but terrific. Thanks for your comment. 

  2. I had dogs for many years before having a son. I couldn’t believe how having a dog or having a child  are so parallel to each other. 

    I have read blogs that say using a dog training manual for “training” your child is better than any parenting manual around. I agree with this but like anything use what works and disregard the rest. I guess it all depends on how your feel about your dog. If your dog is part of your family and not “just” a pet then the two things, dogs & children, are very much the same.

    1. Thanks for your note. Here’s where I suspect we’ll find agreement: Whether we’re raising dogs, kids or just learning how to play the guitar for that matter, the results are proportionate to the time and love we put into the endeavor.

  3. Sometimes it’s the simplest comment in a blog post that strikes us individually, and for me it was the day you really became a father. I mentioned to someone just the other day that Father’s Day is hard for me. I was my kid’s mother and father because their father chose to be a “visitor.” Four days a month and nothing more. I’m glad for you and your children that you had that illuminating moment; my kids will forever be haunted by a dad who lived close, was a smart, professional man who chose to exit our lives and not put any effort into his role as dad. Shame on him and more power to you!

    1. I was lucky to have had that moment, made that decision. Now I know how much it formed me. How rich that one little moment has made my life. I suspect all of us, looking back, can recognize a few of those ‘moments of decision’. Sometimes we ‘ve made a wise choice, sometimes not. In that moment we don’t always understand the implications. The other part of all of this is that your kids and mine have had the deep, rich advantage of having at least one parent who wanted to be a part of their lives, not out of duty or obligation,  but simply wanted to be there because we loved them.

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