Acquired Taste: Connecting to Family Through Food

Learning to make a time-honored family recipe helps a young boy open his culinary mindset, connect with his father and explore his roots.

| September/October 2011

My parents divorced when I was 2, and I divided my time between two parents and two kitchens. My mom was queen bee of the house and the kitchen was her throne room. NORAD is what her friends called it. With varnished maple countertops (chopping prohibited), rubber Pirelli floors and an island counter big enough to seat a family of five, my mom’s kitchen was designed more for entertaining than cooking.

Cooking with my mom was one part dish, one part food preparation and one part spectacle. As she breaded pork chops, Carlton Menthol 100 smoldering in one hand, pork chop in the other, she’d tell whoever was in the kitchen—or on the phone— about the fabulous shoes on sale at Montaldo’s, or how, while having drinks at McFann’s, two of her boyfriends showed up. “What did I do? I introduced them.” Big sizzle as she dropped the pork chop into the cast-iron skillet.

My dad called me a little shit when it came to food. I grew up in Denver in the ’80s. Iceberg was still the only lettuce. I was happy eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and everything Chef Boyardee. This was endlessly frustrating to the father who added onions to marinated hamburgers he served on whole wheat bread. I’d ask for fish sticks and french fries; he’d make blackened catfish with roasted sweet potatoes. I hated the food he made, and he resented me for never trying anything new.

That changed when I was 10. I was alone at my dad’s for the weekend. No girlfriends. No brother. No sister. No friends. We met in the kitchen after my Saturday morning routine: Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, Thunder Cats. I was rummaging through bran cereals looking for the closest thing to Cap’n Crunch when he came in carrying a couple of pounds of frozen meat.

“Want to help make Grandma’s spaghetti sauce?”

Grandma’s spaghetti sauce had chunks of tomatoes and onions and garlic. It didn’t have melt-in-your-mouth, bite-sized meatballs like Chef Boyardee. It didn’t have meatballs at all. My dad and I had an awkward moment while I processed my options and measured the magnitude of the guilt trip simmering under the surface.

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